The League does matter
Narrowing gap between divisions makes early-season form all the more significant
SO then, after 139 days in hibernation -- surely the longest closed season in world sport -- the GAA's official inter-county schedule takes off next weekend.
And despite the self-serving excuses which will be offered by counties who do poorly in the Allianz National Leagues that it's really only a warm-up for the championships, the reality is different.
Of course, the leagues aren't as important as the championships; nor is spring form a consistently reliable guide to the summer.
But it shouldn't be ignored either.
The view that league performances -- whether good or bad -- deliver few accurate pointers for the championships doesn't hold up. But then, it's usually peddled by managers who, if their sides do well in spring, are worried about sounding too confident. Alternatively, there's comfort for counties who do poorly in pointing out that "it's only the league."
GAA supporters have been conditioned to believe that league form is utterly unreliable, unlike its championship counterpart, which is supposed to be the defining expression of a team's talents and preparation.
If that's the case, how come the championship very often produces more unexpected results than the league?
Imagine the reaction if Louth had hit Kildare for 1-22 in the league, if Monaghan beat Armagh by 12 points or if Dublin had conceded five goals against Meath.
None of those clashes occurred in last year's league because the counties were in different divisions, but the point remains the same -- all the more so since two of the winners were a division below their victims.
History shows that championship results can often be more unpredictable than league returns, but they're still regarded as the definitive yardstick by which teams are assessed.
Take Dublin. Their league form last year, followed by their return to stability via the All-Ireland qualifiers, had a whole lot more in common with each other than with the Leinster performances against Wexford and Meath.
Yet, if the old championship system had applied, Dublin's defeat by Meath would have ended their year and the end-of-season analysis would have centred on how misleading the league had been.
Take Kildare. Their mixed league form took a further dip against Louth in the championship before they relaunched themselves.
Meanwhile, the word from Derry, who were relegated from Division 1, was that after reaching the previous two league finals (winning one), a different approach had been taken.
Never mind the indifferent league form, we have bigger plans in mind. Really? So that explains why they lost to Armagh in the Ulster SFC before being mauled by Kildare in the qualifiers.
So despite the safety net statements, what happens over the next few months will be important.
After all, Cork (2010), Kerry ('09, '06, '04) and Tyrone ('03) all won league and All-Ireland football doubles, while the Kilkenny hurlers recorded five doubles in the last decade.
Given the unusual texture of last year's football championships where three (Down, Kildare, Meath) of the eight quarter-finalists started the season in Division 2, while Roscommon were relegated to Division 4 before winning the Connacht title, there really is a whole lot to look forward in the forthcoming league.
Standards have evened to such a degree that the dividing lines between the divisions are extremely narrow.
Indeed, in some cases , they hardly exist at all. Derry and Tyrone were relegated from Division 1 last year on the same number of points as Monaghan and just two less than Galway and Kerry.
Galway later lost in the championship to Sligo and Wexford, both of whom were in Division 3.
Mayo, who reached the Division 1 final, lost in the championship to Sligo and Longford, who finished third bottom in Division 4.
Longford later ran Down to four points while Offaly did even better, finishing just two points adrift of the All-Ireland finalists.
Antrim took Kildare to extra-time and a replay in the qualifiers after drawing the shortest of straws in the Ulster championship when paired with Tyrone.
And then there was Louth, fifth in Division 3 before beating Longford, Kildare, Westmeath and Meath (even if they didn't get the verdict!) in the Leinster championship.
Limerick plotted their way out of Division 4 with a progressive campaign but might still be expected to be some way off Kerry and Cork.
Not so. Kerry were flattered by their three-point win in the Munster final, and Limerick took Cork to extra-time in the qualifiers
It has been a long time since standards were so even in football. Of course, just how high those standards are is an altogether different matter.
There's evidence to suggest they're lower than say, 10 years ago, but the upside is that the climate for perceived upsets and, by extension, excitement has never been better.
That applies to league and championship and is good for both. May it continue right through 2011.