Saturday 10 December 2016

Martin Breheny: Time to KO League knockouts

There's far more interest in the final day of divisional games than in semi-finals and finals

Published 15/04/2015 | 02:30

Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey evades Kieran Hughes at Croke Park on Sunday in a game worth ‘several training sessions’ to Monaghan
Dublin’s Jack McCaffrey evades Kieran Hughes at Croke Park on Sunday in a game worth ‘several training sessions’ to Monaghan
Tyrone's Mickey Harte
Ciaran Clarke of Antrim tackles Kerry's Sean Weir at Parnell Park last Saturday

Consider the following from the assorted musings of some of the participants after last Sunday's Allianz Football League semi-finals.

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Rory Gallagher (Donegal manager): "We weren't geared to peak for a game today."

Malachy O'Rourke (Monaghan manager): "When we planned the trip (to Portugal) we weren't necessarily thinking that we would be in a league semi-final so it was a case of balancing that with wanting to get a lot of work done because we were preparing for the championship.

"We had to keep an eye on this week as well, because if we were jaded it wasn't going to help us. We used today as part of that week's training - today was as good as several training sessions."

Jim Gavin (Dublin manager): "We've gone from game to game and genuinely that's the way we approached it (league). It's not our long-term ambition this year."

So there you have it. Donegal minds were elsewhere; Monaghan compared the semi-final of a national competition to "several training sessions" and Dublin regarded it as pan-warming for big fish-frying later on.

Irrelevancy

Cork manager Brian Cuthbert was more upbeat, without exactly giving the impression that a fourth league title in six years would lead to fireworks displays on the Lee.

If Cork win, it will be quick smiles only, in case Kerry snigger from behind the Sam Maguire Cup at their neighbours celebrating a league title.

There was a time when portraying the latter stages of the NFL as an irrelevancy was the height of managerial fashion but things changed early in the new Millennium with the amended schedule, which slots the competition into February-April, rather than playing some rounds pre-Christmas.

League-championship doubles became quite common under the new system (Tyrone 2003; Kerry 2004-'06-'09) Cork (2010); Dublin (2013), which proved that spring form could be carried forward.

Why that should be a surprise is a mystery to us mere mortals who believe that good players excel at any time of year. Of course, in an era of science and psychology, such a view is scorned as the simplistic ramblings of the pathetically uninformed. No, it's all about timing and rhythms apparently.

To which there is only one answer: Kilkenny. They reached 10 of the last 13 hurling league finals, winning eight, and it didn't appear to disrupt their summer plans.

But then, you never hear Brian Cody saying a particular game or competition is not a priority. Hell, Kilkenny would trample on opposition to win the first round of the Walsh Cup!

The latest example of Kilkenny's philosophy that the next test is always the most important came in their final 1A group game against Clare last month. They were already faced with a relegation play-off, irrespective of the result, yet they hurled as intensely as if a win was crucial to their season.

And guess what? They won.

Have no doubt that Cody and Co are very disappointed not to be in the semi-finals next Sunday. And if they were there, you certainly wouldn't hear talk about not being geared for the game. If the approach to the knockout stages of the football league is to return to the days when they were depicted as a nuisance, what's the point in having them at all?

Of course, there's a solid argument against them on other grounds too. Since the identity of the Division 1 semi-finalists and Division 2/3/4 finalists usually isn't known until early April, ten counties may have to change their club arrangements at short notice, which is a sore point at any time of year.

Would it not make more sense to play the league in its most basic form, with the top team in each Division declared the winners in that group?

Indeed, with a minor adjustment, it would be possible to give every county nine games, the number currently played by the Division 1 finalists.

It could be all be completed by the second weekend in April, rather than extending it to the last weekend, when the four finals are played.

Here's how it would work. Put 10 counties into Divisions 1 and 2. Have 12 counties in Division 3, broken into two groups of six, played off on a home and away format (10 games for each county). Division 1 and 2 counties would have nine games each.

Start the leagues on the fourth weekend in January and play them through to the second weekend in April. That would require nine games in 12 weekends for Division 1 and 2 teams and ten for Division 3 counties.

Promotion/relegation would apply in the normal way in Divisions 1 and 2, while the winners of the two groups in Division 3 would be promoted.

The extra divisional games would more than compensate for the financial loss, arising from the scrapping of the semi-finals/finals, while bringing much greater clarity for counties and clubs.

As things stand, the league semi-finals and finals appear to be extras that the counties don't want. And if that's their attitude, why should the public be interested?

As things stand, there's more interest on the final day of the group games than in the semi-finals/finals.

Here's how the groups would look next year under the new system (starts January 24, ends April 10).

Division 1 (10): Cork, Dublin, Monaghan, Donegal, Mayo, Kerry, Tyrone, Derry, Down, Roscommon.

Division 2 (10): Meath, Galway, Cavan, Laois, Westmeath, Kildare, Fermanagh, Armagh, Tipperary, Sligo.

Division 3 (12 - divided into two groups): Clare, Limerick, Louth, Wexford, Longford, Offaly, Antrim, Leitrim, Carlow, Waterford, Wicklow, London.

Quitters apart, Tyrone are not a beaten docket

When last were Tyrone seventh favourites (9/1) to win the Ulster SFC?

Only Fermanagh and Antrim are behind them in a frustrating season where they dropped out of Division 1 after winning only one (v Mayo) of seven games.

However, Tyrone's figures are misleading as they were one of five teams in the group that lost three games, while Derry lost five.

Mickey Harte's men drew against Derry, Dublin, Kerry and lost to Cork by only a point so the only really bad days were against Monaghan and Donegal.

Those two defeats explain why they are unloved in the Ulster market as they play Donegal in the first round. They will head for Ballybofey without some panellists who have opted out, frustrated by not getting enough action.

If that's their reaction, then they are no loss. A player who quits for self-regarding reasons could hardly be trusted to deliver under the sort of intense pressure that lies ahead for Harte (left) and Tyrone.

A word of caution: Tyrone are not the beaten docket some would have you believe.

Ulster hurling fields in urgent need of strong fertilisers

Credit to Kerry hurlers for winning promotion from Division 2A, especially since they had to spring the double safety catch designed to protect the bottom team in 1B.

After topping 2A in successive years, Kerry have every right to be in 1B, but the fact that they sentenced Antrim to relegation should flash out warning signs to the extended GAA family.

The decline of Ulster's top three - Antrim, Down and Derry - is worrying. We all remember the days when Antrim used to come to Croke Park in August genuinely believing they had a chance of upsetting some big shots.

And while it rarely happened, the proud Glensmen were always feisty and competitive.

And who can forget that Down beat Kilkenny in Nowlan Park in March 1993, a defeat which relegated the then All-Ireland champions to Division 2?

All has changed and now the northern fields urgently need fertiliser, a reality for consideration by the central authorities.

A barren Ulster landscape is bad news for hurling on so many levels.

Irish Independent

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