Christy O'Connor Column: A national final in Croke Park remains a great thing for players, coaches and counties

Christy O'Connor Column: A national final in Croke Park remains a great thing for players, coaches and counties

Offaly manager John Maughan during the Tailteann Cup Preliminary Round match between Wexford and Offaly at Bellefield in Enniscorthy, Wexford. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

MAYBE it was because of his experience and being used to big days out in Croke Park but John Maughan didn’t hesitate for a second around pursuing the prospect of a national final in Croke Park last year.

After Offaly defeated Fermanagh to qualify for the Division 3 league final in June 2021, they looked set to share the Division 3 title with Derry, who had beaten Limerick in the other semi-final.

However, with Offaly due to meet Louth in their Leinster Championship opener two weeks later, and Croke Park having decreed that every county would have at least two weeks to prepare for championship, it was believed the final would not take place. 

None of the other three league finals were going ahead for similar reasons but Offaly indicated their wish to play, and Derry agreed.

Derry had the luxury of not playing championship until three weeks after the league final. 

Offaly needed the rest more just seven days before a championship game but Maughan was still inclined to look at the bigger picture. Offaly weren’t going to win Leinster. Playing a national final in Croke Park was too good of an opportunity to pass up.

It was still a risk but injury can never be guarded against in training any more than in matches. 

A good run out against Derry was also going to be better than any internal match, which most teams play the weekend before a championship match anyway.

Derry won but it was still easier for Offaly to make that decision during a knockout championship. But what would their thinking be around a similar scenario next year?

When the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) recently put forward an option to get rid of the league finals – which was defeated last weekend when Central Council choose to retain them – the CCCC based their contention on the finals no longer being taken as seriously as they were in the past.

That likelihood could be even more pronounced now with provincial championship preliminary rounds scheduled to take place a week later, which would leave some of the lower divisional teams having no break between the competitions.

That didn’t do Offaly any harm last year. They beat Louth after extra-time the week after losing that league final before their season ended a week later when they were beaten by Kildare in the Leinster quarter-final.

It was always going to be hard for Offaly to sustain that run in such a short timespan but the terrain will be vastly different next year in a revamped championship when the games will come hotter and heavier than ever before.

Each county will play a minimum of 11 games – seven in the league and four in the championship. All but eight counties will play at least 12 matches.

The stronger teams will play far more. Kerry played 13 games in 25 weeks when winning the league and All-Ireland double; next year they could play 17 games in 26 weeks.

The fact that the league finals have now been retained has placed an additional focus on the make-up of the league format, which many officials feel needs to be condensed further to alleviate the strain within the split season.

In that context, there could yet be a return to the format during the 2021 season which saw each division broken up into two groups of four. Those groups were decided on a geographical basis to limit travel and the potential spread of Covid-19 but it’s unlikely the GAA would go down that road again in deciding the make-up of any smaller groups.

For many counties, the league has long been more important than the championship but the new structure is designed to flip that model around by applying a similar format to summer football. It’s also created around altering the attitude towards both competitions, particularly when some counties saw the league as their priority.

It’s not that simple though, especially as rule amendments would be required as any alterations would have a direct impact on how counties qualify for the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cups.

The bottom line is that teams need more games in the summer than in the spring. There is also far more of an opportunity for teams to extend their summer after the provincial championships through the round robin format.

The winners of each group of four will advance to the All-Ireland quarter-finals (in both the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup), while second and third in each group will play off to decide who else reaches the last eight.

Only four counties will be out of the championship after those first three round robin games. That is a generous scenario in a championship setting, but at least more teams are playing – and developing – at the business end of the season, rather than the earlier part of the season which was too often the case in the past.

The key conundrum in this whole debate is the timeframe in which the games were set to be played but, if the volume is to be trimmed back, it’s worth sacrificing those games in the early spring, especially when the provincial championships are set to be run in a blitz format.

Nothing has been decided yet. Nothing possibly may be. Players want more games, but if the league is to be reconstructed, Central Council at least recognised the importance of retaining the league finals.

A national final in Croke Park is always a huge day out for players. Just ask John Maughan.

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