Only way is up for the lifelong servants of Division Four
At the basement of the football league there are no easy games, as Carlow know
The Carlow team huddle after their All-Ireland SFC qualifier loss to Monaghaan – a result which made Carlow a top 16 team. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Maybe there is something to be said for playing in the bottom division of the league. No matter what the sport. The only way is up and the expectations can’t possibly get any lower.
They also say it gets lonely at the top, whereas down at the bottom there is no pride or fall, only the crowded hope of lying like Oscar Wilde and the thoughts of the stars above. And no one knows more about this in Gaelic football than Carlow.
The problem is when you feel like you’re stuck there, backs not so much to the wall as the floor. Dropping down to the bottom division is one thing; getting out of it is entirely different and more daunting. And like most labels, being a Division Four team intends to stick.
Carlow have been lifelong servants to the bottom division, knowing of nothing else since teams were tiered accordingly. They actually made a football league final back in 1954, losing to Mayo, but promotion in the so-called modern game has always eluded them.
“My memory is that we did get actually promoted around 1985, when I was still playing myself, under the old structure,” says Carlow manager Turlough O’Brien. “But that same year they changed the structure again so we never got to play in Division Three. So we never actually got out, not in the last 40 years anyway.
“I think everyone else in Division Four has been promoted, at some stage, bar London maybe. And the thing about Division Four is, every team fancies their chances of getting out, and believe they can beat the other. I’d say it’s possibly the most cut-throat division, because everyone wants to get out of it. In the other divisions, if a team finishes mid-table they’re often happy enough, knowing they’re not going to be relegated.
“Whereas in Division Four the only way is up, and everything wants to get out. There certainly aren’t any easy games. But right now everyone is back behind the starting line, and it’s a race from the first minute to the last minute.”
When O’Brien took over the Carlow team, at the end of 2014, they’d actually finished the season bottom of Division Four; rock bottom, in other words. The only possibility was improvement but O’Brien also set about developing a team, hardening attitudes and raising more than just expectation.
“Since I’ve started here anyway our main priority has been promotion. We recognise that for Carlow to improve, long-term, we need to be playing at a higher level than we were the year before.
“We were very close last year. Last two years actually, but last year unfortunately fell just short. And it came down to things like scheduling of games, which probably fell in Wexford’s favour. We drew with Westmeath, then dropped points to London, and Leitrim, which was a bit of a hammer blow later on.
“Preparations have gone very well, and we’ve done everything we can, a great response from the panel, with a good few new players. We had 53 players in at one stage, whittled it down to 35 now, and it’s a good sign in Carlow that everyone is keen to get on the county team, and we’re going in the right direction.
“So that’s the goal, to mix it at a higher level. The players are at a good age now, know what it’s about, and I think we can give any team a good run, as we proved in the championship.”
Indeed last summer, O’Brien guided Carlow their furthest into the championship since the qualifiers began, in 2001, narrowly losing out to Monaghan in round three of the qualifiers, having been in a winning position going into the last 10 minutes. Their victory over Wexford was their first victory in the Leinster championship in six years, and they never made it easy on now three-in-a-row All-Ireland champions Dublin in the quarter-final.
That effectively left them a top-16 team in 2017. They’re not yet top-24 in the league, and O’Brien knows there is no guarantee they’ll get there this time: “We’re away to London on Saturday, a difficult opener. And I wouldn’t be condescending to London because they have become very, very organised. They beat us last year, we only narrowly beat then in the qualifiers. So it will be a close battle.
“They have seven home games, in Ruislip, because last year it was being redeveloped, so they played all their games away from home. That’s a huge incentive for them. We’re away the second game too, to Limerick. You look at the teams relegated from Division Three, Laois and Antrim, and they will automatically fancy their chances of promotion again. Wicklow too, under a new manager (John Evans). So you really cannot afford one slip, or the season is over.”
What is certain is that every team in Division Four believes they can beat the other, and London especially take great pride in proving that. There are no whipping boys, only the danger of becoming one, and for Carlow, part of challenge is believing they can cross the seemingly great divide.
I think the GAA should look at ways of prioritising the league over the championships, to be truthful
“I do think we are good enough, but we’re a bit more marked as well, after the championship, and no one else in Division Four would like to see us get ahead of ourselves. It’s going to be a battle.
“But I think the league is a great competition, playing at your own level. The conditioning of teams are all at a similar level, and for 24, 25 teams it’s probably the most important competition. I think the GAA should look at ways of prioritising the league over the championships, to be truthful.”
O’Brien is also adopting a common-sense approach: he doesn’t buy much of the negativity around the intercounty game, and lying down strict rules like drinking bans won’t do their chances of promotion much good.
“The only rule we have is there are no rules. Common sense applies, simple as that. They’re amateur players but at the same time they’re fully committed, and they tailor their lifestyles around it. If you love the sport and the freedom it’s the best time of your life, being fit and well conditioned, there’s no better feeling,.
“Coming from where we came from, we’ve made massive strides, the attitude towards football in the county has been transformed, really. People are proud of the team and getting behind the team, and we’d be hoping to push on again this year. That’s what it’s all about, keep improving.”