Declan Bogue: League now a pressure cooker
Published 31/01/2013 | 07:00
Although it is not entirely flawless, this weekend sees the start of the most delicately-balanced competition in the GAA.
While it does not occupy the hearts and minds of the bandwagon brigade and day-trippers, that does not rob Division One of the National Football League of anything bar some unnecessary tinsel.
The last 10 All-Ireland finals have been contested by the eight teams that start life in Division One, with the honourable exception of relegated Armagh who faced Tyrone as defending champions in 2003.
Ten of the last 12 league titles have been won by the same group, the other two going to Armagh, in 2005, and Derry who until recent times had a serious pedigree for spring football.
It's a bearpit in there and everyone recognises it as so. James McCartan maintains it is the hardest since he began his playing career in 1990. Ten days ago, Mickey Harte described it as ‘scary.'
It has been tight in the past and it's set to become tighter. In 2010, Monaghan, Derry and Tyrone all finished on four points at the foot of the table. Monaghan and Derry even shared identical records, having won two and lost five. Both finished with -11 points scoring difference, yet Monaghan stayed up by winning their head-to-head 1-16 to 0-12 in round five.
Nobody cares to remember that dreary day in Scotstown, nor Conor McManus' eight points, but they should.
The following year, Monaghan were on the wrong side of that fate. They lost by one point to Armagh in a blustery Athletic Grounds, Michael O'Rourke steering home a goal when most thought it had gone wide, and Andy Mallon popping up to hit a point in injury-time.
Again, they finished with identical records, a team staying up with four points on the board, a team going down with four points.
Last year, there wasn't room to breathe. Once again, it came down to the last game when Armagh travelled to Ballybofey to meet Donegal who had just shipped a nine-point defeat to Dublin.
The home side prevailed and overtook Armagh who were left in the drop zone, sent down despite beating Kerry and Down and drawing with Cork.
Given the indifference that many show to it, we must ask ourselves is the league of no consequence? Logic will dictate otherwise. The teams that play September football are in the top flight.
The problem with the league is one of perspective and approach.
One of the worst things the GAA can do is continue with the folly of playing the finals in Croke Park. It is too cavernous to sit through another final featuring Cork without any travelling support.
On days such as the 2008 final between Derry and Kerry, the more compact Parnell Park served it's purpose perfectly with a lively atmosphere throughout.
The games themselves are no longer a series of glorified challenge matches designed to give managers time to prepare an assault on the championship.
That's why it was odd to hear Benny Coulter expressing his indifference to the competition, saying that he would rather Down got their house in order and work on their structures, experiment with different playing systems than prioritising survival in the league.
Let's look at Coulter's predicament. They are the hot favourites for relegation in the eyes of the bookmakers, even though they have made the league play-offs for the past two seasons, in years that James McCartan has had to manage a large turnover of players, transition and injuries.
It seems grossly unfair to him.
This Saturday, he will be facing Tyrone who have had five games in the McKenna Cup against Down's three.
There is every chance they could lose and then they have to travel to Donegal a week later.
Lose that, and Down have three weeks to wait to put things right due to the break in the league.
In a hypothetical world, that's a lot of time and headlines and suggestions that McCartan's time could be up as Down manager to ride out.
That's before we even mention that Cork are next, a side that have handed out drubbings to the Mournemen every time they have met since the minimum margin separated them in the 2010 All-Ireland final.
For all that, even McCartan seems indifferent to the league, stating that it is inadequate preparation for the challenges the Ulster Championship brings.
Back before there were four straight divisions, there was a more relaxed approach with divisions 1A and 1B, allowing teams to experiment with players and approaches.
That has now gone, to be replaced with a constant pressure that makes for racy narratives, huge excitement and entertainment. It puts players and coaches under more pressure than before.
But isn't that what sport is all about?
What we can expect from the Ulster teams
Donegal: Word seeping out of the All-Ireland champions' camp is that they have yet to wrap their hands around the leather of a football as they exorcise September glory from their minds and bodies.
Sam Maguire is now safely under lock and key, and will not be brought along to any dinner dances by the players. If they want to get their hands on it again, they will have to win it.
Karl Lacey is out for the league and will rob them of their attacking platform. Neil Gallagher's groin problems and David Walsh's issues with shoulder ligaments will also leave them unavailable for the first two games.
They should have no problem getting the three wins required for survival.
Down: Shorn of Ambrose Rogers and Danny Hughes once again, James McCartan is becoming an unlucky general. A tough first game could prove their undoing, especially given their punishing schedule to follow.
They will look to an impressive record over the past two leagues for strength, but their results alone indicates how close they were to the trapdoor. It could be their year to experience it, and they won't particularly mind.
Tyrone: They are where they want to be now, and with the huge turnover in players, there could be some harsh lessons ahead. In hosting Cork, Kerry and Donegal, Healy Park will see some serious tough battles ahead, the ideal setting for Harte to test youngsters such as Darren McCurry, Ronan McNamee and Conor McAliskey.
Will not be concerned with league placing, but nonetheless will do enough to stay up.
Derry: The idea of moving league games to the 6,000 capacity Owenbeg venue could do a lot for Derry football besides bringing the county team closer to their spiritual home. Will survive with comfort.
Armagh: Regaining their Division One status will not be a huge concern, but retaining Jamie Clarke was a must. The return of Stefan Forker, and some Joe Kernan-era discipline will serve them well.
Antrim: The tightest league outside of division one, Antrim have been blessed with winnable home games. Frank Dawson's ability to generate an appetite for football should suit them.
Cavan: Tough opening fixtures means they need to avoid early defeats. Will benefit greatly from Anthony Forde's influence on the training ground.
Monaghan: Just tucked in behind Meath as favourites to win this group, should attain promotion at the very least. Appear a lot more structured and have a settled side.
Fermanagh: Flying fit in January and way ahead of where they were last year says Peter Canavan, but with only three home games they could be in bother.