The football league may be competitive but it has also become a recurrent elite

For all the Tailteann anxieties in Division Two, the counties affected are unlikely to make impact on the Sam Maguire

Are we all getting too excited about the league? An unusual question, maybe, but in a season when the influence of springtime football on the championship has never been as marked, are the imputed terrors of Sam Maguire exile and lowly championship seeding making that much of an actual difference?

This is not to diminish the sense of urgency or pressure that teams feel, as they hover over the Tailteann trapdoor but to what extent does it actually matter?

In other words, has the type of season that these days lands you in Tier 2 ever led anywhere else but to underwhelming championship experiences?

It is more than 20 years since a county from outside Division One laid hands on Sam Maguire, Armagh, who coincidentally beat another second-division team, Kerry – on what was their last absence from the top flight – in the final.


We have to go back 15 years though to find the most influential development in all of this, the switch of the league format to four hierarchical divisions.

Since 2008 not alone has Sam Maguire never wintered outside of Division One but only a handful of counties from outside that status – Galway and Mayo in the last two years, Donegal (2014), Down (2010) and Cork (2009) all of whom had been promoted from Division Two earlier in the season – have even made the final.

That’s all very well, it can be argued, but there has to be more to a decent season than All-Ireland finals or how would the vast majority of counties sustain or justify themselves?

A significant rationale for the much reviled provincial championships is that availability of a mezzanine achievement for three or four other counties once the All-Ireland is done.

The sharp point of jeopardy for football counties is the bottom of Division Two. Those relegated will not participate in Sam Maguire and that’s a scary prospect for a county like Kildare, which gave a creditable account of itself in last season’s Division One.

Even that consolation, limited as it has become due to the strong and credible aspirations of most recent provincial winners to add the Sam Maguire, has become a bit of a closed shop.

Once the penny dropped that competing for an All-Ireland was a lot less complicated if a team had won their provincial championship, most contenders made it their business to do so. This may have been facilitated by a drop-off in the competitive levels in Leinster and Munster over the same period but there has been no route to Sam Maguire through the qualifiers in 13 years.

The correlation between league status and provincial success has not been as strong but it is persuasive. Maybe surprisingly, Ulster champions are nearly as likely to come from a lower division as from the top but again of the seven, four were promoted the same year and last season Derry came third.

There are a couple of outliers, the biggest being Monaghan in 2013 when they won Ulster despite having played that spring in Division Three and then Cavan three years ago, who won after being relegated from Division Two. A caveat here, which also applies to the one break in the Kerry-Cork duopoly in Munster, is that like Tipperary, Cavan won the winter championship during the Covid pandemic.

This isn’t a sleight on the achievement but the context was unusual: time of year and absence of supporters – the straight knock-out format can’t be said to have influenced the outcome even if it cleared the way to the All-Ireland semi-finals.

The sharp point of jeopardy for football counties is the bottom of Division Two. Those relegated will not participate in Sam Maguire and that’s a scary prospect for a county like Kildare, which gave a creditable account of itself in last season’s Division One.

As Malachy Clerkin explored here on Monday, that jeopardy might extend to a team finishing sixth, depending on how many Division Three of Four teams reach a provincial final – an outcome that can’t be judged for another two months, guaranteeing wakeful nights for whoever does finish just above what at the moment looks like the cut line.

Ultimately, though, how transformed could teams in the bottom half of Division Two hope to be in the space of a few weeks were they not demoted? One of the reasons the league has been deployed as a seeding mechanism is that it is a competitive and accurate metric of where teams are.

Looking back over 15 years, counties that get relegated from Division Two find championship growth exceedingly hard to come by. Of the 30 teams involved, just three made it to the All-Ireland quarterfinals. Kildare in 2015 lost by 27 points to Kerry and Cork four years later ended up losing all three matches in the ‘Super 8′ format that year.

Only Armagh in 2014 were competitive.

Status is important to counties. When the attempt was made in 2007 to reroute Division Four teams into a Tier 2 championship, those affected registered such a scalded reaction that the idea lasted only two seasons.

There will be similar outrage from any Division Two county that wakes up some Monday morning in April to find themselves regraded as Tier 2.

A potentially more troubling prospect is to what extent the Tailteann Cup will be affected by the new, round-robin format. The success of its inaugural year last summer was built on a sequence of sudden-death matches, which create sure-fire momentum for the winners and blessed release for many of the losers.

The capacity of losing teams to maintain enthusiasm over three rounds of matches is open to question.

The rationale is that the competing teams also want a guaranteed schedule of fixtures but for anyone who has watched such developments down the decades – for example, the hurling round-robins of the mid-2000s – the jury is still out on that assertion.