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Joe Kernan: NFL building to great climax

The GAA is often accused of being ultra-conservative, even to the extent of being misguided in some of its undertakings.

Last year the Association shot itself in the foot more than once – remember Joe Sheridan’s ‘thrown’ goal for Meath in the Leinster final? – and then had to mount damage limitation exercises as credibility took a pounding.

But occasionally decisions are made which can be a boon to the Association even if they are perhaps not enthusiastically endorsed when they are actually rubber-stamped.

The re-introduction of semi-finals in the National Football League is one such decision.

The competition is currently building up to a fascinating climax in terms of promotion and relegation issues but the carrot of semi-final places will certainly be an added dimension to the round seven games on Sunday week.

While the pursuit of the league trophy is now being stepped up, what is of considerable importance to those teams in the hunt for last four places is the possibility of participating in at least one more competitive match prior to their respective provincial championships.

Last year, some two months elapsed before certain teams took their championship bow and we then heard words such as ‘ring-rusty’ being bandied about.

Every manager wants his outfit to be at concert pitch for championship football and that’s why the concluding stages of the league look destined to bring out the best in teams.

The format for the semi-finals is that the team which finishes on top of Division One will play the team which finishes fourth while the sides which end up in second and third spots will meet in the other ‘semi’.

Both games are likely to be staged as part of a Croke Park double bill in mid-April with the GAA launching a robust marketing campaign to pull in the fans.

Last year, Divisional finals were staged and that will be the case again this year which means that the top two teams which finish in Divisions Two, Three and Four will meet in those finals. Those same teams will automatically gain promotion, of course.

Where two counties finish on equal points, the outcome of the meeting of those sides in their league encounter will decide who is promoted or relegated, as the case may be.

Scoring difference will apply where more than two teams finish on the same number of points when promotion and relegation issues are to be decided.

By tea-time on Sunday week the Division One semi-finalists and the remaining divisional finalists should be known as well as the actual make-up of all four divisions for next year’s competition.

Maybe it was just coincidence but when the semi-finals were not in vogue in recent seasons the league overall appeared to peter out tamely with some teams having lost interest in the proceedings even before the closing rounds.

That’s certainly not the case this year, at least from an Ulster perspective. While Tyrone have made the jump into Division One, they are at this point in time one of only five sides to be certain of where they will be playing their league football next year, which goes to show just how much is due to be decided on Sunday week.

Tyrone remain unbeaten in 11 games since the start of the year in both the Power NI McKenna Cup and league and are far and away Ulster’s most consistent side.

The Tyrone strain of success stretches into Fermanagh where new manager Peter Canavan has succeeded in inculcating a winning mind-set into his squad and if they win against Limerick on Sunday, football in Division Three next term will become more a probability than a possibility.

Down, for whom Mark Poland and Aidan Carr are influential figures, still have a semi-final place in their sights while Armagh and Donegal would happily settle to remain in Division One even if that has to be by the skin of their teeth.

Both have tended to make life hard for themselves although the orchard county’s cause in particular has not been helped by injuries and unavailability.

Derry and Monaghan are under pressure to win their concluding games against Westmeath and Tyrone respectively to ensure survival in what has proven a hugely competitive Division Two while Cavan and Antrim, two sides who have not distinguished themselves to date, look certain to remain in Division Three.

The arrival of Tyrone, a team playing with sublime confidence right now, in Division One will lend extra spice to next year’s campaign but the hope is that the provincial representation in the top tier will remain healthy.

It would surely be a matter of regret if the Red Hands were to attain a more lofty position at the expense of another Ulster side even if their elevation is richly deserved.

Belfast Telegraph

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