Tuesday 16 January 2018

Martin Breheny: League is a much fairer competition than Championship and provides a truer reflection of where teams stand

Stephen Cluxton lifts the Allianz NFL Division 1 trophy in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen Cluxton lifts the Allianz NFL Division 1 trophy in 2016. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Here is a tale of two competitions, complete with an unmissable irony in how they are perceived.

One is regarded as the main event, taking its special atmosphere to a town near you between May and September, while the other is seen as a workmanlike springtime pursuit, enjoyable at the time but never able to compete with the summer carnival.

Quite simply, the All-Ireland Championship is the star attraction, the Allianz League the warm-up act.

Yet - and here's the supreme irony - the football League is an infinitely fairer, better constructed competition, where status is decided purely on merit. Four divisions of eight counties, each playing seven games between February and early April, presents a 1-32 rating based on performances against opposition of similar standard.

Counties who do well move up through the divisions, while those who don't drop down. There are no arguments about teams playing a different number of games or hard luck stories about tough draws.

The League keeps everyone honest, whereas the Championship has no structural integrity whatsoever - the winners in provinces with different numbers of counties reach the last eight, with the runners-up in the last 12, which is inherently imbalanced. Nor does the Championship take fluctuating standards across provinces into account.

Gearoid McKiernan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile
Gearoid McKiernan. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Meanwhile, the League ignores provincial boundaries, instead forming its groupings off how counties did in the competition in the previous year.

John O'Leary made a case in this newspaper on Wednesday for the Championship structure to be based on League placings, rather than on a geographical carve-up, featuring provinces whose dividing lines make no sense whatsoever.

The former Dublin All-Ireland winning captain argued that it not only makes for a fairer Championship but also enhances the League since the better a county did, the higher seeding it would earn.

Logic

Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile
Graham Reilly. Photo: Sportsfile

There's an inherent logic in that but, of course, O'Leary's plan, or any derivative, has little chance of being accepted - for the foreseeable future at least - since any proposal that includes downgrading the provincial Championships tends to get a frosty reception.

That's down to the power of the deeply ingrained provincial system, where tradition and local politics score ahead of the need to eradicate inequality.

"Why not give a different system a chance? Ulster is the only province where you have a really competitive Championship with a number of title contenders. I would love to see the GAA experiment with a Championship system that wasn't based on the provincials. There are a number of ways it could be done," said O'Leary.

In terms of fairness, the League is in a different orbit to the Championship. Dublin won the last four Division 1 titles by coming ahead of seven other top teams each year, whereas they won three of the last four All-Ireland titles by beating a combination of teams from the various divisions.

Their League consistency reinforces their right to the No 1 spot. In fact, it could be argued that their League successes were more authentic than the Championship, where they reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals mostly at half-pace.

Kerry and Cork, barring last year when the Rebels lost to Tipperary, enjoy a Munster carve-up, while Mayo, Galway and, to a lesser degree, Roscommon dominate out west.

In fairness to Mayo, their Championship consistency, albeit without ending the All-Ireland drought, has been matched in the League, where they are the only county to remain in Division 1 throughout the new Millennium.

If Championship rankings are to be taken as a definitive guide, Galway were a top eight side in two of the last three years, having reached the 2014 (as qualifiers) and 2016 (as Connacht champions) All-Ireland quarter-finals.

However, they haven't been a top-eight League side since 2011. They come in at 11th in average League placings over the past five years, a rating that appears just about right, thus making the secondary competition a more reliable guide - for Galway at least - than the Championship.

In truth, it's pretty accurate for most counties, when taken over a period of years (see five-year table).

Obviously, there are occasional surprises in any given year, with Cork being relegated last April as an example. They come in second behind Dublin on the five-year table, underlining how consistent they had been prior to last year, when they were unlucky to drop into Division 2.

League results over the past five years show some interesting patterns. Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Mayo have been the most consistent, followed by five Ulster counties - Donegal, Tyrone, Down, Derry and Monaghan.

Armagh are as low as 14th, a dramatic drop on their status between 1999 and 2012. That too has been reflected in the Championship.

