Christy O'Connor: Diluted football league format still crucial for rising counties

In modern GAA, the NFL is more important for many teams than championship
Christy O'Connor: Diluted football league format still crucial for rising counties

Ian Maguire of Cork in action against Keelan Sexton of Clare during the Allianz Football League Division 2 clash in Ennis. Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

IN the modern history of the National Football League, the final day of the regular league campaign often resembled a game of snakes-and-ladders.

On the final day of Division 2 last year, Cavan were eyeing promotion but ended up relegated. Cavan went down on a head-to-head with a Clare team, which, with 10 minutes remaining on the same afternoon against Armagh, were on the brink of Division 1 football.

Anything could literally happen during that mad last-round scramble, but the final round this year – albeit in a truncated league – was defined more by a general trepidation of what it all could mean, as opposed to what actually did happen.

When the final standings were decided, eight of the 16 teams involved in the semi-finals across the four divisions are set to play their championship openers on June 26/27, which meant the prospect of no league finals being played in 2021.

After it was agreed that league finals would not take place should that team be out in the championship the following week, it was already known on the evening of the last round of regular league games that there would definitely be no Division 2 or Division 4 league finals. Ahead of this weekend’s semi-finals, there will only be a final in Division 1 if Dublin meet Tyrone, and only a Division 3 final if Derry and Fermanagh beat Limerick and Offaly respectively.

“I don’t like it and I think the integrity of the competition is under threat,” said Colm Cooper on RTÉ’s Allianz League Sunday recently. “If you start a competition you need to be in a position where you’re able to finish it.”

On the same programme, Oisin McConville said that the uncertainty over a potential final in Divisions 1 and 3 will make it harder for managers involved to make plans.

“If you’re Dublin going into a Division 1 semi-final and you’re intent on winning that competition, do you have a challenge match organised for the following week or do you wait and see who comes through the other semi?” asked McConville.

“Teams are not just planning for this weekend or next weekend - they’re planning further down the line, which makes it very difficult. Colm is 100% right; the integrity of the competition is in question.”

This was always going to be a difficult competition to fully complete, especially with time restrictions. That’s obvious anyway with a knockout football championship for the second successive year. Yet, another knockout championship made the league more important than ever, especially when most teams’ season will be defined by what happens in the league, and particularly in how it decides their position for 2022.

Longford manager Paraic Davis had an issue with promotion and relegation applying in the circumstances of the geographical split of the National League, which landed Longford in a Division 3 North group with three Ulster teams.

He said: “I never agreed with the National League being regionalised. It made no sense whatsoever. For the majority of teams, it’s the most important competition and it determines where we play our football next year. So to do that over three games based on geography effectively, I don’t think it showed respect to the competition that it deserves.”

Once the National League was split geographically, it was clear some teams were going to have huge tasks ahead of them. For example, Roscommon were in the same group as Dublin, Kerry and Galway. On the otherhand, Roscommon would have struggled anyway in an eight-team league, particularly when Division 1 North was manically competitive.

OPPORTUNITY

The flipside is that geographical split also opened up the door for other counties. Limerick, who were promoted from Division 4 last year, and Offaly who finished sixth in Division 3 in 2020, are now just one game away from Division 2.

This league represents different things to everybody. “This year’s league really is – I won’t call them glorified challenge games - but it has been just a question of getting lads up to speed for championship,” said Keith Higgins, former Mayo footballer, in an interview in the Irish Times last week. “They don’t have challenge games and it’s a really short window. I can’t see teams being too worried about this to be honest.”

It’s easier for Higgins to take that stance because the league has a much different meaning for those sides outside the top 10. With proposed reform of the All-Ireland series including an option to combine the league and championship, that decision will be made later in the year at Special Congress. However, the word is that this year’s league won’t influence counties championship fortunes in 2022, as any changes are unlikely to be introduced before 2023.

The delayed National Football League last year was effectively two warm-up matches for the championship, whereas hurling teams had to embark on the challenge game circuit. In essence, that is what the GAA have tried to do again this year with the football league.

The price though, of guaranteeing four matches for nearly every county was ruling out finals being played a week before championship. And with 14 counties playing championship a week after the provisionally scheduled finals, something big – and the likelihood of no league finals - was always a possibility.

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