The Weekend That Was: Everyone a winner due to Dublin’s pulling power
In the first of a new series, Seán Moran looks at some of weekend's main talking points
Dublin captain Stephen Cluxton with supporters at the end of the game at Breffni Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
A view of the large crowd in Breffni Park on Sunday. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan was host to the biggest attraction on the opening weekend of the league and provided a few points of interest in more general terms.
Jim Gavin’s post-match comments complied with the discursive template he follows on such occasions.
“It is always going to be difficult coming to Cavan, great provincial ground, one of the great locations in the country and probably should be used more, Breffini Park.”
It sometimes gets forgotten what a great football county Cavan is. A population of just over 75,000 but with an extraordinary history in the middle of the 20th century, in their heyday from 1933-52 winning as many All-Irelands as Kerry, who they prevented winning five-in-a-row in Breffni Park in 1933. Enquiries failed to establish how they managed to land a home All-Ireland semi-final even 84 years ago but it happened.
The appetite for the match against All-Ireland champions Dublin was so great that 16,331 turned up and - less unusually - the throw-in had to put back 15 minutes.
Cavan hadn’t played in the top flight for 13 years but more to the point they hadn’t entertained the All-Ireland champions in a home league match for quarter of a century. It’s testament to the pulling power of the current Dublin team that when this last happened - against Donegal in 1992 - the crowd was just 4,000.
Curiously the home county had a run of league matches against All-Ireland champions in the late 1990s, facing Dublin, Meath and Kerry in successive seasons but none of the three matches were played in Cavan and the last of them, in October 1997 actually took place in New York as a jubilee tribute to the Polo Grounds All-Ireland.
By coincidence Cavan were Ulster champions that year - for the only time in the past 47 years.
Both sides on Sunday remarked what a great atmosphere it had been for the players to see such a fine crowd turning out and this must have been particularly true of Cavan who haven’t had many cracks at the big time in recent years.
“Why do you play Gaelic football?” asked their manager Mattie McGleenan. “You play for the likes of those days, to enjoy those days and to go against the best teams in Ireland. I think for Cavan’s development it’s so important we stay in Division One because Dublin every Sunday will make you a better football team. And they will make us a better football team for next Sunday going against Monaghan and two weeks later it’s Tyrone. We are on a rollercoaster right now.”
On a broader note it could be said that the match made an argument for the championship proposals before congress with their round-robin format in the last eight. Part of the format would see each team have a match at home in their group - the others being played one away and one in Croke Park.
Sunday’s crowd in Cavan was an example of what atmospheric occasions can be created in smaller, provincial venues and the benefit to local businesses can also be significant.
It has to be acknowledged that the opening weekend of the league has a special status in the GAA calendar and months of cabin fever break, particularly on nice sunny afternoons but overall it does show that not all great occasions have to be on Jones’s Road.
Home comforts no more
There came a point in recent years when the sequences of home wins in the league became such a strong trend that the scheduling of whether counties were at home or away for three or four of their fixtures looked like having a decisive influence on how they got on during the campaign.
This year’s opening weekend has turned that on its head. Schedules can be random so we can’t quite make long-term determinations just yet but of the 16 matches last Saturday and Sunday, just five were won by the home county.
That statistic is even more pronounced when the focus is tightened to just the top two divisions. Of the eight matches in Divisions One and Two, only Tyrone - 0-18 to 1-9 winners against Roscommon - actually took both points. Elsewhere there were two draws and five away wins.
Of the four drawn matches, away counties Clare and Carlow - in Derry and Westmeath - were clear outsiders so it wasn’t a case of a number of evenly poised fixtures simply coming out of the hat on the first weekend.
Four draws is a 25 per cent rate and well in excess of the averages on opening league weekends. Over the past five years there have been eight draws in total - an average of 1.6 per year - in the first round of football league fixtures, which gets this season off to an unusual start.