Yesterday, we examined the winning margins in the various stages of the top tier championship in Cork football – previously just senior, now premier senior – over the past four seasons.
Obviously, with just one campaign of the new group-stage system having been completed, in unique and trying circumstances, it’s far too early to draw any conclusions as to an improvement in the competitiveness of the championship. Still, it should logically hold that a competition featuring the top 12 club sides in the county – and the best divisional or college team – should make for a leaner, harder-fought title than one with 18 or 19 teams involved.
Even so, barring an American-style draft system where the lowest-ranked sides get first pick on emerging talent, you will never have a fully equal landscape.
This is something we see magnified at national level – while the All-Ireland football championship is theoretically open to every county to win, in reality it’s not the case. That has led to calls for a tiered system, based on the Allianz Football League, with counties in with a greater chance of winning something. Even then, though, there are disparities and, within the top eight, for example, there is a smaller subset of counties most likely to win.
Until this year, Dublin were in a single-team tier of their own, chased by Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone – the last county outside of this quartet to reach the All-Ireland final was Donegal, back in 2014.
Similarly, at county level, the last few years have seen a hardening of the idea of a ‘top four’. Since 2016, when Carbery Rangers overcame Ballincollig in the county final – a repeat of the clubs’ 2014 meeting at the same stage – the eight spots in the deciders have featured Nemo Rangers three times, St Finbarr’s and Duhallow twice each and Castlehaven once. In fact, if the Barrs had overcome the Haven in their semi-final penalty shootout last October, it would have meant three teams contesting all of the finals over a four-year period.
In the same period, there have been 16 semi-final places up for grabs, distributed thus: Duhallow four, Nemo and the Barrs three each, Castlehaven and Carbery Rangers two each, Douglas and Newcestown one each.
While Nemo might be said to be like Dublin in the national example, their period of dominance in the 2000s – winning in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 – saw eight different final opponents, albeit none capable of felling them until the Haven did so in 2013 as they retained their title. Though it wasn’t until last Sunday and Nemo’s victory over the Haven in the 2020 decider that a team went back-to-back again – Nemo beat Duhallow in October 2019 – the Barrs are the only team apart from Nemo to claim the Andy Scannell Cup since 2016.
As we embark upon another new campaign, will somebody break into the top stratum to shake things up? Unsurprisingly, the bookmakers have last year’s four semi-finalists as the top four in their order, Nemo 2/1 favourites followed by the Haven at 3/1 with the Barrs at 9/2 and Duhallow 6/1.
Leaving aside the lack of value there, next are Ballincollig and Douglas, both at 12/1, with UCC 16/1 and Newcestown and Carbery Rangers 20/1.
UCC are of course always capable of a tilt, depending on player availability, while Ballincollig and Douglas can compete with anyone on their day. In 2019, Ross had a great win over the Haven but then lost out to the Barrs after extra time a week later. Last year, they didn’t qualify from their group but they still have an abundance of talent.
Newcestown, who reached the semis in 2019, losing by five points against Duhallow, put it up to the Barrs in last year’s quarter-final – having had their preparations disrupted in the lead-in – but their big problem will always be combining hurling with football. They face Castlehaven in Clonakilty today, which should give an indication of where they stand.
Similarly, Valley Rovers, priced at 33/1, have dual commitments but gave a good account of themselves in pipping Douglas to second behind Nemo in their group last year and have been unfortunate to lose out to Duhallow in two of the last three quarter-finals. Starting against Nemo won’t be easy, but a good showing could set them up to be dark horses.