Keith Higgins believes lack of divisional football deciders not a ‘big deal’

‘I don’t think there’s any kind of perfect formula given the way things are,’ says Mayo star

Mayo’s Matthew Ruane in action against Cathal Hickey of Meath during the Allianz Football League Division 2 North game  at Elverys MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Mayo’s Matthew Ruane in action against Cathal Hickey of Meath during the Allianz Football League Division 2 North game at Elverys MacHale Park in Castlebar. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

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As it dawned on people that none of the Allianz Football League divisional finals are guaranteed to take place, controversy arose over what this says about the competition in the greater scheme of things.

The GAA had spelled out at the start of the season that because of the condensed nature of the calendar, it would not be possible to finish the league in time to allow a fortnight’s gap for all counties. It was decided that should this happen, the divisional titles in question would be shared.

This approach has been criticised for leaving the league essentially unfinished.

Keith Higgins, the outstanding Mayo player, who retired after a 16-year football career and is continuing to play with the county hurlers, takes a different view of the situation.

“Any other year under normal circumstances and you were in a league semi-final and then told there’d be no final there might be a lot of question marks and disappointment. You were going to have play challenge games anyway so why not have a bit of a league and put structure on it for players?

“I don’t think there’s any kind of perfect formula given the way things are so I think teams will just get on with it. In the bigger scheme of things I don’t think it’s a particularly big deal.”

Higgins’s Mayo teams’ travails in the All-Ireland championship – losing four finals narrowly, one after a replay, and also two semi-finals that ended in draws – gave way to league title success in 2019 when they beat Kerry in the final of the last competition to run along normal lines before the pandemic arrived.

Keith Higgins in action during the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Keith Higgins in action during the 2019 All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin at Croke Park. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

He has good memories of the win but says his league experiences were as much about status as the ambition to win silverware – confirmation that you were a top team.

“In our time Division One was so competitive that it was always seen as a separate competition and not necessarily just preparation for the championship.

“You really were fighting to hold on to the Division One status and if you could get to the final and win it, great. We did that in 2019 and it was only afterwards that we appreciated the achievement.”

This season, for the first time in 23 years, Mayo spent the league in Division Two but are now just a promotion semi-final against Clare away from securing it. The county is one of those affected by the championship cut-off, as they play Sligo a week after the league finals are scheduled to take place.

Their semi-final against Clare guarantees that there’ll be no final in the division as both have championship matches on the last weekend of this month.

“This year it really is – I won’t call them glorified challenge games but it has been just a question of getting lads up to speed for championship. They don’t have challenges and it’s a really short window. I can’t see teams being too worried about this to be honest.”

He believes that the importance of the league arises in the weekly schedules of matches against the best teams in the country in Division One.

“It is a big deal if you’re playing Dublin or Kerry under lights on a Saturday evening. Once it’s done, it’s over and people don’t really remember where you finished. But for many counties, getting promoted up a division has a more realistic ambition than winning a provincial championship so there is an important purpose to it.”

Some of the complaints centre on the growing importance of the league in championship terms, with proposed reform of the All-Ireland series including an option to combine the two competitions.

A decision on that won’t be made until later in the year when it is hoped to be able to hold a special congress. For any counties worried that this league will end up influencing their 2022 championships, the message is that it won’t, as any changes are unlikely to be introduced before 2023.

Higgins is sceptical about the prospect of managers getting too worked up about these implications.

“I can’t see too many managers looking that far down the line. It’s going to be a shorter-term focus than that.”

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