Leagues ahead for successful counties in coming weeks
Staying involved in April has worked to the benefit of most counties, as championship draws closer
The forthright comments of Donegal’s All-Ireland winning manager Jim McGuinness about his relative indifference to getting relegated from the top division raises the issue of how important it is for teams to make the best of their league campaigns.
On the face of it the statistics are undeniable: seven of the last 12 All-Ireland winners had been in the previous spring’s league final and a further three had qualified for the play-offs.
“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not but any year we won the All-Ireland we’d already won the league,” says Jack O’Connor of his two terms managing Kerry.
“It’s an indication of good form and can build confidence for later in the year. Kerry’s win in Tyrone will be a great tonic for them. The last time we won up there was in 2009 and we won the All-Ireland later that year.”
He says the introduction of the new season structure in 2001 has copper-fastened the link between spring and summer. “The calendar year is the big reason. Fitness levels are such you can’t take it easy in the league and once you’re going well you have momentum.”
That can cut both ways. The league is a very fluid competition, with counties hopping between divisions, so coping with transition – either in the positive context of securing promotion or the potential blow to morale of relegation – is part of the experience.
Since the league structure reverted in 2008 to four hierarchical divisions, only five counties have stayed put for those six years: two at the very top, Kerry and Mayo, and three at the bottom, Clare, Carlow and London – accepting Kilkenny opted to drop out of Division Four last year.
One of those on the move this season is Limerick, one of the most socially-mobile counties over the period in question, with four changes of division (evenly split between relegation and promotion).
“Limerick haven’t had the best of luck in the league,” according to manager Maurice Horan.
“It’s really unusual to be relegated with six points but it’s happened twice to Limerick in my time (last four years as either selector or manager): the first when we were one of four teams on six points and then two years ago when three counties in other divisions stayed up on five, four and three points.”
He doesn’t believe it was
vital for Limerick to go up, as the county has maintained a relatively solid championship profile despite a couple of sojourns in Division Four, allowing the perennial obstacles of Cork and Kerry in Munster have required them to take the qualifier route.
“It depends. It’s very important for teams that have no experience of playing in higher divisions. A number of our players have that experience but the younger ones don’t. One bad league campaign is survivable; a few of them is bad for morale.
“Last year we were still in Division Four but in the qualifiers we beat the Division Three winners (Longford) and came very close to beating the Division Two winners (Kildare) .”
One adjustment that has earned Jack O’Connor’s approval is the introduction last year of league semi-finals for the top four in Division One, which sees Tyrone take on Kildare next Sunday in Croke Park at 2pm, followed by Dublin-Mayo at 3.45.
“It’s been a great idea. Look at the weekend: every game had a meaning and every game was competitive. Before, you had lots of dead rubbers that didn’t count for anything.
“Having more competitive matches is also good; it keeps players tuned in.”
A Croke Park spokesperson says that the GAA are waiting to receive in writing any request from Limerick to move their Division Four final against Offaly, listed for 5.0pm on Saturday, 27th April, to a different time in order to avoid a clash with Munster’s European Cup semi-final against Clermont, which is also scheduled for 5pm.