Sunday 22 July 2018

'The reality is that the leagues are vastly superior to the championships from a structural viewpoint'

David Moran and Philly McMahon battle it out during last year’s Allianz Football League Division 1 final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
David Moran and Philly McMahon battle it out during last year’s Allianz Football League Division 1 final match between Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Take two competitions and compare them for fairness, balance and consistency.

One is purely merit-based, with standings decided by how a team performed in the previous year, the other is geographically-structured and carries an added peculiarity where the four groupings all have different numbers of participants.

Which should be regarded as the main event? Logically, the merit-based format wins, but not in the GAA, where the Allianz Leagues, complete with all the essentials for an equitable competition, come second to the All-Ireland championships in terms of prestige and popularity.

That's despite the numerical imbalance in the four provinces, while some teams have to play more games than others to reach the same stage of the championship.

Factor in the variation in standards between the provincial championships at any given time and you have another serious anomaly. And yet, the championship remains the big attraction.

The leagues have made progress since being switched to the calendar year but will never overtake the championships because of the mindset that has been established over many decades. Besides, the All-Ireland series is played in summer/autumn, when it's much easier to add to the gaiety of the nation than in January/February-March.

Still, the reality is that the leagues are vastly superior to the championships from a structural viewpoint. And, when league finishes over a number of years are put together, it presents a very accurate picture of where every county stands.

Today, we present the 1-32 average league placings in football over the last five years.

They mirror the championship in many ways, certainly at the higher end where Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Donegal, Tyrone and Monaghan have been the main spring and summer acts.

The five-year league table has Cork at No 6, which is higher than their championship rating in recent years. However, they were in Division 1 for three of the five years, reaching the final in 2015, which accounts for the lofty position.

There are a few other placings too that may not appear quite right when compared with championship campaigns. Tipperary reached the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final, but are only 23rd in the league placings.

However, they were in Divisions 4 and 3 for the last five years, before being promoted to Division 2 for this season. According to the championship, Galway were a top eight side in 2014-'16-'17, yet it was only last year that they managed to top Division 2, having completed six seasons there.

The average league placing (2013-'17) has them at No 12, which looks about right in an overall context too, even if they have beaten Mayo in the last two Connacht semi-finals. Against-the-odds wins have always been part of the championship - and certainly in the Galway-Mayo rivalry - but they cannot be taken as a reliable guide to year-long status. Armagh reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals in 2014 and 2017, yet have just scraped into the top 16 in the five-year league figures.

Did they deserve a top eight place overall at the end of last year? Yes, based on the championship finish but it cannot be taken as the ultimate arbiter since three (Fermanagh, Westmeath, Tipperary) of their victims are lower than Armagh under the extended league rankings.

The five-year ratings show up another anomaly in the championship system, brought about by the provincial split. Ulster have five in the league's top 10 (2013-'17)), with Leinster and Munster on two each and Mayo the sole western flag-bearer.

And when it comes to the top 16, seven of Ulster's nine (Antrim and Fermanagh are the exceptions) make the cut, compared to four in Leinster, three in Connacht and two in Munster. Leinster's representation may be overly-generous as it includes Laois, who have now dropped to Division 4.

What all that tells us is how ridiculously unfair the All-Ireland championship is on Ulster counties. Over five years, they have had more representatives than the other three provinces in the top 10 and top 16 respectively, yet are guaranteed only one berth (champions) in the last eight.

Despite that, any proposal to scrap the provincial championships as the starting point for the All-Ireland race would be met with stiffer resistance in Ulster than anywhere else.

This year's league is fascinating on a number of fronts across all four divisions, not least Dublin's attempt to win the title for the fifth time in six seasons.

They are closest to reaching the incredible heights enjoyed by the great Kerry team of the 1970s-80s but there's a big difference in how they approach to the league.

Kerry only collected three league titles (1977-'82-'84) in a period when they won eight All-Irelands but then Mick O'Dwyer always saw the league as no more than a warm-up for the championship.

Jim Gavin is different. At least he has been up to now, as evidenced by Dublin's league four-in-a-row in 2013-'17 and their one-point defeat by Kerry last year when they expended every last ounce of energy. Dublin's league successes haven't been accidental.

