Seán Moran: Relief and nervous optimism as the hurling league gets underway

Getting the hurling and football leagues to go ahead at all was far from a given this year

Action from the 2017 League final, when Galway beat Tipp. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Action from the 2017 League final, when Galway beat Tipp. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

The hurling season gets under way this weekend. It is reflective of the extraordinary times we find ourselves in: relief that it’s up and running and nervous optimism that the other side of all this is within reach.

Getting the intercounty schedules organised wasn’t a given. At February’s congress, there were plenty of contributions questioning whether there would even be a league this year.

Despite that, this season’s AHL competition is already being dismissed as, more obviously than usual, a runway for the championship – journey rather than destination.

“The league is all about performance and getting your preparation right for the championship. At the end of the day, while we are happy with the win, we are really looking forward to the championship. That is really what defines a player, defines a team.”

That timeless quote comes from Johnny Coen after Galway had walloped All-Ireland champions Tipperary in the 2017 league final in Limerick. They were en route to the All-Ireland, which over the preceding three decades had taken on all the characteristics of a quest for the Holy Grail.

Coen was probably mindful of the cruel providence that had seen the county win five leagues since their most recent MacCarthy Cup only for that promise to be confiscated by the end of the summer.

In truth the league has never been about just “the league”. How could it be, starting in full-blown winter and wrapping up just as summer is on the way?

Trialling period

It will also be primarily a trialling period for managers, assembling a panel and working out who’s in form and who isn’t, managing injuries that will occur – particularly after such a brief return to training before matches start.

None of this differentiates the coming competition much from other league seasons. Former Waterford manager Derek McGrath gave the definitive league bulletin after losing at home to Wexford in 2018.

“There’ll be significant changes. They won’t be reactive. We sat down Thursday and Friday and depending on CIT’s game against UCD and Kieran Bennett getting through the LIT game, we’ll be hoping that Mikey Kearney, who hasn’t been exposed to much over the last year or two and DJ (Foran, UCD) will see time next Saturday night and Patrick Curran, who had a back spasm after his two games in four days last week.”

I just wish that we would have a sell-out for the final game of the league

The season has always been about mending and making do and balancing Fitzgibbon Cup demands. The one thing that a manager wants by the end of the league is a clear picture of what his best team looks like. That won’t change.

Does the vagueness about who actually wins the trophy make much difference? The one element of the league that hasn’t changed is that by the time its finale arrives, everyone else has moved on. Former DG Liam Mulvihill made this plaintive point in his last year in 2007.

“I just wish that we would have a sell-out for the final game of the league. It has been one of the features of the league that, whereas most competitions start with a whimper and end with a bang, the leagues have tended to start with a bang and end with a whimper. It would be my sincere wish that that wouldn’t happen this year.”

His wish was ignored as neither attendance for Donegal-Mayo nor Waterford-Kilkenny cleared 30,000. There has been a high-profile promotion for a football league final on the centenary of the Easter Rising, which filled Croke Park but such promotions worked equally well in filling the stadium for the first match of the league.

Unravel

Leagues make their own relevance, though, and particularly when they are played so close to the championship. Teams with form can exploit it and in the past 20 years nearly half the league winners have gone on to add the championship but there is simply no room for a reset button and a team can unravel.

It has happened to Tipperary in recent years. Having gone into the spring of 2017 as champions and being spoken about as potentially the first team from the county in 50 years to defend the All-Ireland, they got annihilated by Galway in the league final and never sufficiently recaptured their momentum.

In the 20 years since the calendar-year schedules were introduced in football and four years previously in hurling there has been a consistency about performance. Hardly surprising given that the old ‘handful of fixtures scattered over seven months’ model lacked coherence.

If the league gets too far away from the championship, it can lose its meaning. The experiment in 1997 gave us, as in the coming weeks, league fixtures in May but play-offs in July and August (with an October final), which were promptly “thrown” by teams whose minds were elsewhere.

Having to face a championship opponent in the league just a short while previously creates all sorts of head-wrecking potential. It’s rarely a problem in football - although Donegal and Tyrone experienced it in last year’s Division One - because finalists, who are usually the last ones standing, aren’t often from the same province let alone due to play each other.

Hurling is such a small constituency that chances of overlap increase but it doesn’t constitute a perennial threat. Anyway, what else do you do but play the match on its merits?

As one manager said: “I’d prefer them to be second-guessing rather than me.”

smoran@irishtimes.com

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