Friday 23 February 2018

Fine league days have rarely ensured a long, hot summer

It may be a national title, but winning the league has often been a poisoned chalice, writes Dermot Crowe

I N 2001, Mayo won the football league, toasting a first national title in 31 years. The feat followed Crossmolina's All-Ireland by a couple of weeks and the juxtaposition of those events hinted at a possible heave against Mayo's losing tradition in Croke Park. Beating Galway embellished the league win but its importance to Mayo went beyond parochialism.

Afterwards, David Brady hailed the victory as better than winning Connacht. Provincial success had already been achieved, many times over; that world was conquered. A national title retained an elusive appeal and the league fitted the description even if there wasn't a clear correlation to the championship, which remained king.

How much the league matters depends to a great degree on the wider context -- it will never be an end in itself and there's the rub. The summer before Mayo lost to Sligo in the championship. A league win was welcomed with open and needy arms. Brady had suffered seven losing All-Ireland finals by that stage in the Mayo jersey and he could hardly turn up his nose.

"I just can't wait to wake up in the morning and know that I've a National League title in my pocket," he beamed. "I wasn't going to be a loser all my life . . ."

But the league, as Mayo would find out all too soon, has often proven to be fool's gold. Towards the end of that year, Brady and Ray Connelly picked up All-Star nominations based primarily on their league performances. Brady knows they were never going to win an All-Star on those grounds. Galway won the All-Ireland. Mayo lost the Connacht final in heartbreaking circumstances to Roscommon and were eliminated from the qualifiers by Westmeath.

Both Brady and Connelly suffered further mishaps once the league had been won. Brady broke an arm three weeks after they beat Galway and only came on late in the Connacht final, while Connelly was sent off in the same game in controversial circumstances. It would be unfair to accuse the league of black magic, but sometimes you'd wonder.

Brady found that the league win didn't open the door to a championship win or remove the hex placed on Mayo teams when they arrive in Croke Park for major finals. Yet he isn't prepared to revise his opinion now. "Really you are the best team in the country for the first six months," he says. "I know the big prize is (contested in) the months after that but for me when it was a national title and it meant you were one of the best teams in the country. I could have ended my career saying I never won a national title. Maybe a Kerry man might say, 'I have four league medals and they mean nothing to me', but it definitely meant a lot to me."

He feels strongly that if they had hung on and beaten Roscommon that year they would have been a serious proposition for any team in Croke Park. It wasn't to be. They went down as another league victim, unable to raise their performances for the championship. Today Mayo and Cork can make reasonable arguments in favour of winning the league but it is invariably index-linked to the championship. Mayo return to Croke Park after a feeble surrender to Meath last year with a team that is developing a new identity, stripped of many of the more recognisable names of recent times. And Cork also have their demons. Their last league title was in 1999. That won't bother them as much as the galling defeats they've had in the championship at Croke Park in the meantime.

The public seems unmoved. In Mayo, the interest in tickets has been lukewarm and estimates put the travelling crowd at somewhere in the region of 5,000, poor by the county's standards. The game is being televised and while Mayo have had a good league, there is more interest in what happens in Markievicz Park where they go in the championship to face Sligo. Heading into that match as league champions would create more concern than confidence in some Mayo followers.

Neither do they want a bad beating. The ideal outcome for Mayo may be an honourable defeat but what manager can plan for that? "It's a habit, winning, and it's confidence," says Brady. "Any year I have watched Kerry and they have won a National League title it is time to watch out."

True enough, Kerry claimed three out of the four doubles won in the last decade, Tyrone taking the other. Only one other decade, the 1960s, featured four double winners. But while Kerry winning the league might be a portent of an All-Ireland to follow, there is every reason to fear for some counties that a league win may presage a summer of horrible anti-climax. If it is time to watch out whenever Kerry win the league, as Brady says, it is also time to watch out when Mayo and others win it -- but for different reasons.

False league promises are commonplace. In 1986, Laois won the league and celebrated giddily before being traumatised by Wicklow in Aughrim in the championship -- perhaps the most alarming lesson of all. Less remembered is Dublin's win a year later over Kerry in one of the great league finals at Croke Park. Dublin were outstanding but Meath left them behind in the championship. Longford won in 1966, beating the all-powerful Galway team in the final. In that year's championship, they lost in the first round to Louth, a shock result, while Galway recovered to nail Sam Maguire.

Given Cork's notorious attendance record, the likelihood is that today will be another day of hollow acoustics. Last year's finals attracted only 20,545, although the GAA declared itself satisfied on the basis that it was double the previous year's final attendance at Parnell Park. In 2007, Mayo and Donegal lured almost 30,000 but it is likely today will see closer to 20,000. In an effort to boost the attendance, last year's stand tickets were reduced by €5 for the finals. Increased marketing hasn't had a major impact. The public isn't easily fooled.

The league can conceal the good and the bad. Brady was recalled by John O'Mahony in 2007 and was part of the league final with Donegal, which Mayo lost. He says the team was mentally tired after a long championship the previous year but O'Mahony's arrival had meant the league was treated seriously. They weren't devastated to lose and the championship brought a sound beating by Galway. Despite the lift, Donegal did not have a good summer. They went out of the Ulster championship to Tyrone, beaten by eight points, and exited the qualifiers by the same margin against Monaghan, having scraped past Leitrim and defeated Westmeath.

Neither did Derry catch fire after they won the league in 2008. They were beaten by Fermanagh in the Ulster semi-final, overcame Roscommon in the qualifiers, before losing to Monaghan. Tyrone, who had a poor league, three wins, three defeats and a draw, won the All-Ireland.

Brady says that today's match is a chance for Mayo to grow as a team and find the leaders that were missing against Meath last year. Cork, he adds, haven't trained for a league final. It is hardly the most important match either county will play this year. The intensity won't match the fierce pitch of a championship match, maybe 80-90 per cent he reckons. And the atmosphere will be ghostly with all those empty spaces.

Whoever wins will maintain the league tradition of not appearing too overcome. In 2002, Tyrone demolished Cavan in the final at Clones and picked up their first national title. There wasn't much hysteria to be found around the winning dressing room. Tyrone had bigger fish to fry. When asked if his players would be indulging themselves that night, Eugene McKenna, joint manager, responded: "I don't think you'll find too many of our fellas celebrating. They're fairly abstemious."

Mattie Kerrigan, manager of Cavan, mischievously reminded those in his presence that Galway were beaten league finalists the year before and had later won the All-Ireland. It didn't happen quite that way for Cavan. That summer, Tyrone's circumspection proved well founded. They fell in an Ulster quarter-final replay to Armagh. Later they beat Wexford, Leitrim and Derry to reach the final round of the qualifiers and lost to Sligo. The league wasn't worth a whole lot of comfort that evening.

As for today, the modest hope is for an earnest and entertaining day's football. For soon it may seem as if it never existed, that it was all make-believe.

Mayo v Cork,

TG4, 4.0

Sunday Independent

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