Just as Brian Cody did with Kilkenny hurlers during their glory years, Gavin primes his squad for the league on the basis that winning it is the best possible preparation for the championship.

It's a philosophy he would find hard to change, although it will be balanced by the need to experiment.

Kerry will definitely unleash lots of new talent this year. Eamonn Fitzmaurice adopted a fairly conservative approach in recent seasons but based on last year's championship experiences, he has no choice but to make a number of changes.

Besides, we are repeatedly being told that Kerry's supply lines have never been moving more smoothly so it's time to find out if they have delivered youngsters who are capable of making the step up to senior level.

It will be an informative campaign for Tyrone too. They appeared to have made real and sustainable progress prior to last year's All-Ireland semi-final, only to be demolished by Dublin in a manner that raised questions about their style.

How much will Mickey Harte tweak it? He knows that it's still probably good enough to win the Ulster title but Tyrone's ambitions extend beyond that. On the basis of what happened to them last August, they need something very different to compete with the likes of Dublin.

Of all the teams in Division 1, Mayo have the greatest need to land the title, since getting their hands on a national prize would provide a much-needed confidence shot, especially if they beat Dublin in the final.

Mayo are the only county to have remained in Division 1 over the last 20 years but have won just a single title (2001) in that period.

Even then, it came with an asterisk since title favourites, Tyrone, who won in 2002 and 2003, were forced to withdraw due to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

So then, it's take-off weekend for league 2018 as it sets out on the busiest two months in the competition's 92-year history.

It may lack the glamour of the championship but it tells more home truths.

Wherever a county finds itself, the tables won't lie by the end of March.

 

Martin Breheny runs the rule over all the Allianz FL divisions

DIVISION ONE

WHO’S THERE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Dublin, who won four successive titles in 2013-16, Kerry, last year’s winners, and Mayo are the only counties who didn’t drop out of Division 1 over the last five years. Tyrone and Donegal each had one year in Division 2, which was home to Galway for each of the past six seasons. Monaghan are in the top flight for a fourth successive season. Kildare have come from Divisions 3 to 1 in successive seasons.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Only Donegal have a change at the helm, with Declan Bonner taking over from Rory Gallagher. Bonner returns for a second stint, having previously managed Donegal in the late 1990s. Mickey Harte sets out for a 16th season with Tyrone while Jim Gavin (Dublin), Eamonn  Fitzmaurice (Kerry) and Malachy O’Rourke (Monaghan) continue for a sixth successive year. Kevin Walsh (Galway), (Mayo) and Cian O’Neill (Kildare) are all in their third seasons.

WHO NEEDS TO WIN IT MOST?

Mayo and Tyrone. Winning a national title, albeit not the one they really want, would provide Mayo with a significant boost, especially after so many big-day disappointments. They have finished fifth in Division 1 for the last three years. Tyrone’s demolition by Dublin in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final was a massive setback, making it important for them to have a strong, positive spring campaign. Winning the Division 1 title for the first time since 2003 is on their agenda.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Mayo have remained in Division 1 longer than any other county, having been there since 1998.

KEY STAT

Seven of the ten counties promoted from Division 2 over the last five years survived their first season in the top flight. Three (Cavan 2017, own 2016, Westmeath 2014) went straight back down. Galway and Kildare are this year’s promoted sides.

ODDS

Dublin 5 /6; Kerry 7/2; Mayo, Tyrone 15/2; Monaghan 12/1, Donegal 12/1; Galway 25/1; Kildare 28/1.

 

DIVISION TWO

WHO’S THERE?

Cavan (1-2-2-3-3)

Clare (2-3--3-4-4)

Cork (2-1-1-1-1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Cork, Down, Cavan and Roscommon have all been in Division 1, the latter two dropping out at the end of last season. Cork spent four of the past five years in Division 1 before being relegated in 2016. Louth and Tipperary are the promoted teams in a group where Munster have the largest representation. Clare and Tipperary had spells in Division 4 before working their way up.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Ronan McCarthy takes over from Peadar Healy in Cork while Pete McGrath moves into Louth, having managed Fermanagh for the last four seasons. Colm Collins is in his fifth season with Clare; Liam Kearns and Eamonn Burns lead Tipperary and Down respectively for a third uccessive season; Kevin McStay is also in his third term with Roscommon but was in a joint-capacity with Fergal O’Donnell in 2016. Mattie McGleenan (Cavan) and Andy McEntee (Meath) are in their second seasons.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST?