From a Leinster perspective, it's worrying that other than Dublin, the only county to make the top 10 is Kildare.

The Lilywhites are ninth, a ranking boosted by being in Division 1 in 2013 and 2014.

It's probably no longer an accurate reflection of their true status, certainly not if last Sunday's defeat to a third-string Dublin team is anything to go by.

Martin Breheny runs the rule over the four Allianz FL divisions

Division 1

WHO'S THERE?

Dublin (1-1-1-1-1)

Kerry (1-1-1-1-1)

Mayo (1-1-1-1-1)

Donegal (1-1-2-1-1)

Monaghan (2-3-2-1-1)

Roscommon (3-3-3-2-1)

Tyrone (2-1-1-1-2)

Cavan (3-3-3-2-2)

(Figures in brackets show divisions counties were in for the past five seasons)

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Dublin have been the dominant force, winning the last four titles. Kerry and Mayo are the only other counties to remain in Div 1 over the past five seasons. Donegal were there for four years, Tyrone for three and Monaghan for two. Roscommon came from Div 3 to Div 1 while Cavan are back in the top flight for the first time in 13 years.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Cavan are the only county under brand new management, with Tyrone man, Mattie McGleenan taking over from Terry Hyland. Mickey Harte (Tyrone) is in his 15th year. There’s a partial change in Roscommon, where the Kevin McStay-Fergal O’Donnell partnership has been dissolved, leaving McStay as manager. Jim Gavin (Dublin), Eamonn Fitzmaurice (Kerry) and Malachy O’Rourke (Monaghan) are all in their fifth season; Rory Gallagher (Donegal) is in his third campaign while Stephen Rochford (Mayo) begins his second term.

WHO NEEDS TO WIN IT MOST?

Mayo and Tyrone. Mayo can boast the longest run of any county in Division 1, having been there since 1999 but won only one title (2001) in that period. Besides, they need to leave Croke Park with a trophy after so many near misses. It’s 14 years since Tyrone last won the Division 1 title and they would benefit from ending that wait.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Dublin’s League record under Jim Gavin for four seasons (2013-2016) is: Played 36; Won 28; Drew 3; Lost 5.

KEY STAT There’s a return this year to the 2008-11 format when the top two automatically qualified for the final. In those four seasons (2008-2011) 10 points were enough to book a place in the final on three occasions while nine points got Derry there in 2009.

PREDICTION

Finalists: Dublin, Mayo

Relegation: Cavan, Roscommon

ODDS

Dublin 5/4; Kerry 7/2; Mayo 9/2; Tyrone 9/2; Monaghan 16/1; Donegal 16/1; Roscommon 25 /1; Cavan 25/1.

FIRST ROUND

Next Saturday: Mayo v Monaghan.

Next Sunday: Cavan v Dublin;

Donegal v Kerry; Tyrone v Roscommon

Division 2

WHO’S THERE?

Cork (1-1-1-1-1)

Down (1-1-2-2-1)

Derry (2-2-1-1-2)

Fermanagh (4-3-3-3-2)

Galway (2-2-2-2-2)

Meath (2-3-2-2-2)

Clare (4-4-3-3-3)

Kildare (2-1-1-2-3)

(Figures in brackets show divisions counties were in for the past five seasons)

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Cork find themselves in the second tier for the first time since 2009 while Down continue their yo-yo pattern, dropping down to Div 2 after one season in the top flight. Galway are in Div 2 for a sixth successive season while Meath have spent four of the last five years in this group. Clare continue their upward move, having been in Div 4 as recently as 2013. Kildare have arrested the slide, after dropping from Div 1 to 3 in 2014 and 2015. Fermanagh have improved consistently over recent years while Derry have alternated between the top two divisions.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Andy McEntee (Meath) is the only newcomer, replacing Mick O’Dowd, who was in charge for four years. Peter McGrath (Fermanagh) and Colm Collins (Clare) are the longest serving managers in this group, with each heading into their fourth season. Kevin Walsh takes Galway for a third term while Damian Barton (Derry), Eamonn Burns (Down), Peadar Healy (Cork) and Cian O’Neill (Kildare) are in their second seasons.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST?

