The national leagues remain a stepping stone to bigger days, writes Dermot Crowe
SEAMUS Kenny is playing football long enough to have sampled those league games that once followed the championship, keeping a respectable distance, knowing their place. In October and November, as the days shortened towards winter, the Meath man dipped his toes into inter-county football. The first trip was a league excursion to Clare in 2000.
Two years later, those pre-Christmas matches were dispensed with and a tighter, leaner league emerged. You still got bad weather – Wexford v Tyrone, the 2006 league semi-final, had torrential rain, a provincial venue and a famous result, Wexford's first league final qualification since 1946. But today's league is a more streamlined design while still carrying familiar flaws.
Kenny is facing his 13th year and currently recovering from a serious knee injury so he will watch the opening league games in Monaghan, next Sunday, and Wicklow as a spectator. Meath haven't laid their hands on the league trophy since 1994 when Robbie O'Malley was first on to the podium. Other counties have also gone without and still won All-Irelands. Galway's last league win was in 1981, Down's in 1983. Dublin haven't won one in 20 years.
Cork reopen their league title defence on Saturday next in Croke Park with a match against Dublin at 7.0, with the prospect this spring of emulating Kerry's league four-in-a- row in the first half of the 1970s. Mayo, league finalists last year, hold the outright record with five in succession in the 1930s. The Cork-Dublin game will form an attractive double bill also featuring All-Ireland champions Donegal against Kildare.
Tomorrow will see the official launch of the 2013 National Football League in Dublin with a press conference attended by some prominent players and managers. It is likely that most questions will not be about the league at all. As the league picks up momentum, the greatest excitement is often on the lower floors.
Two years ago, Meath survived the drop to Division 3 only by virtue of having beaten Sligo when they met earlier in the competition. Sligo went down for losing that head-to-head. But a year later there were no more escape hatches for Meath to slip through. Their final match at home to Louth resulted in an abysmal defeat and they're now looking ahead to a campaign in Division 3. They begin with two hard tests, against the county that joined them on the way down last year, Monaghan, and the newly-promoted Wicklow.
Under a new management headed by Mick O'Dowd, having to travel for their opening two rounds is not an ideal start. But what better environment for some character-building than February matches in Monaghan and Aughrim. "The league in terms of preparation has changed so much," states Kenny. "Prior to the last few years the league was nearly used as a way of getting your fitness up; it was nearly like a pre-season competition, whereas lads are coming into the league now anywhere from 80 to 90 cent fit for championship."
While championship will always ensure the league has a limited appeal, there is room for genuine drama and emotion. Kenny admits his worst moment as a player for Meath came in Navan last April when Louth relegated their rivals with a comfortable win, 2-14 to 1-8.
Meath began that campaign with two wins and were only narrowly stymied by Kildare in round three after a classic match in Navan. From there their form nosedived. And yet, as if to prove the league's notorious unreliability, offering further warning not to believe anything it tells us, Meath went on to flatten Kildare in the championship.
Kildare's promotion from Division 2 on the final day of regulation matches formed a direct contrast to the Meath experience in Navan, and would lead to a rare and welcome piece of silverware when winning the Division 2 final. Yet ultimately their summer bombed. Their eclipse of Galway for the second promotion spot was one of the league's dramatic finales. With their last league tie against Galway deep into injury time, they won a penalty which John Doyle dispatched with admirable calm. It earned a draw and that meant promotion switched from Galway to Kildare with the last kick.
Kenny says Meath didn't ignore the league and become complacent over the last two years. "Two years ago, Seamus (McEnaney) when he first came in, he was getting to know players for the first time. We trained very hard. Things didn't seem to work out, we tried a few things in different games and our performances suffered and we seemed to go downhill very dramatically. It wasn't that players weren't trying. We had put in as much work as previous years, if not more.
"The last-round defeat was probably one of the worst I have suffered. Especially when you are playing at home and to a near rival, to put in a performance like that – quite honestly at the time, relegation was not something I overly thought about; it was the manner of our defeat. But once the league was over we had a six- or seven-week break and we slowly built our confidence back up."
The league is, as ever, a testing ground, a form of schooling for the real-life adventure that lies ahead. The late Kevin Heffernan would say that the greatest performance he witnessed from Brian Mullins took place not in the summer in Croke Park but down in the Mardyke in Cork when Dublin played a league game in 1975.
Heffernan would not have remembered the performance had he not assigned an importance to the match itself. It was a game Dublin felt they needed to win.
Dublin took more than two hard-earned league points out of an early visit to Kerry in the 2010 league; it was their first win on Kerry soil since late 1978. The previous year Pat Gilroy's team had been beaten by 17 points in the championship by the same opposition. A league win could not wipe that slate clean but a win in Kerry for a team that had been as decimated as Dublin had meant something beyond the ordinary and helped form opinions on player character.
"Obviously in championship," says Seamus Kenny, "it really is do-or-die. I know you have back door but you can't take that into consideration when playing championship. In league it used to be about blooding a load of players, I don't see that much now, there are not as many coming through now or being blooded in the league. The weather obviously has a major bearing on it as well. Championship football you are thinking hard ground. It (league) would be more of a grinding match, but definitely every bit as competitive as championship and as much put into the games too in terms of preparation."
The public keeps an eye on the league but keeps its heart and soul firmly in check. Last year's decision to introduce semi-finals saw just over 11,000 arrive in Croke Park for a double-header involving Cork, Kerry, Mayo and Down The final itself had around 22,000 in attendance. Unless there are more novel participants, that is not about to change.
In 2007, Donegal and Mayo met in the final and the 30,000 mark was breached. A year earlier for the meeting of Wexford and Armagh the attendance was a respectable 45,000. Floodlight spectacles and headline musical acts at half-time have attempted to jazz up the atmosphere but ultimately the public's love of the league is conditional. In essence, it is a casual relationship.