Meath and Cork. The Royals finished third in Division 2 in two of the last three seasons and need to take it a step further. Cork failed to get out of Division 2 at the first attempt last year, which will double the incentive now.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Meath haven’t been in Division 1 since 2006.

KEY STAT

It has taken 10 or more points (from a possible 14) to clinch promotion in four of the last five seasons.

ODDS

Cork 6/5; Roscommon 7/4; Meath 2/1; Cavan 9/4; Tipperary, Down 5/2; Clare, Louth 7/1.

 

DIVSION THREE

WHO’S THERE?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Westmeath (4-3-2-1-2)

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

(Figures in brackets show divisions

counties were in for the past five seasons)

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Westmeath dropped from Division 1 to 4 in successive seasons before being promoted last April. Derry have dipped two Divisions since being beaten Div 1 finalists in 2014. Armagh are in Division 3 for a third season out of four.. Fermanagh return to Div 3 after two seasons in Div 2. Sligo are in Div 3 for a seventh successive season; Longford and Offaly are in Div 3 for the fourth time in five seasons. Wexford are back in Div 3 after two seasons in Div 4.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Six of the eight counties have had a change of leadership, leaving Kieran McGeeney and Denis Connerton as the only survivors from last season. McGeeney heads into his fourth year with Armagh while Connerton is in his third year with Longford. Rory Gallagher switches from Donegal to his native Fermanagh; Colin Kelly moves from Louth to Westmeath; Kerryman, Stephen Wallace takes over in Offaly; Kildare’s Paul McLoughlin replaces ‘Banty’ McEnaney in Wexford; Tyrone’s Cathal Corey is new Sligo boss and Damian McErlain has been promoted from minor to senior in Derry.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST?

Armagh and Derry. Armagh reached last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final but spending two of the last three seasons in Division 3 reflects their real status. They badly need to get out of the third tier. Derry were Division 1 finalists in 2014 so finding themselves in Division 3 should sound a loud wake-up bell.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Three of the eight counties (Offaly 1998, Derry 2000-2008, Armagh 2005) won the Div 1 title in the last 20 years while Wexford were beaten finalists in 2005.

KEY STAT

Ten points was the average requirement to win promotion over the last five years while five points were enough to avoid relegation in three of the last five seasons. Six points sufficed in the two other years.

ODDS

Armagh 11/4; Derry 10/3; Fermanagh 9/2; Westmeath 5/1; Sligo 7/1; Longford 8/1; Offaly 12/1; Wexford 22/1.

 

DIVISION FOUR

WHO’S THERE?

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

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

Laois (3-2-2-2-2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIVE-YEAR FORM

Laois have dropped from Division 2 to 4 in successive seasons. Limerick , Antrim and Wicklow had spells in Division 3; Carlow, Leitrim, Waterford and London have been permanent residents in this group.

MANAGEMENT MATTERS

Newcomers in Laois (John Sugrue), Wicklow (John Evans) and Antrim (Lenny Harbison). Evans previously managed Tipperary and Roscommon. Turlough O’Brien and Tom McGlinchey are in their fourth seasons with Carlow and Waterford respectively; Ciaran Deely leads London for the third year; Billy Lee (Limerick) and Brendan Guckian (Leitrim) are in their second seasons.

WHO NEEDS PROMOTION THE MOST?

Laois, Carlow. Laois have dropped two divisions in successive seasons. Carlow finished third in this group last year before enjoying their best championship for many years when reaching Round 3 of the qualifiers. They need to build on it by getting out of Division 4 where they have been long-term residents with Leitrim, Waterford and London. Limerick and Antrim have alternated between Divisions 3 and 4.

CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?

Laois have won only five of their last 21 League games.

KEY STAT

Ten points has been enough to win promotion in two of the last ten seasons.

ODDS

Laois 4/7; Antrim 9/2; Carlow 5/1; Limerick 12/1; Wicklow, Waterford, Leitrim 20/1; London 40/1.

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