Saturday 16 February 2019

It's 'only' the league but it will matter to several big hitters

Breaking ball

Galway’s performances on heavy pitches last winter stood to them greatly as the later on in the season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Galway’s performances on heavy pitches last winter stood to them greatly as the later on in the season. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In these pages last week Galway footballer Cillian McDaid recalled a difficult year as an AFL international recruit with Carlton Blues in Melbourne as he struggled with a longterm injury that triggered much frustration.

But even before a stress fracture in his left foot developed, McDaid was already feeling pangs of loneliness.

There was respite however. Early on Monday mornings - Sunday night back home in Galway - there would be the regular phone call from his father Garvan updating him on matters back home.

NUIG's run to the Sigerson Cup excited him but as February moved into March and Galway continued winning games, there was significant pick up on both ends of the line.

"By the end of the league, I couldn't believe it," he recalled. "Every (Monday) morning was a call to say that they had won again! It was funny by the end of it, he was probably getting excited ringing me as well. It would brighten up the day a bit."

In a very different way, the impact of a successful league campaign was being felt thousands of miles away.

Galway's six wins and a draw propelled them to a Division One league final which they lost to Dublin but set them up for a Connacht Championship resurgence and eventually an All-Ireland semi-final where the county hadn't been for 17 years.

Faster

What they did through January, February and March really stood to them when the pitches got harder and the football faster.

Over the next 10 weeks the GAA will face its busiest stretch of the season with 116 football league and 99 hurling league games. For some it will also be the most important stretch of the season, especially those in the lower leagues who know that provincial success and even a whiff of an All-Ireland quarter-final place is beyond them.

So climbing up the ranks in a merit-based league system grows in importance for the esteem it can bring.

Two years ago Cavan and Roscommon crashed out of the top flight, just one and two years respectively after reaching it but with others unable to bridge the gap between the top two divisions they have exploited that to return once more.

It goes without saying that the need to remain there this time, for their longer-term development, will be on a par with any championship progress achieved.

Cavan need only look across their border to Monaghan to see their rivals' upward graph under Malachy O'Rourke. from Division Three to Division One in two years, they have held their position for a fifth year and are now behind just Mayo, Kerry and Dublin in residential longevity.

It's reflected in most summer performances.

Clare under Colm Collins have profited from a similar trajectory. From Division Four in 2014 to third place in the 2018 Division Two, the benefits of strong league campaigns are obvious.

Has there been a more important Division Four league campaign for Leitrim since the merit-based four divisions were reconfigured in time for the 2008 competition? In that time, only themselves and London have not played above the basement division.

The expectation is that Derry will correct the natural order of things and escape as quickly as they came down but after Carlow's promotion in 2018 Leitrim will surely feel the time is right to join them.

With four home games against Wexford, Antrim, London and Waterford, they have every right to be that ambitious under new manager Terry Hyland and, should they achieve it, they'll count 2019 as a really progressive year, irrespective of what the championship brings.

Seasons can grind to a halt on the back of one or two adverse league results. Two years ago Seamus McEnaney went to Wexford and the bounce resulted in five straight league wins guaranteeing promotion.

But such an early calling to Division Three left them soft and they lost their last two games heavily to Westmeath and Carlow before losing the league final to Westmeath and subsequent championship games to Carlow and Monaghan.

Westmeath watched their graph spiral rapidly downwards when they lost their sixth round match to Longford last year, pushing promotion beyond them.

The greatest testimony to the value of the league and indeed their status as a team is Dublin's five from six titles under Jim Gavin. In terms of defeats, there have been just six in regulation games (one in six finals to Kerry in 2017) and four draws. From a possible 84 points, they have dropped just 16 in six years.

The hurling league may be a little less intense because of the absence of relegation from Division 1A to 1B with Wexford's Davy Fitzgerald among the managers admitting that he'll be more flexible with his use of his panel in their five regulation games.

But every manager will be mindful of how badly blown off course Tipperary have been off two league final defeats in the last two years.

For a truer indication of progress, the next 10 weeks provides an acid test.

Irish Independent

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