GAA weekend that was: Monaghan’s hidden history
How relevant is the league in the context of championship? Fixtures gamble pays off
Monaghan were surprise winners against Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Just the league?
How relevant is the league in the context of championship? As the season approaches it end with just final details to be resolved, can the teams who have done well prepare for a good summer and should those who have done badly be pessimistic.
It’s hardly a surprise to find out that it’s relevant, as Dublin, Kerry and Cork in the past 10 years - allowing that the winners of exactly a decade ago, Derry, were relegated to Division Four at the weekend - have all been prominent in the championship after winning league titles.
But the scale of the correlation is overwhelming. Based on the results of last year’s football championship, if a county is playing opponents from a higher division they have just a 16 per cent chance of success.
Even those 14 matches between teams from the same level of the league break in favour of the higher-placed county.
The argument against a graded championship is that every county wants to dream big in championship and occasional results in football entitle that outlook. Only to a point, though. Take the All-Ireland quarter-finals, which this year will acquire additional significance because of the round-robin format of the last eight.
Over the sample size of the last five years, of the 40 teams in the quarter-finals just five - 12.5 per cent - have come from the lower half of the league and of those just one, Tipperary in 2016, have reached the last four.
Two-thirds, 65 per cent, of the quarter-finalists and 90 per cent of both the semi-finalists and finalists and have been from Division One.
Further detail shows that of the five counties to have topped Division One of the league, three - in all cases Dublin - have gone on the win the All-Ireland. The other two instances, both Cork, haven’t fared as well - reaching the 2014 quarter-finals and not even getting that far a year later.
In bad news for Kildare, the other end of the table shows that four times in five years the county finishing bottom of the top division has failed to reach the last eight of the football championship. The exception was a robust one: Roscommon won the Connacht title last year.
Monaghan’s hidden history
The redoubtable Monaghan GAA writer John P Graham has drawn attention to the fact that his county’s win over Dublin on Sunday was not their first in Croke Park, as widely reported. That milestone is actually 50 years old next November.
He writes: “The National Football League had been redrawn at the end of 1967 with the scrapping of competitions like the Lagan Cup in Ulster and Monaghan were drawn in a new North Eastern section that also included Dublin and the Dubs having home advantage.
“Monaghan started that campaign with a 1-7 each draw against Armagh and then made their 1st competitive appearance at headquarters in 16 years, the previous one was in 1952, when they pulled off a sensational victory by 3-7 to 2-6.
“The game was also noteworthy in that Monaghan used their new outfit of white jerseys with blue trim and blue shorts for the first time.”
The match in question was a Division 1B fixture on 10th November 1968. Among Monaghan’s goal scorers was the legendary Eamonn Tavey, winner of the county’s first Footballer of the Year award in 1973 and whose career lasted long enough for him to play a part in the 1979 Ulster title win - the county’s first in 41 years.
Of interest from a Dublin perspective was the presence in the team of Paddy Cullen and Jimmy Keaveney who would win All-Ireland medals six years later. Also featured were Mickey Whelan, already an All-Ireland medallist and future coaching guru.
Donal Bollard, who for years was the public face of long-running national league sponsors Allianz and before them Church and General, also lined out, at left wing forward, and kicked a point.
Thankful for small mercies
Although the GAA’s regulation football league fixtures have spilled messily into an extra weekend, Croke Park won’t be too distraught at a scenario that - fingers crossed for no further complications - sees the spring inter-county schedule after weeks of vile weather extend no farther than an additional week into what had been hoped for as a club-dedicated April.
For a start, all football finals can now be played on the appointed date despite Divisions Two and Four going into the weekend as vulnerable to the results of postponed fixtures, as the top two in both divisions were confirmed on Sunday.
In fact of the four outcomes needed by Croke Park to avoid having to play a number of abandoned fixtures, only one - Down not beating Meath - failed to happen.
If all goes to plan, there will be just one fixture not completed by the scheduled date: the Division One hurling final between the winners of Tipperary-Limerick and Wexford-Kilkenny.
Provincial ups and downs
The audit of how the provinces fared in this year’s AFL remains to be finalised but the preliminary figures show that Connacht teams have made the most progress. With the divisional finals set for next weekend and all but one of the relegation spots settled the provincial roll call is as follows:
Connacht - two finalists, none relegated; Leinster - three finalists, three relegated; Munster - no finalists, none relegated; Ulster - three finalists, two relegated.
The likelihood is that Ulster will ‘claim’ the remaining relegation place, as even if Down manage to beat Tipperary, they will be relying on Louth, who have lost all six matches to date, to take something from their last fixture against neighbours Meath.
Cork come into the equation if Louth and Meath draw and Down beat Tipp and make up a 12-point scoring difference and a 30-point scoring total.
Stranger things have happened but in the words of Hugh E Keough, a Chicago sportswriter from the turn of the last century:
“The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong but that is the way to bet.”
Return of the A list
One trend that has come to a halt is the prominence of AHL Division 1B counties in the knockout stages of the hurling league. Teams from the lower group have won the last three titles and this year although the sequence could be extended by Limerick, the general success rate of the 1B sides has been reversed.
When the at first controversial quarter-finals (pitching the top four teams in both divisions against each other) were introduced in 2014, the rationale was that they would provide additional matches and revenue for counties but many felt that the 1B teams wouldn’t be able to compete.
Sure enough the first year’s quarter-finals produced a 4-0 outcome for the 1A counties but in the years that followed, the balance incrementally tilted to 3-1 in 2015, 2-2 in 2016 and 1-3 last year.
This season’s quarter-finals have however reverted to form with three 1A teams, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Wexford, in the semi-finals and just Limerick, who were promoted representing the lower division.