Sunday 22 October 2017

Martin Breheny: League shows the way forward

Spring system offers genuine framework for championship restructuring

A view of the full house at Croke Park for the Divsion 1 league final between Dublin and Kerry Picture: Sportsfile
A view of the full house at Croke Park for the Divsion 1 league final between Dublin and Kerry Picture: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Thank God for a return to real action. By the start of play in this year's Allianz Football League at 7.00pm on Saturday night, it will have been 18 weeks since Dublin edged out Mayo in the All-Ireland football final replay.

That's a very long time without top-line games (it would have been 20 weeks except for the replay), which is why attendances were so good at the pre-season action.

It happens every year as the GAA's fan base reacts to the pre-Christmas match drought by turning out in large numbers for pretty meaningless warm-up games in January.

Yes, I know that the late October-mid December period features the provincial clubs championships but, in many cases, attendances are small, usually gathering momentum only for the finals, before interest intensifies for the All-Ireland series.

Vibrant

The club championships are vibrant competitions but because of their localised nature, they can never stir the blood of the masses in the way inter-county activity does.

This weekend's league programme will be very well attended and could be further increased if counties were actively incentivised to promote 'home' games. That could be done by allowing them to retain a share of the gate receipts (other than venue rent) above a certain threshold.

I checked on the websites of the 16 counties hosting league action next weekend and could find only six that had any references to the games on their home page. Even then, it wasn't exactly promotion at its slickest, instead merely providing fixture arrangements.

Surely counties have a responsibility to promote their home games, rather than leaving it to long-time sponsors Allianz, Croke Park and the media, both local and national.

Pre-season crowds show that the appetite is there among the public but it needs to be encouraged to maximise turnouts which, in turn, would add to the league's appeal. In fairness, there's no comparison between interest in the leagues now and 20-25 years ago, when top teams appeared to operate under the daft notion that a spring tide risked a summer drowning.

That view lost traction gradually over the years as an increasing number of Division 1 winners went on to take the All-Ireland title. Tyrone (2003), Kerry (2004-'06-'09) and Cork (2010) all completed the National League-All-Ireland double before Dublin's empire-building gathered awesome momentum.

Jim Gavin made it clear when he took over in late 2012 that the league was an early priority. Dublin hadn't won it since 1993 so Gavin set about closing that gap as quickly as possible.

And even when Dublin won the double in 2013, he didn't relent in his pursuit of the league, no more than Brian Cody ever did with the Kilkenny hurlers.

Four successive leagues and three All-Ireland titles is a remarkable haul for Dublin since the start of 2013. It's also the best possible advertisement for the value of league success.

Okay, so winning the Division 1 title - or gaining promotion from any of their other divisions - may not set the heather blazing in the way championship triumphs do but they are still very worthwhile achievements.

That's why this time of year is so interesting. All around the country this week, players - and indeed supporters - are in the rather unusual position of feeling that anything is possible.

Reality will, of course, bring its own miseries for many as the season progresses but, for now, the slate is clean and everyone sees themselves with a chance of reaching their target.

In terms of fairness, the league is, of course, far ahead of the championship which is riddled with inequalities. While some counties will always feel they are unlucky to have dropped a league division in the inevitable scramble towards the end of the group stages, the format is basically sound.

And, when you examine the patterns over a period of years, many of them are replicated in the championship, suggesting that the spring campaign is far more informative than generally recognised.

Most of all, it passes the competitive test, since all counties are operating within their own band, decided by results rather than geography.

It works so well that an obvious case can be made for adapting the championship structure to a variation of the league. It will happen eventually because logic cannot be ignored indefinitely.

Irish Independent

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