Seán Moran: National Leagues have always been the GAA’s moveable feast
From their inception in 1925 they have regularly moved around the calendar
Kerry’s David Clifford celebrates scoring his side’s first goal in the Allianz Football League Division 1 South game against Roscommon at Dr Hyde Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
Like a chameleon adapting to its surroundings, the national league goes through another metamorphosis. The coming weeks won’t see actual finals in at least two divisions and perhaps all four.
There has been dissatisfaction surrounding the decision, spelled out as the price of guaranteeing four matches for nearly every county, to rule out finals being played a week before championship.
This instantly placed a block on 14 counties reaching the final, as they are all in championship action on the weekend of June 26th.
It was, however, not only the right thing to do but fully in keeping with the competition’s history and traditions, the central theme of which has always been functionality.
In four years, the centenary of the national leagues will be marked, 100 years since the 1925 annual congress introduced them. Not even quite a comprehensive account of congress in this newspaper found room to report any of the discussion around the introduction of two new competitions.
In all likelihood that was because there wasn’t significant opposition. At that time the GAA was at last stabilising after the turmoil of the revolutionary period. From 1926 on, the All-Ireland championships stopped running in arrears and concluded within the calendar year – even in 2020.
There was obviously room in the calendar for an expanded programme of activities and around this time two further competitions were inaugurated: the All-Ireland minor championships (still thriving) and the Railway Cup interprovincial titles (which in a slow and drawn-out process eventually did the opposite).
At first the leagues didn’t even feature all of the counties, as many weren’t regularly playing at senior level. They were also heavily regionalised and during the second World War, abandoned for a number of years.
The point of this is not to deliver some excruciating history of the competition but to convey a sense that it was a moveable feast, depending on the GAA’s needs at the time.
That it was regarded as a staple of the Gaelic games calendar can be gleaned from the report of the Commission on the GAA (the McNamee Commission) and its section on competitions.
Fifty years ago this body produced a range of options, which were – appropriate to the era – psychedelic: abolishing the under-21 championships and senior provincial football championships and instituting open draws in both football and hurling – all a bit too ‘far out’ for the GAA at the time.
Yet there wasn’t a word about the national leagues, whose continuation was simply assumed.
Of course there was no change for another 25 years but what followed revolutionised the competitive calendar. Hurling went first and there was huge debate on the ending of the sudden-death format in the senior championship even to the limited extent of re-admitting beaten provincial finalists to the All-Ireland.
Side-by-side with this came the calendar year, with the NHL starting in February and concluding with one exception before the championship began.
Football followed four years later with the more extensive qualifiers and also a calendar year. This blueprint was distilled from the remnants of the Football Development Committee’s 1999 proposals that envisaged a combined league and championship.
The calendar-year schedule for the league was in some ways a more radical departure than the championship changes.
For as long as the leagues had existed they were split before and after Christmas, which led to a daft disjunction in the season: four matches in autumn and winter followed by three more in the new year.
The new programme encouraged consistency and allowed teams to prepare on the basis of reliable fixture timetables – unlike the old formats, which used to unpick roadblocks in the tables with endless playoffs, popping up unexpectedly.
It meant that the league began in January to great public interest as opposed to popping up like a wearisome obligation a couple of weeks after the All-Irelands had ended.
Then director general Liam Mulvihill was frustrated in 2007 by the manner in which the league, unlike most sporting competitions, “started with a bang and ended with a whimper” – something he attributed to the proximity of the championship to the league finals, then in late April or May.
That was true and obliquely answered his question. The reason league finals generally don’t capture the imagination is that they effectively take place half-way through the season and before the more important half gets underway.
That doesn’t mean that the rest of the league isn’t working. It has also become the more significant part of the year for a variety of counties for whom championship achievement is confined to winning the odd match against the neighbours.
It is a functional way of getting the season started with plenty of fixtures, leading to the summer. Keith Higgins, the retired Mayo captain, said in these pages that whereas the county had greatly appreciated their own league title in 2019, he didn’t believe that in the circumstances this year the inability to stage finals for 2021 amounted to ‘a big deal’.
This year, as last year, the function changed, providing a warm-up for last year’s championship and doing something similar this time, adapting to what the association required.
By the end of this year the GAA will decide on a new championship format. One of the options under consideration is an ambitious hybrid of league and All-Ireland, which leaves the provincial competitions as curtain raiser to the year.
That would be undeniably radical, breaking from nearly a century of the league being compared unfavourably to championship and instead amalgamating with it.
The ultimate example of form following function.