Competitive edge could save leagues from apathy
LAST month, Jack O'Connor said he would be amazed if Kerry won this year's Allianz National Football League.
O'Connor had just seen key players like Tadhg Kennelly, Diarmuid Murphy, Tommy Walsh and, to a lesser extent, Sean O'Sullivan, leave his squad, but more tellingly Kerry had just returned from a winter holiday and hadn't even started serious training. Their manager admitted he'd be happy if they stayed in division one and he found a player or two.
Last week, we learned that three other star players would miss today's opener against Dublin because they were off to the Super Bowl, a trip they had booked some time back.
The GAA won't be happy with any of this and neither will the sponsor, but let's be fair here; if there's any county that could get away with more or less writing off the league from day one, it's Kerry.
With 19 titles accumulated and three in the last decade alone, they have paid the competition more respect than most. They were hungry to win it last season when they needed to (O'Connor's first year back in charge) and most likely they'll still beat Dublin this afternoon and land another two or three titles before the end of this decade. And because of their pedigree and honours list, little or nothing will be said. Of course if a manager like Pat Gilroy, without a national title, adopted a similar policy there would be war.
But the crux of all this is deeper than just blaming one or two teams. The problem is that even though the leagues are the second most important events on the GAA calendar, there's a general apathy towards them which is growing with each season. And you can apportion the blame across the fixture makers, marketers, managers and players.
This year's leagues were promoted in the same old way they've always been: a press conference with four managers at a top table and maybe a picture of one of them catching a football on the steps of Allianz House. And last night's games threw in with barely a whimper. There was no floodlight extravaganza between Dublin/Tyrone, Tyrone/Kerry or Kerry/Dublin. Not having such a gala opening will cost the GAA around €1m by the way.
Bear in mind also that the economic downturn is already likely to slash attendances further this year. Figures released last March showed that the 2008 leagues fell dramatically, dropping from 3.6m spectators to 1.9m in football and from 1.5m to 1.1m in hurling and when the 2009 figures emerge they will only make for worse reading.
When the 'real' Cork hurling team missed three games in last year's league, it threw a dart into the heart of the competition, so players aren't faultless either. The Limerick hurlers, beaten by Carlow last weekend, will hardly pay tribute to the competition either when they present a second- or third-string bunch of youngsters in a few weeks' time.
By now, managers should also comprehend that there's a clear link between league and championship, even if most of them, Mick O'Dwyer especially, focus on summer only. For example, of the teams currently in football's division one, most have played in All-Ireland semi-finals since qualifiers were introduced. And almost all have made the quarter-finals.
The trouble is that it's mostly been Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Tyrone and Mayo in the top flight. When the likes of Wexford and Limerick caused the odd shock here and there, it roused interest and gave us a novelty factor. But their cameos were all too brief.
So why not try to knit the competition closer to the championship by using league performances to improve seedings or home advantage later in the summer? That would increase intensity levels in the spring, throw up a few wildcards and keep teams driving on until the end of April. In recent years the leagues have opened with a bang only to fizzle out long before final time.
More importantly, just for one year, maybe the GAA could stop using the league to experiment with new rules. It's too important to have another set of rules to deal with every 12 months. Constant tinkering devalues the competition.
Allianz have extended their backing until 2012 and have been involved in a sponsorship capacity for almost 18 years. They deserve better than to have a glut of temporary rules and regulations introduced for three or four months at the start every year.
Hope still flickers, of course. New managers like Galway's Joe Kernan will want to make their mark early on. Counties like Tipperary will be hoping to fly the flag for the underdog by testing their wits against division two teams while division three looks to be absolutely intriguing.
Long-term, teams have to realise that consistency isn't a tap that can be turned on and off. Treating the league with some respect would help. It certainly hasn't done the Kilkenny hurlers any harm.