Ciarán Whelan: The big guns will be nowhere near their peak and teams like Kildare must capitalise
Read Ciarán Whelan every week in The Herald
TWENTY years ago the National Football League was merely a competition played in the off season where every game was played in winter conditions with three games scheduled before the Christmas period. The result was largely irrelevant and the opportunity to have a night out after the games during those months was very welcomed!
With the sponsorship of Allianz, the leagues grew in stature throughout the noughties.
With the full schedule moved to the one calendar year, it provided teams with the perfect preparation for that summer’s championship football.
The benchmark of form began to carry through to the summer, and the top teams treated the competition with respect. They wanted to win it.
History shows that Dublin, Tyrone and Kerry have previously used the platform of the league to deliver All-Ireland success.
The GAA president, Aogán Ó Fearghaíl (inset), was quoted this week saying that “The Allianz league goes from strength to strength”.
Well sorry, Aogán but let’s face reality; the importance of the national league is in reverse mode.
Do not get me wrong I am not in the doom and gloom camp that appears to have permeated a lot of commentary on Gaelic games at present.
I have consistently said that the changes to the GAA season this year must be the first steps of a broader process to reenergise our inter-county game, introduce a constructive second tier, and also to enhance the club players’ structure and season.
The GAA are a long way from solving all the problems at this present time but for now I will give them the benefit of the doubt that the processes may have commenced. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the immediate changes to the season will impact heavily on the importance of the national league.
The leagues this year will now finish on the first weekend in April and club players are expected to return to their clubs for that month.
The expectation that a free month in the middle of the inter-county season can solve some of the club problems is wide of the mark. However, that debate is for another day. It is a token gesture to clubs but it is putting a square peg in a round hole.
So what can we expect this spring when the football league comes to a conclusion?
When the managers of the top teams sat down to plan their schedule for this month and onwards, rest assured winning a league final title was most likely not top of their agenda.
This coming league for supporters and some of the top counties will be like a ‘no strings attached’ night out for a young college student. They will enjoy the night and sure if they get a result, great, and if not there will always be another night.
The big guns will be nowhere near peak condition throughout this campaign.
Their primary focus is July and August and their preparations will only really begin in earnest when they return to action in May.
Kerry have to rebuild and blood some young talent so they can expect to hit a few road blocks in that process.
Dublin have enjoyed their down-time following their All-Ireland success and it may take them a few weeks to shake off the cobwebs. Tyrone will be Tyrone, competitive as always. Many will watch with intrigue to see if Mickey Harte has abandoned his defensive structures and look for signs of a new system which will take time to develop.
Mayo face a bigger challenge than most of the ‘elite’ sides in that they need to be in peak condition for a must-win game against Galway in June.
However, they are riddled with injuries and also have limited time to prepare midweek with so many players working Dublin.
We can hardly expect their level of preparation be at the required level in the weeks ahead.
Other counties looking to progress through the divisions or towards the Super 8s will need to peak in March and again in June or July.
The league will carry importance for the large majority of second tier and weaker counties where it will be their only chance of silverware this year.
Digging out victories against the top teams will instil confidence and the consistency of winning games can become a habit.
For me Kildare are one of those teams that need to step up to the plate.
With a few months’ work already under their belts they have the Dubs at the perfect time in this campaign to kick-start their 2018 season.
Last year’s nine-point defeat to Dublin in the Leinster final was sold as a moral victory of sorts and it was followed by a loss to a poor Armagh team.
Cian O’Neill is in year three of his project and the time for excuses is running out.
Kildare’s underage development structures have been one of the best in the country over the last decade.
With three Leinster minor titles in the last five years (2013, 2015, 2016), they have matched or outshone Dubs across at that level but Dublin have held the upperhand at U21.
All the core materials are there for the Lilywhites indicating that they should be progressing towards the top table.
The hoodoo of the Croke Park arena has hung over this Kildare team for the last three years where their performances in headquarters have been poor.
Tomorrow night when they face Dublin in Croker offers Cian O’Neill’s men their first chance at some redemption.
Moral victories should no longer be on their agenda.