Colm O'Rourke explains why Dublin should take the foot off the gas in this year's National League
The League was once a beautiful competition. Three games before Christmas, four after. No fixture congestion, no pressure that I can recall, except of course when you got to Croke Park and finals. Then it was all about winning.
Mostly, though, it was about the adventures just as much as the games themselves. Tales of travelling, quite literally, on planes, trains and automobiles. Throw in helicopters and the odd bus, even if that last mode of transport was sort of ditched after one group wanted to get home after a game in Mayo and others thought that spending a late night in some backwater pub shooting the breeze was the way to live. Maybe the fact that we only scored two points in the match against Mayo did not help the humour of some. Within a few months we won the All-Ireland.
The psychologists would probably call this a turning point, where we looked at our inner self and discovered a new-found mental toughness. Personally I was just entirely cheesed off and wanted to get home and it made no damned difference to how I felt about life or sport or family. Then again, I did think that the best way to deal with things was to get over them first of all and make sure they did not happen again. No gravy for the psychologists in my attitude but whatever works for you, then do it.
In 1976 Meath flew to Cork for a League match. The plane was chartered and because of the novelty factor, it was booked out quickly. Security was lax to say the least: one a supporter turned up at the airport on the way home a little worse for wear, got on the plane and sat down. Eventually it was discovered that there was one passenger too many but the captain decided to fly on and the gentleman was put in one of the spare flight attendants seats. Afterwards he was dubbed 'the man who thumbed a lift on an aeroplane and got it'. If you tried that now you would end up in jail.
Train journeys were even better fun. A chance to relax, chat and sort out the problems of the world. On the way home it was games of poker or acey deucey or pontoon or whatever set up to relieve a few targeted individuals of some liquid assets. These games were noisy and completely crooked. Once when I went to the toilet the hands were rigged so I would lose heavily when I came back. It worked a treat for the desperados but the money stayed in the pot and about three hands later I scooped the lot. As with football, you need to plan at least three passes in advance.
Of course there was football too. The best and most enjoyable matches were in October/November, when the weather is usually better than this time of year. If your club was still involved you stayed with them, and the League really did become a testing ground for new talent. It was also a time of year when there was not much football. Now all matches are being shoehorned into the bad weather of early spring and there is very little activity at either club or county level for most players in the back end of the year. It's not hard to figure out why players go to soccer or rugby in the autumn.
This year the scrap starts today and it is helter skelter for the next two months. In the past Meath won the League outright on several occasions from the second division. Now all the giants of the game are in Division 1 and will divide most of the spoils from League, provincial championships and All-Ireland.
Dublin would not even allow the scraps from the rich man's table to fall to Louth last Sunday in the O'Byrne Cup. They leave nothing for the minnows to hoover up.
Yet it is probably Dublin who will have least interest in this year's League. It will be good for internal competition, but having won four in a row there is nothing left to prove.
The price of winning League after League could have been high too in the last two All-Ireland finals. There is no doubt in my mind that Dublin had gone over the top in the last two Septembers. The constant grind of League into Championship started to show in late summer. The peak of performance was earlier in the year, and my guess is that Jim Gavin would not worry in the least if Dublin were not involved in the final this year. Three All-Irelands in a row is the goal.
The problem will be that it may not be possible to rein in the troops. The new talent that has emerged in the O'Byrne Cup will be giving it sally to try and get on the Championship panel, the proven hands will want to ensure they hold on to their places. Anyway the big dog won't be growling too hard until around July this year.
Kerry like to play hard and fast with the early rounds of the League. They certainly are one county who believe in giving new players a fling and not for just one or two games. They reap a dividend every year and still manage to survive. It may be no different this time. Some of the best talent from the last three minor winning teams might be given their head. No county has such a rich pool. They did not just win - they have a number of young men of such outrageous talent that when Dublin slip up it is likely to be Kerry who will be waiting in the long grass. Yet they need time, a commodity that Kerry supporters do not have in abundance. Every duck in the Kingdom is supposed to be a swan.
No such luxury applies to Mayo. It is a bit like the global warming clock. The moving hand is getting close to 12. They should go flat out to win the League, as they might get to like going up the steps of the Hogan Stand. They need a quiet year and cannot afford self-inflicted wounds. They live in hope - so do we all where Mayo are concerned but we deal in reality and unless the prima donna, egotistical few surrender to the group ethos there is no silver lining.
Roscommon burned up the early spring last year but they have had their share of bloodletting. Being involved in a county side is now a ruthless business both for managers and players, and old-fashioned loyalty needs to return.
The great survivors are Monaghan, who play at their limit almost all the time. The same for Donegal, but they are not the force of old. Maybe the same is true of Tyrone but they were the closest of the rest to Mayo, Kerry and Dublin last year. It is not the style that counts there but winning, and if they don't win and still play ugly football there will be an enquiry by year end. Cavan under Mattie McGleenan could reap some benefits from the Terry Hyland era - Hyland did a lot of work and it is not unusual for a new manager to get a return when the hard graft is already in place.
The second division does not look as competitive as last year and Meath, with four home games, should be capable of making a push for promotion. Winning five out of seven matches is usually enough and the importance of being in the first division of the Allianz League is evidenced by where the All-Ireland winners come from. It is hard to see anyone from outside the top group playing in September. For supporters too playing in the top tier gives a chance for weekends away in exotic places like, Killarney, Ballybofey and Omagh. All on the tourist trail. Meath and Cork for promotion.
The most important groups of all play off Main Street in the third and fourth divisions. Next week they will get their names in lights.
Sunday Indo Sport