Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Start of the League - Only Six Months to Wait Until It's for Keeps

Two thousand people at the Mayo v Roscommon FBD League game two weeks ago, and a palpable sense of expectation this week before Mayo host Down under lights in Castlebar on Saturday night. There is nothing like football to capture the imagination after the long and lonely winter.

Not that either game matters a whit, really, of course. There will be coverage in the papers this week about how great the League is and why don’t the GAA promote it more and look at Cork, weren’t they able to win the All-Ireland after winning the League first, who says the League isn’t important? And so on and so forth.

Please. The reality of the GAA season now is that there are four competitions. There are the provincial work the pints off games that have just finished, there is the National League, there are the backdoor games from May to July and then there is the only one that counts.

The only competition that counts is what’s left of the knockout blood and thunder Championship as we knew and loved it, reduced from a competition between thirty-two counties to one featuring just eight. The trick of the next seven months is ensuring that you’re one of those eight irrespective of how you get there, through front doors, back doors or windows if it comes to that.

That’s the frustrating thing about the first half of the year. Only bad things can happen. Every win is worthless. Every game reduces to a training session, where it’s only a question of what you learn about yourself and your team to be used when the real bullets are flying from August on. All else is shadow boxing.

Who won the last five Munster Championships? God only knows. It doesn’t matter. Those boys are playing for the big pot and if you want to be big time you’ve got to look at the world the way Kerry and Cork and Tyrone, God be kind to them and the burdens He’s asked those good people to bear, do.

Every game an inter county team with All-Ireland ambitions plays from the third Sunday in September until the end of July is about learning about yourself and becoming stronger. It’s important not to lose twice between May and July of course, but do your sums. The odds are heavily in favour of continued experimentation. If you do get a bullet twice, chances are you deserve it and are as well off at home.

This is not a great situation of course, and every year your faithful correspondent calls for the return of the old Championship but in the meantime we have to make do. An Spailpín Fánach would watch a Mayo team playing the Eton wall game and still consider it a treat. I doubt that I’m alone in that.

And the game against Down will be a treat. Down have been aristocrats of the game since they burst through in the 1960s. James McCartan’s recently published book, The King of Down Football, is on the bookshelf opposite my laptop and I am looking forward to tucking in and reading about how they forged their legend.

In the meantime, off to Castlebar for the weekend where we shall run the rule over our bucks and they shall run the rule over theirs. No harm done either way – it is, after all, only the League.