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It's certainly not in a league of its own


All smiles: Tyrone’s Niall Morgan with Aidan O’Shea of Mayo during their league duel in February

All smiles: Tyrone’s Niall Morgan with Aidan O’Shea of Mayo during their league duel in February

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

All smiles: Tyrone’s Niall Morgan with Aidan O’Shea of Mayo during their league duel in February

So, that's that then. Farewell to the league once again. Yeah, we know there are a load of league finals to be played this weekend, but who cares?

Well, maybe Leitrim for one. There are hundreds of people on their way home from all the corners of the earth, all getting back to join the great pilgrimage to Mecca: the Division Four league final in Croke Park.

In Derry, there's barely been a word. Remember, this is a county that were in the Division One finals of 2008 and 2009. A Division Four decider is a minor irrelevance.

So where exactly are we now in 2019? Certainly well through our quota of county games. The National Football League had a total of - including this weekend's finals - 116 matches.

There will be - excluding replays - 68 games of Championship football this year.

Think about that for a second. The vast bulk of inter-county football matches are played in the winter on pitches that are barely playable, that you cannot even bounce a ball on.

When the summer comes around, Gaelic football is a completely different sport. It's incredible that Central Council have spent decades ignoring this facet and have plamásed the Club Players' Association - a group formed to agitate for a better and fairer system - into submission.

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Anyway, the leagues began as they always do, with some hysterics over the teams who happened to lose their first two matches.

This year, it happened to Tyrone in Division One after they were stuffed - you could use a more sophisticated term but stuffing is more accurate - by Kerry and Mayo.

It led to former All-Star Joe McMahon gently suggesting to his former manager Mickey Harte: "Something that Mickey doesn't seem to be pushing is the mark, and there was an opportunity against Roscommon, with that strong breeze, to chip a few balls from outside the 45 and have a free shot with a gale-force wind at their back."

Tyrone then did something just like that, and they thrived.

Hysteria never has to seek an audience and hot-takes have a curious value above their worth.

Back in 2013, during Eamonn Fitzmaurice's first year in charge of Kerry, they lost their opening four league games to Mayo (six points), Dublin (10 points), Kildare (two points) and Donegal (nine points).

Their scoring difference after those four games was the worst across all four divisions and their total of 31 points scored was 10 points off Wicklow, the second lowest scoring team on the island.

That week at a book launch of the late Weeshie Fogarty - a Kerry football legend who gained relevance in later years through his 'Terrace Talk' radio show - Tyrone fans gathered in Paudge Quinn's and asked him how Kerry football could be allowed to fall so far and so hard. Imagine, Tyrone diehards feeling a genuine sense of pity and concern for Kerry!

If Fitzmaurice had any friends left in Kerry that week, they numbered Mick O'Dwyer and his multiple All-Irelands among them. He cautioned: "The Championship is all that matters in Kerry. Always has been, always will be.

"There won't be a word of what happened in February, March or April if Kerry do well in the Championship.

"It has always been like that down here."

By that summer, Kerry had secured the Munster title with the minimum of fuss and while they lost the All-Ireland semi-final to Dublin, they had held up their side of the bargain in an absolute classic, commonly held up as one of the finest ever games.

A crestfallen Fitzmaurice slumped in his chair in the press room afterwards and tried to describe his despondency: "I don't know. It just felt like an All-Ireland-winning year."

All that despite the worst run of form in living memory for Kerry, and possibly only the second time they had gone through an entire half (the first game against Mayo) without scoring.

With all this annual evidence accruing, why do people put so much stock into the leagues?

I mean, it's a grand old tournament when it is on. Teams who are of a similar standard meet each other week in, week out and there is an in-built potential for talking points and controversy.

At first and second glance it appears the perfect competition and it always leads to some calling for the introduction of tiered tournaments for the summer. But that's what the league is for!

Over the next six and a bit weeks until Tyrone and Derry open the Ulster Championship, players will be able to line out for their clubs, but collective county training continues. At a conservative estimate, those two teams have around 20 sessions to prepare for one game.

In the early stages of the league, with games on gluepot pitches, Tyrone were merely shaking their legs out after their team holiday to Thailand. Reports held that when they tested their aerobic capacity, they were more than a month behind than the previous year.

So yeah, the league's a grand old spectacle. But don't be taking it too seriously.

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