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Joe Kernan: Antrim prove League needs taken seriously

Not so very long ago the majority of teams tended to go through the motions in the National Football League. The competition indeed was treated with scant respect which did little to enhance its reputation as the second most important series in the calendar.

For the most part, attendances were measured in hundreds rather than in thousands, television coverage was either very limited or non-existent and many matches were staged in rather remote venues where the facilities tended to be rather basic — and that’s being kind.

It’s all rather different today. With Saturday night games virtually stealing the limelight from the more traditional Sunday ties, at least three matches being televised over the course of any weekend and the continuing sponsorship from Allianz underpinning the series teams, officials and followers are consumed with the drive for success.

With each county scheduled to play a minimum of seven matches, the promotion and relegation issues may become rather clearer this weekend when round four is completed.

For those teams fortunate to arrive in the league final, there is the not inconsiderable bonus of some €50,000-€100,000 in store for their county boards in addition to the hand-out which each individual county receives from the overall gate receipts and other income generated by the competition.

Most importantly, though, teams that reach the play-offs or final can reap the benefit of one extra highly-competitive match virtually on the eve of their provincial campaign and every manager in the country would relish this in terms of preparation for the championship.

Yet to win the National League title is not necessarily a guarantee of championship progress. Donegal landed the league crown in 2007 and promptly imploded in the championship while Monaghan gained promotion to Division One last year but were unable to sustain their momentum in the Ulster championship or the Qualifiers.

Antrim, though, gained promotion from Division Four last year and then surged into the Ulster final — a clear case of a team building up a head of steam and maintaining full throttle. It was only ill-luck that ultimately saw them eased out of the qualifiers by eventual Sam Maguire Cup winners Kerry but by then Liam Bradley’s side had forcibly rammed home the message that they were no longer whipping boys.

Derry have reached the National League final in each of the past two years and in beating Kerry in 2008 they sent out a signal that they could be a championship force. But when push came to shove they had once more to bow the knee to Tyrone and Armagh.

Last year Derry lost to the Kingdom in the league decider then beat Monaghan in the Ulster championship before surrendering tamely to an efficient rather than a spectacular Tyrone in a rather one-sided provincial semi-final.

There are teams though that can acquit themselves particularly well in the league and still carry their form into the championship.

Apart from Antrim’s renaissance last year, Cork gained promotion to Division One before reaching the All Ireland final while Kerry won the league and the All Ireland crowns.

Every manager is fully aware that being in the top division is important in terms of preparing

for the championship season. As a general rule, teams in the lower divisions are not meeting the kind of opposition that they might face in their provincial campaigns nor in the qualifiers and usually when the intensity of games is stepped up they are found wanting.

Relegation in the league can impact adversely on morale in terms of building towards the championship. A team that makes the drop from Division Two into Division Three will be fully aware that they will be playing to smaller crowds and will enjoy much less media exposure.

The incentive to punch above their weight in the championship is almost stripped from then in these circumstances. And as for a team that descends into Division Four, this is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for a manager and his players.

No matter what their status, every side has its self-belief and its pride. But ploughing a furrow through Division Four can be particularly demanding especially as it does not tend to serve as a preparation course for the championship.

We have all heard the expression ‘There was only the kick of a ball between them’ in relation to the outcome of a closely-contested game.

Mickey Harte will readily testify to this after Tyrone’s rather controversial one-point defeat by Monaghan last Sunday while Armagh boss Paddy O’Rourke heaved a huge sigh of relief following Ryan Henderson’s injury-time winning point against Laois on Saturday night.

It seems likely that the proverbial kick of the ball will determine who stays up, who stays down and who collects the silverware.

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