Belfast Telegraph

Gone are the days when the league was considered insignificant

By Declan Bogue

There are no obsessives of Kerry Gaelic football – outside of Kerry – quite like those in Ulster.

Just short of a year ago, the voice of Radio Kerry's 'Terrace Talk', and former county goalkeeper, the institution that is Weeshie Fogarty, was in Quinn's Corner, Tyrone at the northern launch of his autobiography, 'My Beautiful Obsession.'

He was a long way from home, which might have allowed for his opinions to become a little more forthright than usual. It was a couple of weeks after Kerry had gone the entire second half of their league opener against Mayo without a score, even a late routine free for Bryan Sheehan ending up hooked horribly wide.

The natives of Tyrone – and the irony would not be lost on those from the Kingdom – were sympathetic in their questions to Weeshie. What had happened to Kerry? When had they gotten so poor? Where was the old cut and thrust, daring and adventure?

Weeshie felt it was all over for Kerry and that they would certainly be relegated, before a disastrous Championship over the summer.

In the end, Kerry would produce a mesmerising first-half display against Tyrone in the final game that would prove enough to keep them up. Later in the summer, their first half against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final went a long way to making that game a modern classic to outstrip anything from the RTÉ-approved 70s rivalry.

The two sides meet this Saturday night in the opening night of the National League. God be with the days when columnists could moan that the opening night came in with a whimper rather than a bang!

For Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice, he knew the league was important. The best managers usually make a statement in their first league campaign; like Jim McGuinness winning Division Two in 2011, like Jim Gavin scooping Dublin's first league title in 20 years last April, or Mickey Harte successfully defending Tyrone's league title in his debut year of 2003.

This year, even without Colm Cooper for a few months, Kerry will be a different animal. It explains why Fitzmaurice has tinkered over the last month with his brother-in-law Paul Galvin at centre-back, replacing the retired Eoin Brosnan, who was himself a former forward.

There is no county better at recycling players in different positions.

It's why Fitzmaurice is already highlighting minuscule elements, like the speed at which the Croke Park ball boys return footballs to the opposing goalkeepers, depending on whether Dublin are in front or not.

When you are down below in Castlebar and you can't buy a score for an entire half it might not feel like it, but the league matters. It's why three of the four All-Ireland semi-finalists were in the league semi-finals last year.

It's why Dublin and Tyrone can end up throwing punches at each other in 2006. It's why Fermanagh followers will never forget the Division One campaign of 2006 when both Dublin and Tyrone came to town, outnumbering the home support, yet left without a point.

Time was that Mick O'Dwyer correctly told us that the league didn't matter. Jim McGuinness tried that trick too last Spring.

Times have changed. For many counties, what happens in the next three months will define their season.

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