Sunday 17 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: Ignore league lessons at your peril

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‘Kevin McStay’s reaction to Gay Sheerin’s criticism was to effectively impose a ban on Shannonside. It’s the kind of move which would do little credit to any manager’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Kevin McStay’s reaction to Gay Sheerin’s criticism was to effectively impose a ban on Shannonside. It’s the kind of move which would do little credit to any manager’. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The league doesn't matter at all. It's one of the great automatic sayings of Irish life. Up there with 'sure there's no difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael when it comes down to it', 'If it wasn't for the kids I don't know would I bother with the Christmas', and 'Well, so much for the great summer we were promised.'

It is true that the football and hurling leagues don't matter anything like as much as the championships. But that doesn't mean they don't matter at all. In a system where around half of the counties will play a mere two or three championship matches, it can be very foolish to ignore the lessons of the seven league games they play beforehand.

The league campaign can point the way towards a bright future or presage a journey into the abyss. It can also warm the cockles of the hearts of a county's most loyal fans or, alternatively, chill the very marrow of their bones.

Take Roscommon. This time last year they were the feel-good story of the football league. They had gone to Kerry and won, to Cork and won, to Donegal and won and ran Dublin to a point. They did this by playing attractive attacking football which made them the top scorers in Division 1 and earned them a semi-final place. And even if they were well beaten by Kerry in that semi, they still had the consolation of producing one of the great unexpected league campaigns of recent years.

I wonder what would have happened had the Rossies managed to score just one extra point in the Connacht final they drew against Galway in Pearse Stadium in July. Imagine the boost of winning a first provincial title in seven years by beating Galway in their own backyard. But that point could not be found and there then commenced as precipitous a decline as any county has endured in a 12-month period: 2016's dark horses have become 2017's whipping boys.

Pointless from six games, already relegated and possessing the worst points difference in all four divisions, Roscommon cut a miserable shape right now, the difference in their fortunes horribly underlined by a 21-point trouncing at the hands of the Dublin team they ran so close this time last year.

What has changed? Well, the one obvious change is that 12 months ago Roscommon were being jointly managed by Fergal O'Donnell and Kevin McStay, whereas this year McStay is in charge on his own. That's because in September O'Donnell and selectors David Casey and Stephen Bohan stepped down, claiming a "concerted effort has been made (outside of management and players) to undermine and disparage us."

O'Donnell and Bohan (and presumably Casey too but I don't know him) aren't the kind of people who'd come out with something that wasn't true. But it was one of those statements which seemed to raise more questions than it answered. It left McStay in sole charge. A lot of people were excited by this, he's a big-name manager after all with considerable success at club level. The question of whether McStay would, as some felt, do much better on his own was about to be answered.

So far the McStay era has been an utter nightmare for Roscommon. And things haven't been helped by the manager losing the rag with local radio station Shannonside after former Roscommon star Gay Sheerin commented that he did not like to see Mayo men on the sideline for Roscommon and questioned whether, given the rivalry between the counties, McStay and former selector Liam McHale could have the same passion for Roscommon that a native manager would.

Now this argument may sound terribly unsophisticated to some people. But I'll guarantee you that Gay Sheerin isn't the only one making it in Roscommon. If Cork footballers appointed a Kerry manager who had a few iffy results, the same thing would probably be said down here. Sheerin has given a huge amount to Roscommon and is the kind of no-nonsense character who calls a spade a spade. Shane Curran and Sheerin's former team-mate Seamus Hayden thought he was bang out of order and said so, which is also fair enough.

However, Curran's claims that everything that was right last year was due to McStay while everything wrong was the fault of O'Donnell seems odd to me. If that was the truth surely the departure of O'Donnell would have led to improvement rather than cataclysm. I've a lot of time for Curran but loyalty to his former St Brigid's manager may be blinding him a bit here.

McStay's reaction to Sheerin's criticism was to effectively impose a ban on Shannonside. It's the kind of move which would do little credit to any manager. But when you're talking about someone who has been a TV pundit for many years, it's entirely ludicrous and leaves McStay open to charges of hypocrisy. After all, I'm sure many people were upset by his analysis on RTé over the years. Did they impose media bans? No, and he wouldn't have been happy if they did. From a pragmatic point of view, falling out with the local media when you're struggling is a classic example of continuing to dig when the hole seems plenty big enough already.

The one consolation Roscommon, and McStay, have is that the Connacht draw has placed them on the other side from Mayo, Galway and Sligo. All they have to do to make the final is beat Leitrim or London. And then they're just 70 minutes away from the spring's travails being not just forgiven, but treated as part of an intricate masterplan. Right now though they are in disarray and I suspect that when the smoke clears most of the principals in the current debate will wish they'd been a bit more temperate in their reactions.

If Roscommon are an example of how to get things horribly wrong in the league, Kildare and Louth represent the opposite end of the spectrum. The managerial achievements of Cian O'Neill and Colin Kelly will probably go unremarked by the end of the year but they're notable all the same. Two years ago Kildare were in Division 3 and Louth in Division 4. Now the Lilywhites have secured promotion to the top flight with one round to spare, while the Wee County have done the same one step down.

Kildare may be a long way away from challenging Dublin's dominance in Leinster, but they are the one county in the province who seem to be moving in the right direction to do so. They've won three of the last four Leinster minor titles and ran the Dubs close in the 2015 and 2016 provincial under 21 deciders. Promotion gives their promising young players the chance to test themselves on a regular basis against the best in the game. Because, as many a senior club which thought it would bounce straight back up from intermediate has found, if you play too long at a lower level you start thinking you belong there.

O'Neill's achievement is all the greater because Kildare have played very good football in seeing off the challenge of the likes of Cork and Meath, averaging almost 20 points a game and scoring more than anyone else in Division 2.

It had come to feel like Louth were still traumatised by the 2010 Leinster final robbery. But last year's promotion from Division 4 put them on the road to recovery and this year's campaign brings them a few steps further along the way.

It's pretty much impossible to imagine Louth being in that 2010 position any time soon. But there's no reason they can't be ready for a shot at the Super 8s next year. Despite all the talk about the new format enshrining an oligarchy, there simply aren't eight teams who are streets ahead of the rest.

The teams who started favourites ahead of Louth for Division 3 promotion, Armagh and Tipperary, have both made the quarter-finals in recent years. Clare made it last year. If the likes of Kildare and Louth do things right they can make it on to the big stage. So for that matter can Roscommon.

The league matters more than anything else because it can get counties into the winning habit. That's something not to be sneezed at. Because while the Croke Park hierarchy might prefer if the Super 8 was made up solely of traditionally strong teams, they can't guarantee it. Counties can still be masters of their own fates.

It's crucial for both Tipperary and Armagh to make it into Division 2, which is why their clash in the Athletic Grounds is nearly the match of the day. Galway's promising youngsters would benefit hugely from a season in Division 1, so their game against Kildare in Pearse Stadium is vital for the county. If they slip up, a win for Meath in Clare would bring the Royals back into the top flight for the first time in over a decade, a significant step forward in terms of future development for a sleeping giant.

You see, the league does too matter. On the other hand, there really is no difference between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael and this rain will probably last till September.

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