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‘The stats don’t lie’: Old mantra of league only being the league is fading

For two decades now, every single All-Ireland winning team competed in Division One during their championship-winning campaigns

The league is only the league.

Sure, isn’t Jack O’Connor only sending a hastily assembled bunch of inexperienced young lads and some taped-together auld fellas up to Donegal. The current league champions will be lucky to have 15 players in Ballybofey. And you need 16 or 17 players to finish a game nowadays.

That old mantra of the league only being the league, but championship is where it’s at, it still echoes through the GAA intercounty season. But the din is lower. That noise is fading. The football league matters, perhaps now more than ever.

Over the last 20 years, on 10 occasions the winners of the Division One League title progressed to win the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship later that same season – including Kerry in 2022.

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And for two decades now, every single All-Ireland winning team competed in Division One during their championship-winning campaigns.

The last Division Two side to win an All-Ireland were Armagh in 2002. Joe Kernan’s men were promoted to the top-flight for the following season, but during that 2002 campaign they competed in Division Two – at a time when the groups were arranged 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B.

The 2002 season was the first in which the league programme was scheduled to take place in the one calendar year. Before that it was played in two distinct sections – pre- and post-Christmas. It was a very diluted system, often feeling like two separate competitions.

But moving the league to the start of the calendar year has changed how it is now treated.

Mickey Harte has long held the line that no team from outside the top division can win the All-Ireland and the last 20 years back up his opinion. However, Galway went close to bucking the trend last season while Dublin, who find themselves in Division Two this year, should really test that theory out over the coming months as well.

Confidence is a huge thing for players. It is easier to have it when you are winning games and especially if it is against teams in Division One

—  Conor Counihan

Conor Counihan was Cork manager in 2010 when the Rebels went hard at the league. Having previously come up short in their quest for All-Ireland glory, Cork made a concerted effort to try get their hands on national silverware in the league.

“It was a way of re-establishing the team at the time, I suppose,” recalls Counihan. “We felt we needed to try build it up and there is nothing like winning games to get a feel-good atmosphere in a group.

“You see the difference in training and it brings more positivity and confidence. And confidence is a huge thing for players. It is easier to have it when you are winning games and especially if it is against teams in Division One, who you would probably see as your main competitors come championship.”

They won the National League in 2010, beating Mayo in the final. Five months later they won the All-Ireland title.

“Before that you might have been losing matches and you were in danger of thinking, ‘maybe we are not good enough,’ but when you win the league, that mindset changes,” says Counihan.

“There is a difference between the league and championship, but if you can do it against the top teams in the league there is a fair chance you can do it in the championship.”

Cork, who before 2010 had not won the Division One title since 1999, became league specialists, achieving the three-in-a-row between 2010-12. During that period they were a very competitive championship team, claiming the Munster title and going all the way to an All-Ireland semi-final in 2012.

But as their league form dipped, so too did the trajectory of their championship aspirations. In 2016 they were relegated from Division One. In 2019 they fell through the trapdoor in Division Two and a decade on from their all-conquering 2010 season Cork were adrift in the backwaters of Division Three.

Operating at a lower level in the league had a knock-on impact in the championship and in truth Cork are still trying to find their way back to the high seas.

They will compete in Division Two again this season, beginning their campaign at home to Meath on Sunday. With Armagh’s 2002 success still the outlier, history indicates this year’s All-Ireland winner will come from one of the eight teams in Division One – though Dublin’s participation in Division Two surely heightens the possibility of another bolter.

“The stats don’t lie,” adds Counihan. “Teams that have gone well in Division One in recent years have tended to go well in the championship. The results prove that.”

There is no doubt the restructuring of the league played a central role in its heightened importance. The correlation between league and championship winners over the last 20 years show that early-season momentum counts, whereas in the 20 years before 2003 the league and championship double was only attained on four occasions.

If you are coming out of the league in a bad situation, you don’t really have time to amend that before the championship

—  Conor Counihan

The league games that were traditionally played before Christmas tended to be non-informative in terms of where a team was at because in November they weren’t really anywhere. The move to the one calendar year and then a Division One to Division Four structure has helped make it the most competitive competition in the intercounty football calendar.

And now with the condensed split season, not to mention the championship implications based on league positions, Counihan reckons the importance of getting momentum from a good league campaign is greater now more than ever.

“It probably is because in previous years you had a bit of a gap between the league and the championship,” he says.

“If things had gone badly in the league, you had a chance to pull things together. You could get it back on track but now you are going straight from league to championship, so if you are coming out of the league in a bad situation, you don’t really have time to amend that before the championship.”

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship winners of last 20 years and league record

2022 – Kerry (Division One League champions)

2021 – Tyrone (Lost Division One semi-final to Kerry)

2020 – Dublin (Finished second in Division One)

2019 – Dublin (Finished midtable in Division One)

2018 – Dublin (Division One League champions)

2017 – Dublin (Lost Division One final to Kerry)

2016 – Dublin (Division One League champions)

2015 – Dublin (Division One League champions)

2014 – Kerry (Finished sixth in Division One)

2013 – Dublin (Division One League champions)

2012 – Donegal (Finished sixth in Division One)

2011 – Dublin (Lost Division One final to Cork)

2010 – Cork (Division One League champions)

2009 – Kerry (Division One League champions)

2008 – Tyrone (Finished fifth in Division One)

2007 – Kerry (Finished third in Division 1A)

2006 – Kerry (Division One League champions)

2005 – Tyrone (Lost Division One semi-final to Wexford)

2004 – Kerry (Division One League champions)

2003 – Tyrone (Division One League champions)