Cork, Galway and Meath. Cork need to get out of there quickly. Galway haven’t been in Div 1 since 2011 while Meath’s last stint there was 11 years ago.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

One in four of last year’s 28 Div 2 group games finished level. Galway drew three of seven.

KEY STAT

Ten points (from a possible 14) was the average required for promotion over the past five seasons while five points are usually enough to avoid relegation, although not last year when six points didn’t save Armagh.

PREDICTION

Promoted: Cork, Derry

Relegated: Clare, Fermanagh

ODDS

Cork 7/4; Galway 3/1; Meath 11/2; Kildare 6/1; Derry 15/2; Down 10/1; Fermanagh 16/1; Clare 20/1.

FIRST ROUND

Next Saturday: Down v Fermanagh

Next Sunday: Derry v Clare; Galway v Cork; Meath v Kildare

Division 3

WHO’S THERE?

Armagh (1-2-2-3-2)

Laois (1-2-2-2-2)

Longford (3-2-3-4-3)

Tipperary (4-4-4-3-3)

Sligo (3-3-3-3-3)

Offaly (3-4-3-4-3)

Louth (2-2-2-3-4)

Antrim (3-3-4-4-4)

(Figures in brackets show divisions counties were in for the past five seasons)

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Armagh were in Div 1 in 2012 but now find themselves in Div 3. Laois have dropped into Div 3 for the first time in many years. Longford, Tipperary, Offaly and Antrim have alternated between Divisions 3 and 4 while Louth are back in this group after winning promotion last year. Sligo are in the Div 3 for a sixth successive season.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Peter Creedon is the only newcomer, taking over from Mick Lillis in Laois.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST?

Armagh and Tipperary. Armagh were unlucky to be relegated last year while Tipperary need to build on the progress made when reaching the All-Ireland semi-final last August.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Armagh are in Division 3 for the second time in three seasons.

KEY STAT

It usually takes 10 points to win promotion but eight were enough for Clare last year.

PREDICTION

Promoted: Armagh, Tipperary

Relegated: Antrim, Offaly

ODDS

Tipperary 2/1; Armagh 9/4; Laois 11/4; Offaly 10/1; Longford 14/1; Sligo 16/1; Louth 16/1; Antrim 25/1.

FIRST ROUND

Next Saturday: Laois v Louth

Next Sunday: Longford v Offaly; Sligo v Armagh; Tipperary v Antrim.

Division 4

WHO’S THERE?

Westmeath (2-2-1-2-3)

Limerick (4-4-3-3-3)

Wexford (3-2-3-3-4)

Wicklow (4-3-4-4-4)

Carlow (4-4-4-4-4)

Leitrim (4-4-4-4-4)

Waterford (4-4-4-4-4)

London (4-4-4-4-4)

(Figures in brackets show divisions counties were in for the past five seasons)

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Westmeath completed the three-Division drop in successive seasons last year, leaving them the only team in the group with fairly recent Div 1 experience. Limerick, Wexford and Wicklow have been in Divs 3 and 4 at various stages over the past five years while Carlow, Leitrim, Waterford and London are long term residents in this group.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney (Wexford), Billy Lee (Limerick) and Brendan Guckian (Leitrim) are newcomers. McEnaney previously managed Monaghan and Meath.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST

Westmeath and Wexford. After dropping so quickly, Westmeath need to restart the return journey straight away while Wexford, who were third last year, will be desperate for a top two finish.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Westmeath have won only four of their last 21 League games over three seasons.

KEY STAT

It took an average of 11 points to win promotion over the last five years.

PREDICTION

Promotion: Westmeath, Wexford

ODDS

Westmeath 11/10; Wexford 5/2; Limerick 7/2; Carlow 14/1; Wicklow 16/1; Leitrim 16/1; Waterford 18/1; London 150/1.

FIRST ROUND

Next Sunday: Waterford v London; Westmeath v Carlow; Wicklow v Leitrim; Wexford v Limerick.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport