WHATEVER way you look at this weekend’s final round of Allianz Football League games, there are more angles than a compass, with enough gala fixtures to call it a footballing fiesta.
Across the four divisions, 20 teams still have something to play for- between trying to secure promotion or avoid relegation. Some of that drama is perfectly encapsulated by Sunday’s Tyrone-Kerry clash in Omagh, where, unless relegation is decided by head-to-heads, the loser could go down.
On the otherhand, you could look at the final round of matches in another light. Division 2 alone is a minefield, where all eight teams are playing for something. Yet between the combined marquee games in Divisions 1 and 2, the next time there will be a similar gala line-up (barring a serious quirk during the summer) will be the All-Ireland quarter-finals on August Bank Holiday weekend - unofficially regarded as the football championship’s real starting point.
So what happens between now and then for the majority of football teams? What is it all really for? For many counties, the league is their most measurable form of progression. For a lot of counties, the league is far more important than the championship because it is a far more accurate barometer. That applies to every team in Division 4, and the majority of teams in Division 3, with the exception of Armagh.
Longford are already promoted in Division 4. They will be joined by Offaly if they defeat Antrim on Sunday. That would set up a Division 4 league final meeting just three weeks before Longford and Offaly are due to meet in the championship- the prize for the winners being a Leinster quarter-final against Dublin on May 31. After they get steamrolled- which is more than likely to happen- what will be next?
The qualifiers have lost their lustre. The old novelty, where a team could get a decent draw and embark on a run, are gone. Fifteen of the 16 teams from Divisions 3 and 4 last season were eliminated before Round 4 of the qualifiers - Tipperary being the only exception. Clare narrowly lost to Kildare in Round 3, but a lot of the teams limped out of the championship. Apart from being out of their depth against stronger counties, it is understandable why some didn’t go that step further. Deep down, does it really matter between making the last 24 and the last 16? Doesn’t that kind of apathy in high summer, which is fuelled by a lack of hope more than ambition, run completely counter to the professionalism and commitment required from most county panels?
The profile of the league is mostly bound up in Division 1, even though the priority for all those teams is not to get relegated, as opposed to winning the competition. The current Division 1 is better, and far more competitive, than three of the four provincial championships. There will always be elite players and teams in every sport, but the current format is in marked contrast to the old system of Division 1A and 1B, which had 16 teams in the mix and interesting possibilities.
For seven years in a row before the system was altered in 2008, Sligo, Cavan, Roscommon, Fermanagh, Laois, Limerick, Wexford, and Kildare all reached Division One semi-finals. Football was far more democratic back then, but those counties’ prospects were enhanced at the time by the pathway to the league big-time through Division 1B.
Even some of the Division One teams will admit now to an element of “staleness” about the same fixtures every year. More sides are afflicted by the same issues that now exist in Division 1A of the hurling league; the manic competitiveness of the competition doesn’t allow for trying out as many new players as ideally preferred, primarily because managers are constantly looking over their shoulder, or just desperately trying to get enough points in the bag to stave off relegation.
Although the football league is condensed into a tight timeframe, which is further complicated by the U-21 championships and third level competitions, the league at least provides a programme of games, which most players are crying out for.
The league will always hold a certain place in the psyche of the GAA public compared to the championship, but the competition also showcases an equality which doesn’t exist in the current championship format. Compared with other provinces, Donegal and Tyrone’s projected path through Ulster this summer looks like a tightrope walk over a minefield while carrying a horse.
The football championship is crying out for change, but the Football Review Committee’s (FRC) motion that the provincial championships begin with eight teams in each province was lost last year. The FRC accepted that trying to radically overhaul the system wouldn’t work, but a more conventional compromise wasn’t even entertained.
A Champions League format for championship runs the risk of meaningless games as the competition progresses, but the current inter-county structures are stale and flawed. Each team needs an equal distribution of games. Some counties are barely surviving. The structures are even more inequitable and unsustainable when they are dictating so much to club fixtures, which is fostering huge apathy and enmity at club level.
The league will always be the league. The championship will always be the championship. A provincial title remains the main target for so many counties. Yet the fare on show, and what’s at stake for so many teams this weekend, still offers the example and potential of a better, and more equitable, championship system than is currently in place.