Dublin and Derry in a good place but long summer offers no guarantees
For all the correlation between spring and summer success the implications are rarely immediately obvious
Dublin’s Rory O’Carroll battles with Cork’s Aidan Walsh at Croke Park last weekend. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The recent connectivity between football’s league and championship dates back to the beginning of the last decade and for obvious enough reasons. The coincidence of the arrival of calendar-year seasons and the qualifiers turned the whole season into a middle-distance race rather than a series of isolated sprints.
Throughout the years since 2001 the data has accumulated and we can see generally that teams doing well in the spring have continued to prosper in championship.
It’s equally clear though that no-one should get too carried away by what happens in semi-finals. Whereas the trend demonstrates that Dublin or Derry or both may do well in the months ahead, it’s a long summer and the trend is not universal.
There have been outliers – teams whose league success has signified nothing of broader significance – and Derry have been to the forefront of this category, winning Division One six years ago and reaching the final a year later but to no championship effect and if you want to go back farther, outside of the current time-frame to the back-to-back leagues of 1995-96 and that of 2000 there’s further precedent.
The 2007 winners Donegal appeared to enjoy no knock-on success given an immediate Ulster and All-Ireland campaign that lit no fires but five years later about half of them were back for the Sam Maguire, coincidentally against the same county, Mayo, they’d beaten in the league final although their opponents featured only four survivors. The Donegal manager then was Brian McIver, who leads Derry into this year’s decider at the end of the month.
Newly-promoted Derry were pencilled in –- as opposed to Westmeath who were indelibly inked – by many to take the drop this season.
They didn’t and now have emulated Tyrone 12 months ago in reaching finals in Division Two and One in successive years.
That they’re not rated as highly as Tyrone a year ago in terms of All-Ireland prospects is probably down to the lack of muscle memory; it’s now more than 20 years since the county last claimed Sam Maguire.
Like Tyrone 12 months ago however they have defeated Dublin already in the league. The pressure’s off – they’re 3 to 1 to win – but it will be important the final doesn’t end in disaster. No-one wants to conceive existential doubts with Donegal due in town a month later. But they’re in good form and McIver has cultivated the team well after losing the two Bradleys before the season began.
More quizzical attention has focused on Derry’s defeated opponents Mayo whose latest two (Dublin last month) Croke Park reverses have come against 14-men teams.
Some of the reaction has been a bit too excitable. What was proved on Sunday – that Mayo are always messing up at Croke Park? As Cillian O’Connor pointed out last week, for all of the disappointment at the venue , it’s also been the scene of some of their best performances and it’s doubtful if he was referring to league matches on either count.
A year ago Mayo put in a ho-hum semi-final display against Dublin but within weeks had roared off the blocks to begin a summer campaign that came within two points of winning an All-Ireland. The essential point is that Mayo’s year will in all likelihood be defined in Croke Park but not for months by which stage last Sunday will be a footnote.
Winning the league has formed part of the preparation for six of the last 11 All-Ireland winners but the main point about the league-championship link is that the correlation applies broadly to reaching knock-out stages.
Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor – who accounts for three of the above six doubles – spelled out the reason why the play-offs are important: they keep the team together playing matches and afford experience of playing in Croke Park.
The second semi-final produced a big second-half display by Dublin but for them the most haunting statistic of the past two decades is how difficult it is to defend the Sam Maguire and a 17-point turnaround in April will be of doubtful relevance to that.
Interestingly for all the coincidence of league and championship advancement, in the past 20 years All-Ireland champions have qualified for the following spring’s league final on just three occasions and the only time they’ve won was recently in 2011 when Cork – who at the time couldn’t stop getting to league finals – became the first county in 23 years to win in September and add the league title a few months later.
Dublin are on the trail of an even rarer achievement. It’s all of 82 years since Kerry became the only county to win back-to-back league and championship doubles.
Of the three All-Ireland champions in the past 20 years to progress to the following season’s league final – Cork, above, Kerry in 2008 and Meath in 2000 – interestingly the latter two were beaten by Derry.
We’ll know what it all means in six months or so.