Joe Kernan: Schools out, now the action starts
The preliminary sparring in the National Football League is over. It will be a case of the survival of the fittest when the action resumes this weekend.
Those players who have been involved with their universities and colleges in recent weeks have now all returned to their respective county squads and can expect to figure in a drive for league points that will be nothing short of frenetic.
March indeed could prove a seminal month within the GAA. Not only will the National Football League reach a crescendo but the Ulster U 21 Football Championship will be staged while St Patrick’s Day will see the All-Ireland club finals staged at Croke Park.
The tame start to the National League has evoked only a ripple of interest but the intensity will be cranked up considerably from this weekend on.
And this should surely mean larger crowds. To date attendances have been poor and in the case of some games, downright dismal.
That is surprising because we have just had one of the mildest winters on record and there have been some compelling league games to date in terms of quality and drama.
The expectation now is that fans will forsake their armchairs and come out to support their sides.
The fact that many familiar faces have been missing from several Ulster sides has, I feel, had much to do with the lukewarm enthusiasm shown by followers thus far.
Down have had to do without seasoned players like Declan Rooney, Conor Garvey, Kalum King, Anto McArdle, Kevin McKernan and Damien Rafferty while Armagh are still without their Crossmaglen contingent and Steven McDonnell.
Donegal will welcome back Eoin Wade, Leo McLoone and Michael Murphy from their term of duty with their respective universities while Kieran Hughes will be embraced enthusiastically on his return to Eamon McEnaney’s Monaghan squad.
Antrim must soldier on, though, without Kevin Niblock and Aaron Douglas both of whom are based in England but Fermanagh in contrast will be glad to have Ryan Jones |(pictured) back on board.
But while this infusion of talent will please all the managers involved, it does not necessarily guarantee their sides anything in the way of trophy success.
It would be a brave person indeed who would be might be prepared to wager on just who will eventually win the National Football League title for which reigning champions are short-odds favourites.
Some teams have been denied the oxygen of support in the opening two rounds and when they go into action next week-end they will surely hope for greater loyalty from their followers.
There is a very thin line dividing success and failure in the league. Even those teams who have won the two games they have played to date cannot in any way feel safe while those sides which have yet to win a game face a huge challenge this month but it should not be an impossible task for them to make up ground on their opponents.
This will certainly lend an extra dimension for the next five rounds of the competition which will be staged between this weekend and early April.
From an Ulster perspective, Armagh are the best-placed team with Down at their heels in Division One while Donegal are marooned at the bottom having not earned a league point to date — surprising really given the fact that they are the Ulster champions.
Tyrone are setting a hot pace in Division Two while Derry have big problems in this sector, injuries having played a part in the fact that they have still to pick up a point,.
I certainly have one special wish for the remainder of the competition and this is that no team incurs a €5,000 fine.
In recent weeks Cork, Kildare, Armagh and Monaghan have been hit with penalties of this magnitude and it’s difficult to see where the GAA authorities are coming from in proposing them.
It’s a known fact that many county boards are in financial difficulties and simply do not have €5,000 to hand out meekly to cover what in many instances could be termed an unnecessary fine.
I believe that the GAA is being much too severe in punishing county boards for the misdemeanours of individuals.
These kind of fines are draconian to my mind and will not, I feel, prove the answer to curbing violence and thuggery for the very good reason that most players are impervious to the financial burden imposed on their boards by the administrators.
I firmly believe that the individuals deemed guilty of transgressions should feel the full rigours of the GAA’s own laws and that blanket fines and fines on county should only be used in a last case scenario.
Let’s hope that players and fans will be on their best behaviour. The GAA cannot afford to suffer any more below-the-belt blows in terms of its credibility nor do we want to see endless disciplinary and appeals meetings dominating the championship landscape.