Old order tightening grip at top but new proposals could shake up basement
It is almost 30 years since Laois footballers emerged from the foothills of Division 3 to win the National League, a feat of upward mobility unheard of since the restructuring of the competition in the early 1970s. It was hailed as a breath of fresh air at a time when the game was stubbornly set in its ways.
Of the previous 11 All-Irelands, Kerry and Dublin had annexed all but one.
Laois defeated Down, who topped Division 1, in the League quarter-finals and Dublin in the semi-finals. If Monaghan weren't a traditional heavyweight they were still favourites to win the final, as reigning Ulster champions and League holders. But this was a day of protest and deviation from the script. Inspired by Liam Irwin, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who was part of the first team to win the League 60 years earlier, Laois prevailed by a point before a crowd of just under 30,000.
Nothing on that scale of upset has been seen since and even that moment when the cast-iron certainties of tradition were undermined did not last long. The liberation was transitory and, some might argue, illusory. Laois went to Aughrim and lost to Wicklow in the Leinster Championship. Kerry won the All-Ireland. Normal business was quickly restored.
The time since has seen significant challenges to the old money world of Kerry and Dublin, with a renaissance in Ulster and a strong revival in Connacht, offset by an alarming drop in the standard in much of Leinster. But the League hasn't been able to produce another Laois. The win for Mayo in 2001 was celebrated in a county craving success. Yet it remained short of their ultimate ambition and came with the caveat of a reduced field due to severe foot-and-mouth travel restrictions.
Donegal's win in 2007 was a shot of relief in a county scarred by underachievement but the championship brought no immediate relief. Dublin are favourites to retain their League title this year, and make it four-in-a-row, following three on the bounce from Cork immediately before. For a layer of novelty some focus will be on Roscommon's return to Division 1, though they are a 20/1 long shot to win the competition. What Kildare make of Division 3, under Cian O'Neill, will also attract attention.
This year's campaign will be launched with the meeting of Dublin and Kerry in Croke Park on Saturday evening next, the All-Ireland finalists of last September. They are not as dominant as when Laois won the League title but they've still directly contested two of the last five All-Ireland finals and between them have won four of the last five.
Their early League meetings are always interesting, although the latest instalment will carry the usual depletions, with Kerry dealing with injuries and club-tied players. Four years ago a crowd of over 45,000 turned out to see the teams meet five months after Dublin enjoyed that famous All-Ireland win, a first in 16 years, after Kevin McManamon's goal bomb. Kerry offered invaluable exposure to Peter Crowley and Shane Enright, now established members of the team's defence, and went into the match without Colm Cooper. The late Patrick Curtin set up a Darran O'Sullivan goal for a six-point win, welcome in Kerry who had lost their previous three meetings with Dublin.
They will arrive in Croke Park on Saturday next equally determined to reverse a recent trail of defeats against their rivals, including three consecutively in the championship. Last year Kerry finished the League with seven points from seven games, leaving them just above the relegation zone. That included a loss to Dublin in the third round in Killarney. A year before Kerry survived in the top division with three wins and four defeats. They lost their opening-round match against Dublin in Croke Park by a point, a recurring theme seeing them lead and then get caught by a strong Dublin finish, even though the hosts were down to 14 men ten minutes into the second half.
Kerry have had a difficult winter surveying the wreckage of their All-Ireland final defeat but there has been no clear-out, with Paul Galvin the only notable player to retire. All the veterans have stayed on board. Taking the scalp of Dublin on Saturday will be worth more to Kerry than two points because they are now playing second fiddle in this long-standing rivalry.
The possibility that the League may decide what counties are denied entry to the qualifiers creates an added tension in Division 4, where Wexford are a notable presence and will be keen to make an immediate escape. Four of the counties in the bottom tier are now from Leinster, like last year, with Offaly and Longford gaining promotion in 2015. And with Dublin the only Leinster county in the top tier it offers strong testimony that the League doesn't lie about where the power currently resides.
Sunday Indo Sport