The final round of the Allianz Football League has become one of the big set-pieces of the calendar. As leads and deficits ebb and flow, counties shift position in the table from being in a final or even a different division to moving into safety or out of contention.
One county, Monaghan, has taken the final day experience to extremes, surviving in Division One through injury-time scores in both of the past two seasons. Again this weekend they are taking their campaign to the last 70 minutes but this year is particularly daunting. A trip to division leaders Mayo, already in the final, promises nothing more than the faint prospect that their opponents might be more focused on next week’s final. Even then they need Tyrone to do them a favour by defeating Armagh.
To what extent does it benefit a county to target staying up in the league? For a county like Monaghan with its limited resources of population and playing numbers, do the energies spent on survival constitute living beyond their means in the wider context of a season?
David McCague was the county’s coach in the management of Séamus McEnaney.
“At the start of every season, management and players will sit down and set their goals and objectives for the season, and top of the list is winning games. No team wants to sacrifice winning for another goal but the aim of the season is also multipurpose. Every manager wants to build the capacity of a squad, find new players and develop existing players. He wants to prepare game plans, develop principles of play that will serve the team well in championship.
“Maybe we’ve overvalued the league. It’s something we’ve been accused of but I’m going to mention Derry. Look at their progress and public appetite to get up there. Every county in Ireland wants to be in Division One and find out where their ceiling is.”
What happens, though, if the nuts and bolts of a yearly plan of action become compromised by shorter-term interests? After all although Monaghan won two of the past 10 Ulster titles, their only All-Ireland semi-final was five years ago.
“Unearthing new players can become difficult given the unpredictability of results, your own and others, and can have an effect on your commitment to giving chances to up and coming players. Injuries as well and suspensions play a role. It’s a tougher competition for those counties with smaller resources.”
Tom Cribbin has wide intercounty experience, having managed Laois, Offaly and Westmeath as well as serving as a selector with his own county Kildare. He was briefly trialled by Mick O’Dwyer on his arrival in the county in 1990. Work ruled him out but O’Dwyer’s preoccupations made an impact.
“Mick’s thing was always that league was to get you ready from the championship. Nobody remembers what happened in the league but everyone knows who won the Leinster title and who won the All-Ireland. It ingrained itself into me and when I was with Westmeath.”
If Monaghan have been tenacious and impossible to shift from Division One, Westmeath have been the ultimate tourists, spending 10 of the past 15 seasons moving in and out of all four divisions with five promotions and five relegations.
Cribbin oversaw two relegations and one promotion but, critically. he also led Westmeath to back-to-back Leinster finals, recording a first championship win over Meath along the way.
“I came in after Pat Flanagan,” he says, “who had taken them all the way to Division One where – as often happens teams not used to that level – they struggled. Your panel has to be stronger, never mind the first 15. Pat ended up leaving. So I was careful to ask the board when approached what was their goal? They said that they had only ever been in four Leinster finals and won just once so they wanted to compete at championship rather than getting promoted.
“When we were in Division Three, my second year, I discussed it with the football chair and secretary and said we might stay up but Ger Regan, Paul Sherry, Kieran Martin and I think Denis Corroon all needed time off for rest or minor surgery. It was agreed that they should be put right immediately. The only team that beat us in the Leinster championship during my three years was Dublin, who ultimately won the three All-Irelands. I left because I felt there was nothing more I could do against Dublin.”
Can relegation undermine a team’s confidence for the championship? McCague says that depends on what targets were set before the season.
“It depends on the psychology. If a management has put a huge emphasis on staying in Division One and that’s not achieved they’ve failed already and that has a detrimental effect on morale. However, if they say at the start, ‘let’s be real here’ – relegation is a potential outcome for us and we have to be ready for that can be empowering. It depends on the preparation.”
Cribbin agrees with him that how targets are articulated and pitched impacts significantly on the team. “It’s very important that you set a target with your group of players and they know what’s realistic.”
This weekend has effectively been the high point of Monaghan’s most recent seasons, and McCague says that it has helped to create the enthusiasm for football in the county and admits that relegation carries with it uncertainty.
“The scenes after then Dublin game and the Galway game the year before, the jubilation of our supporters and the buzz around the county in the following weeks. There was a huge premium placed on that. We have thrived on that since Malachy O’Rourke brought us from Division Three to Division One. It will be a different season for us next year if that no longer applies and it remains to be seen how that affects us.”