F acing into next weekend every man and every county are equal for at least a day. Everyone is unbeaten and hopes are high, however unrealistic that may be. Before February has run its course, however, quite a few counties will have figured out that not much has changed. Same beatings, different year.
Yet the league offers some promise of progress. At the very least there should be the real prospect of winning the odd game. The championship is rather different. The same few who have dominated for a decade still hold pole position; the rest make up the numbers.
Preparation for this league has been dominated more by complaints from managers on the closed season and the problems of getting their team together as some of their players are tied up with third-level colleges. The issues may be complex but the solutions are easy to identify and at least now there appears to be growing consensus that something radical needs to be done with the glut of fixtures in the early part of the year. A new fixture plan could be worked out on the back of a cigarette box.
It is not unusual to use a cigarette box for important football matters. About 20 years ago, I was a selector on a Leinster Railway Cup team along with Kevin Heffernan. We met in a hotel bar one night to pick the team. I did not smoke and he did not drink so it was straight to business. In the absence of any official paper, or indeed any paper at all, Heffo took out his cigarettes, smoked the last one, then folded out the box and wrote his team on it. Anyway the point is that somebody like Kevin Heffernan and a few more people with a bit of cop on, which is given by God and not as a third-level degree, could sort out the fixtures in general without recourse to some computer software.
Once again the national publicity or local advertising is lacking. A few are making an effort. Dublin are the guinea pigs but are brand leaders in trying to get the crowd to appear in winter and spring as well as summer. Their move back to Croke Park is a statement of intent and the crows and pigeons who have had squatters' rights for several months will have a bit of company. The Dublin initiative in putting hurling and football on together and giving great family deals deserves support. Many other counties expect that it will be as always: put on the games and they will come. Some day they won't.
A bit of promotion does not even have to cost anything. This is where a full-time official should be earning his corn, coming up with gimmicks to get people through the gate. Like flooding all the primary schools with free tickets for games. It would cost nothing as they would be getting in free anyway if they turned up but everyone knows that a child with a ticket for something will want to use it, especially if their friends are going. Someone has to bring them so it is another paying customer. Even give a discount to parents with children. Everything is worth trying to build a bit of atmosphere and get people out.
Of course it would also help if there was more flexibility in fixtures. There should be games midweek and Friday nights where counties are close to each other in travel times. There is too much competition on Sundays -- soccer, rugby, racing, walking the dog, washing the car, shopping, family, PlayStation, shooting the breeze. Take your pick .
At least there is an effort to reduce costs to people, even if cutting entrance fees from €15 to €13 might be more trouble than it is worth. There will have to be a lorry load of €2 coins parked at the turnstiles of every ground. Pity the poor county board officials with sacks full of coins going around supplying the turnstiles. Some could soon resemble the hunchback of Notre Dame.
Anyway, some counties with pretensions of September glory need to be on the move in this spring campaign. I have always felt that the only place to be is in the top division for those who don't just dream of winning Sam. Of course Cork came from Division Two last year but it was with a winning run. A county needs to be playing Kerry, Cork, Dublin and the like to be properly honed for the big tests which really now are the All-Ireland quarter-finals. With that in mind, Meath need to get promotion. No matter what people think of the second division, the statistics don't lie. The All-Ireland winners almost always come from the top group.
There are teams on various missions. Although Down got to the All-Ireland final and nearly won it on scraps of possession, they made a lot of progress
through the league, won promotion and are now up with the big guns. They are still a bit short but if they made the same progress this year as last, they would be a very serious outfit by late summer. Tyrone have gone the other way and life in Division Two is a new experience. All the old hands seem to be on deck for this campaign and they need it to be a successful one to ensure that the case for a major change of personnel does not become overwhelming. Tyrone will be the benchmark for all others.
And there will be nothing easy in Division Three, which has a very balanced look to it. I would not like to be betting on either promotion or relegation. Roscommon need to get out of the bottom tier if they want to build on last year. Provincial champions, or those who think they can win their province, should be operating in the top two groups. And it will be interesting to see how Clare do after making use of the granny rule to get a few new players. More power to them too -- others should be doing the same.
So with all counties under starter's orders, for players and supporters it's a chance to look forward. A bit of diversion from recession, unemployment, banks, politics, bad weather and everything else that has grated on the nerves over the last few months. Let the games begin and the humour will improve.
Sunday Indo Sport