Saturday 20 December 2014

Colm O'Rourke: Ups and downs of spring life yield to summer's hope

Managers, players and the GAA itself can all learn lessons from the league, writes Colm O'Rourke

Published 17/04/2011 | 05:00

We live in the best of times. Last Sunday the sun shone, there were crowds at a lot of venues and the football was good in many games and quite entertaining in most others.

With something to play for in a lot of matches there was excitement and high drama too. Pity the poor old transistor radio has had its day as people waited for updates on phones and the value of just one point became the difference between jubilation and despair in the case of Meath and Sligo in Division 2.

Many supporters were still wondering about score differences, not realising that the new system was in effect where the result between the two teams was the first thing to be taken into account in determining places when two sides ended up on the same number of points. The reason for the change -- which I played a small part in introducing -- was to remove the distortions taking place in club competitions where, at the end of leagues, teams with a need to win were walloping others who had no further interest in the competition to improve their scoring difference.

There were also the problems associated with walkovers where there was no score so this was a case where the rule was causing more harm than good. It was realised by all who were involved at all levels of the game that a change to a head to head between teams as the principal determining factor was the only fair way. Anyway, the scoring difference idea is very much a soccer concept which does not suit other sports.

And so it meant that Sligo, who had a better scoring record than Meath, ended up relegated as Meath had beaten them in their earlier meeting. Of course Meath had an advantage in that game as it was played in Navan, but then again Meath had to play four of their seven games away. A case of swings and roundabouts, but it is highly unusual that a team survives in a division winning just one game and drawing another. Most sides going into the last round of matches with only two points would already be relegated but it is a big thing to stay up and, as it turned out, there are a number of ways to skin a cat.

The game in Navan against Tyrone was a cracker. Tyrone had an outside chance of going up, but their opening two defeats proved too big a burden to carry. They wanted to go straight back up to Division 1 but the last few games have left them fairly right for the championship, even if the reliance on the old guard means there is not the same speed as previously.

Tyrone still command a certain presence and have the class to open up teams. There were times last week when they ripped Meath open and created half a dozen goal chances. At the other end they were not nearly as tight as usual and it was a good performance by Meath to hang in and outplay them in the last quarter. Getting a draw proved as valuable as a win but while the pressure is off Meath in the short term, it has been a very disappointing campaign. Yet hope springs eternal.

On the wider front, it is hardly earth-shattering news that the three best teams continue to be Dublin, Cork and Kerry. They have used the league to their advantage by adding to their panel strength while continuing to win games. Not too many can do that. Managers talk about having a number of subs, but the reality in most counties is that once you go beyond the first five on the bench most of the rest are just wearing jerseys. In many cases the last few on the panel are like the civil defence -- they are only called on in a complete emergency.

Flippancy aside, young players will learn a lot from training with the squad, sitting on the bench and getting a bit of action at the opening of pitches or in the second half of challenge matches. Every young lad has to start somewhere and apprenticeships in anything should not be easy.

Looking from the bottom up, both Roscommon and Longford have had great campaigns and apart from promotion there is the added bonus of playing a final in Croke Park. It is something the players will really look forward to -- nothing beats a game in the main arena. This shows another dilemma for the GAA: how to give all players access to the pitch they really want to play on. One of the great injustices is that some players can play for several years for their counties and never walk out on Croke Park; one game is all they want on that great pitch.

Westmeath have fairly well turned around their slump in fortunes and they and Louth should be capable of maintaining a position in the second division. With Donegal and Laois making the jump upwards, the top division will be no easier next year. With Monaghan and Galway down, it will mean a lot of local fixtures with neighbouring counties, Westmeath, Louth, Kildare and Meath.

After the silliness of not allowing Dublin play a game on a Friday night, it will be interesting to see if the folly has taught us something for the future. Maybe even a Thursday night game would be worth trying, even if two of the counties in the division don't have floodlights at their home grounds.

For some new managers the league has been a breeze, Jim McGuinness appears to have changed Donegal completely. Yet Laois, under another rookie Justin McNulty, showed that there are no certainties when beating Donegal and these two meet again in the final, even if promotion was the only important target. Now there is a big game in Croke Park. If winning something is a great feeling for a player then losing is, of course, exaggerated too.

For the rest of the managers they can preach the championship gospel; it is the only thing they can believe in now. And they can also tell their players that if they are fit and healthy they still live in the best of times.

Sunday Indo Sport

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