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League's spring tide lifts all boats

L ET us take a small leap back in time, to a Sunday morning in 1989, outside Carpenter's in Carlow town. The Carlow county footballers assemble for a match in Division 3 South of the National Football League against Limerick in Askeaton. Only, there's one problem: there aren't enough of them. Someone does a head count and can't get beyond 14. While this is unfolding a few of the Limerick players based in Dublin are starting the long drive west. They set off none the wiser. Carlow shrug their shoulders and go home.

Johnny Nevin's first league match arrived in February 1988, against Limerick at Askeaton, and he had reported for the same assignment the following season until they all reckoned, really, what was the point. In those days mobile phones weren't conveniently at hand to rescue the situation or save some face. Limerick's secretary received a call from his Carlow counterpart around noon but the Treaty players who were on their way to the venue couldn't be reached. When asked why Carlow didn't summon the bus driver to make 15, as others in similar distress have done, Nevin says he thinks he may have been under suspension.

A later internal investigation revealed that casual planning and poor communication had contributed to Carlow's dilemma but there was a large dose of ennui as well -- the league has never given them much cause to leap out of bed on a Sunday morning. There were rare spots of beauty. Wins over Kerry in the 1950s, a league semi-final place against All-Ireland champions Down in 1962, which they lost by two points, and an unbeaten run that ended in promotion from Division 4 and a quarter-final defeat to Armagh in 1985. But mostly it has inflicted a form of paralysis and ghostly anonymity; anchored near the bottom end, they seem to have become resigned to their station, institutionalised and catatonic.

The league means different things to different counties but much of the real cut and thrust takes place on the lower floors as teams strive to better themselves and the margins of victory and defeat are paper thin. In Division 4 where Carlow seem eternally homed, counties like Mick O'Dwyer's Wicklow, 2004 All-Ireland semi-finalists Fermanagh, and Roscommon, champions of Connacht, will be aspiring towards nothing grander than spending next season in Division 3. They will draw comfort from knowing that some teams have managed to end long sentences and alter the storyline: Tipperary and Wexford being two recent examples.

Tommy Murphy served as Carlow PRO for 20 years from the mid-1980s and across that expanse of time the league was mostly a flat and featureless journey. After winning promotion as Division 4 champions in 1985, the league was revamped and two Division 3 sections formed. Carlow became part of a new Division 3 South and finished their campaign two points off the eventual league winners Laois. But a year later they were near the foot of the table, only Kilkenny beneath them for comfort.

Murphy remembers being in Tuam for a league match when Galway were gearing up to win the 1998 All-Ireland and Brendan Hayden senior recalling how they played there in 1955 and scored 1-3 into the goal he was pointing to. They came away with a draw. Johnny Nevin remembers Donegal coming to Dr Cullen Park while All-Ireland champions, in one of those years when the format allowed the first and third worlds to collide. "You tried to win every game you played, a lot would say 'ah it's only the league' but I would say that it's a great pointer for the championship," says Nevin. "I don't think any team can afford to say it's only a league match and hope to switch the button on then for the championship."

The Donegal game was played on a warm day and they lost by around six points. Nevin marked Donal Reid. That was uncommonly glamourous company to a Carlow footballer reared on league matches against the same down-at-heel teams in remote venues. For all that, the league offered Carlow footballers some sense of residence and security of tenure, however modest. Over his lengthy career, as a dual player, Cork was the only county Nevin didn't face in a competitive match; the league took up most of his inter-county play-time, he accommodated its moods and mishaps.

"You are in Division 4 for a reason. I think it's alright for the big counties to be getting carried away with the championship but there will be 20 counties with no chance in the championship, so your emphasis has to be on the league to get up the divisions. The thing about championship is you might get one win, maybe a qualifier, but it is hard get any consistency. If you are good enough you will get out of your Division, there is no point in having Carlow playing Cork. You have to work your way up."

Carlow begin their 2011 campaign with a home match against rivals Wicklow next Sunday. "It's important to get a win there, so they can move on from that," states Nevin. "I think Roscommon is coming after that, and (Donie) Shine has a broken finger, so you'd be better off getting that one out of the way early. Sure Clare will be in there. Longford is in there, ain't they? Fermanagh."

Nevin's point of there being a direct correlation between spring and summer form is borne out at the business end too. Tyrone deliberately targeted league wins as a springboard to championship success, achieving the double in 2003. The same is true of Kerry in 2004, coming off the back of some traumatic championships endings, while last year Cork scored a league and championship double, as they did in 1999. All of Kerry's last four league titles have been complemented by championships.

It is 12 years since Dublin last reached knockout stages, losing to Cork in the final, and they have had an unremarkable league record outside of that since winning the competition in 1993. The league's profile and capacity to engross has clearly suffered from their absence and hopes are alive of a more sustained Dublin challenge this year. They have four of their matches at home, in Croke Park. And with no league win since 1993 and no All-Ireland since 1995, they are not overladen with bling -- what have they to lose?

To a youngish team like Dublin still in its formative years, a league offers valuable lessons in how to win a trophy. Last year's strong finish to the championship came after some feeble and nervous performances in the Leinster championship and the matches that immediately followed in the qualifiers. A Dublin league surge can do wonders for the football league's status and self-esteem. For too long they have not made any significant mark on the competition.

Paul Curran, part of the last Dublin team to win the league, is adamant that they need to lorry into the spring campaign, which begins next Saturday with a trip to Armagh. "I would always be of the view that the league is important, especially for teams like Dublin who haven't done anything for a long time in terms of league or championship. I think the confidence you get from winning a league serves you well. Tyrone proved that. I think he (Pat Gilroy) has done enough messing around. He has a team now that can compete at the top. I don't think performances are acceptable anymore. I think it's (about) results. Results are the bottom line.

"Last year was a funny year. Before, they had won five Leinster finals in a row and didn't do too well in the All-Ireland series. Last year they did not win Leinster and got to the semi-final and last year was regarded as some sort of success. I don't know. I think it's important to build on last year and go to win this league. From a players' point of view you will always have doubts, particularly if you haven't done anything. So winning a league is vital for this team, vital, because it will give them the confidence.

"I would like to see a Dublin manager come out after a league defeat and say how disappointed he was instead of this rubbish talk about performance and the result not being important. To come out and tell us that it's not good enough and that we will come out fighting the next day. If we have a similar campaign to the last several years I would not be optimistic, but if they gave it everything and if they won it or got to a final I would be very confident going into the championship."

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