The premier competition in the GAA, the Allianz League, has now become, at least in the major leagues, a competition no one seems too keen on winning. It used to have greater prestige when everyone was just fighting for a championship title. At that time, teams from the lower leagues qualified for the quarter-finals and dared to tackle the big guns – mostly without success. It was a big deal for these counties to get a chance to slay the dragon.
Again, there was a more egalitarian element. Teams in the second division regularly reached and won finals. Meath has won two league titles this way, and we’ve also got nice medals for it. We celebrated it in style and didn’t worry too much about what color our urine would be before Tuesday night’s practice, whether our body fat would have gone down by 0.1 percent, or whether the GPS indicated a reduced load. The psychology was train hard, play hard, win, enjoy it and then focus on the next fight.
Now many counties treat the league as serious competition early on, but its value has since disappeared or fallen sharply. Within weeks, the districts were eliminated in the championship, so the immediate goal is to secure your status in the division and move on. In Division 1, overall victory isn’t even mentioned.
Take mayo as an example. They didn’t look like they wanted to reach the finals last week. Maybe they have injury problems, but in the last two games I’ve had the distinct impression that experimenting takes precedence over winning. In most games, Mayo changed his starting lineup quite often and once they were sure in the division, they rolled the dice and gave a run to players who won’t be in the championship. It certainly didn’t look like a major showdown with Kerry in the league finals was high on the agenda.
It could be argued that Mayo isn’t exactly dripping in gold and playing Kerry at Croke Park would be good for many of the younger players who did so well against Dublin. Always compete with the best, we’re told. Mayo seems to have turned down that offer, although they could still get there by defeating Kildare today.
The other argument is that Mayo already have what they want from the league and that was before they lost to Kerry by a point in Round 5 in Tralee. They were safe at that point, so getting to the final and facing Kerry again had little appeal. Mayo will feel like he only has to beat Kerry once a year, and that’s in the championship.
This is the product of the historical baggage – a Sam Maguire would change everything.
The main reason for Mayo’s reluctance to go full throttle now is that the Championship is coming so quickly this year – they play Galway in four weeks. If Mayo qualifies for next weekend’s final, that means an easy week of practice, a trip to Dublin and recovery, so it takes about 10 days of serious championship preparation. It also increases the likelihood of some injuries along the way.
Despite all that, a big day at Croke Park and a win against Kerry means a significant boost in confidence. Winning is a good habit and Dublin has shown that anything can be won.
If Mayo isn’t too keen on winning the league, there are a few who would love to take her place. Armagh is certainly one of them. They’re another team in the precarious position of not knowing how to handle tonight’s game against Donegal as they also meet again in the Championship in four weeks’ time. Of course, there’s the old-fashioned way of beating a team today, next week, next month, and every other time you play them. Some teams seem worried about giving things away and whether you should play against your championship team.
Again, in their pomp, the dubs were an example of basically ignoring the opposition. They often fielded their best team, they could have mailed their game plan and still come out and beat everyone. It would be good for Armagh to end up in the league finals and if so they shouldn’t worry about taking an overly robust approach. They don’t need it as they have improved with good football. Everything else distracts from this mission.
Donegal is in the doldrums, a team that’s not going anywhere fast. Maybe a bit like the sailor at Coleridge’s The rime of the old sailor when “day after day, after day, we held neither breath nor motion, idle as a painted ship, on a painted ocean”. The ship stood with no wind to propel it for a week and Donegal has been in the same position for years. The concern for them is that the coming wind will blow them backwards. Last week’s performance against Dublin made it look for all the world like a side who knew they couldn’t win from the start and then played to script.
With Tyrone, Monaghan, Dublin and Kildare all in trouble this would be advertised as ‘Super Sunday’ if it were the Premier League. In the GAA world, the accepted wisdom is to put on the games and hope they come. There is little marketing strategy for each game. All districts should do some kind of promotion to get more people through the gate. Two tickets for the price of one, a sort of half-time entertainment where contestants can win money for points or goals, or flood the elementary schools with free tickets and ice cream for coming through the gate. All to give a little life to many games that are not that attractive and certainly will not fill stadiums. There’s nothing to lose.
Division 2 has been a three horse race for some time and with Galway already on top, second place sits between Roscommon and Derry. The other five teams had a mini league to avoid relegation and with Down already gone there is a serious game between Offaly and Cork where even a draw would be enough for Cork to survive them due to the points difference permit. It’s going to be a very heavy setback here for whoever makes the drop.
Offaly has made progress on all sides so far and I’ve given my opinion on Cork quite a bit. They should be a top-eight team, not one teetering on the fringes of the last 16.
Further down is the big Louth story that are on the way up. Promotion to the second tier is a huge achievement for Mickey Harte and he could now be eyeing the Leinster Championship as a possibility.
The league certainly ends up in Division 4, however, where the integrity of the competition has been seriously undermined by playing key games not just at different times, but on different days. Tipperary and Cavan both won last night meaning tonight’s local derby between Sligo and Leitrim is a dead rubber.
All of those games should have been played at the same time and if London had to play here on Saturday then all the other games should have been played yesterday as well. Just because it’s Division 4 doesn’t mean those counties aren’t entitled to the same respect. I can’t imagine something like that happening in Division 1. Those in the last eight deserve better.
https://www.independent.ie/sport/gaelic-games/gaelic-football/division-one-is-a-great-competition-that-nobody-wants-to-win-41491586.html Division One is a great competition that nobody wants to win