Joe Kernan: Home is where the heart is for League battlers
At the outset of the current National Football League teams had set themselves targets that they hoped to achieve during the competition.
For some, promotion was an absolute priority, for others securing a place in their particular division for another season at least was a prime objective while the remainder made it clear that finding the right blend for the forthcoming Championship was much more important than League progress.
Now that the last round of scheduled fixtures is looming on Sunday it is an opportune time to take stock of the competition overall. And straight away it has to be stated that this has to go down as one of the most interesting National League competitions for some years.
The introduction of the experimental rules, the ongoing (and understandable) controversy over the standard of refereeing, the rather surprising results from time to time in the different divisions and now the imminent factoring in of earlier head-to-head meetings between teams that finish level on points after this weekend’s games as a mechanism for deciding who stays up and who goes down have all combined to give the competition a sharp makeover.
I have to admit that I am as surprised as anyone else to learn that scoring differences will not after all be the sole criteria in deciding promotion and relegation issues and I can understand the disappointment and sense of frustration shared by many of my fellow managers that this decision does not appear to have been communicated properly to all and sundry.
I take on board the fact that the decision was formally reached at a Special Congress last October but the information does not appear to have filtered through the normal channels — or have I missed something?
Be that as it may, we are now set for a very tense time on Sunday as a substantial number of teams including Ulster outfits Monaghan, Tyrone, Armagh, Donegal and Cavan await confirmation of just in which division they will play their league football next season.
Of the four remaining counties Derry are doomed in Division One, Down have already earned promotion to the top tier, Antrim look set to emerge as top dogs in Division Three and Fermanagh will make the ignoble drop into Division Four.
Normally the calculators would be out even in advance of Sunday’s games so that some further light can be thrown on score differences but now that head-to-head results must be taken into account calculators could yet be rendered largely redundant.
To say that some managers and their players will endure an anxious time on Sunday would be to delve into the realms of understatement.
For many years a relatively simple theory has tended to dominate managers’ thinking for the league — win our home matches and we will stay up.
There is still considerable substance in this belief, certainly in the case of those sides in the divisions who have been fortunate to acquire four home ties out of their programme of seven scheduled games.
And while there are still those managers, players and fans who will continue to downplay home advantage, statistics would suggest that some teams have maximised their domestic comforts to ensure themselves of a degree of security in the league.
These very teams will have an advantage over other sides when head-to-head results are taken into account on Sunday.
Indeed, the importance of home advantage in the league cannot be over-emphasised.
Tyrone players among them Sean Cavanagh and Philip Jordan have made it clear that they want Healy Park to be transformed into ‘fortress Omagh’, Dublin are still very hard to beat in Parnell Park or Croke Park, Mayo are always a formidable force in Castlebar, Meath rarely fail to maximise the considerable psychological advantages they garner from playing in Navan and few teams relish crossing swords with Armagh in Crossmaglen.
It will be no surprise should Kerry, Tyrone and Galway record wins over Monaghan, Dublin and Derry respectively on Sunday and such a scenario will throw light on the Division One relegation issue.
It will also further fuel the notion that, given the increased costs that fans must face when travelling to away games, home advantage is precisely that — a platform from which winning performances can be launched in the matches that matter with the backing of their fans.
Yet while certain teams may get the opportunity to really prove that home is where the heart is on Sunday, others will be left to rue the fact that they did not make the most of performing on their own patch before the pressure was intensified as the league progressed.