Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The League Football National - the Competition that's Run Backwards

This weekend sees the return of proper Gaelic football to the national calendar, after the shadow boxing of the provincial competitions. But the league is a backwards competition, as it begins with a shout and ends with a whisper, just trailing away after the initial roar.

The loud beginning is easy to understand. The nation has been denied football all during the winter, so the return of the colours is a source of excitement, as much as the arrival of the curragh with the barrel of stout was in the ad long ago on the telly.

After a few weeks however, all interest lags as the reality of the Championship approaches. For the first weekend, teams and managers both all mad for smashing, because inter-county is the game’s highest level and they’re getting to play it again. But come week 4 or 5, teams and managers are wondering how much exactly they could be bothered, and how badly getting mired in playoffs will upset their scientifically worked out training regimes for the only competition that counts.

The league isn’t about winning. The league is about not getting relegated. Relegation is not a disaster – you can get relegated and still do well in the Championship, or you can do well in the Championship if you’re in Division 2, a la Cork and Dublin in a few years. But it is a setback, as the games in Division 2 take the edge off for the next Championship season.

Far better, then, to play for safety in the first few games and then take the foot off the pedal. Once you have your five or six points in the bag though, it’s time to roll the dice a biteen.

The league’s purpose is to discover players and plots that may be sprung come high summer. Jack O’Connor spoke in his book about how grinding out a result some dour game in Monaghan did a lot for the team when he took over first, but it’s small vignettes like that that count. The final itself is just an inconvenience. How many teams owe their September wins to a National League title in the spring? Anytime the double has been done it’s been happenstance.

But despite all that, it is great to have football back, and the GAA is doing well to promote the opening of the season after the long and lonesome winter. There is another marquee game for the opening weekend when Kerry play Dublin, the Kingdom playing their usual game with the gullible Dubs before another inevitable summer massacre. If Dublin last that long, of course.

The west was due its own gala opening to the season as Galway were due to visit Castlebar to play Mayo under lights in the new McHale Park. It would have been a big night for Castlebar, as there’s nothing like the few pints after the night games. Saturday could have been a great day for sporting ecumenism in the country as well, as Mayo would play Gaelic football, the Irish and Italians would play rugby union and Joe Kernan’s new look Galway will almost certainly play rugby league.

But it was not to be, due to what can only be described as a monumental and shattering level of incompetence achieved by the Mayo County Board, who seem to have managed to put up floodlights at McHale Park without making sure the had planning permission first. This, coupled with the hames they made of the sightlines in the new stand, which will only be full once ever two years, if that, makes an Spailpín wonder if they wouldn’t have been better served by just digging a huge pit at centre-field, filling it with fivers and setting fire to the whole damned lot. They would have got as much value for money for it. Jesus wept.

FOCAL SCOIR: To An Spailpín’s great friends in Galway whose feathers may be ruffled by my little joke up the way: An Spailpín has recently been the victim of many cruel and hurtful remarks made by Galwaymen about certain American football placekickers being from Mayo, because of their inability to kick their field goals in the NFL playoffs. I’m hardly going to take that lying down, am I? Up Mayo.

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