It is more than 30 years since the Division One final of the football league was contested by two teams who were also scheduled to meet in the opening round of the championship. Long before May 1992 the familiarity that breeds contempt had exceeded saturation point between Tyrone and Derry, but the league final added another odour.
Up to that point neither county had won an All-Ireland title, and between them they had just one league title, so it was tricky for either of them to feign credible indifference. Tyrone dominated the match, and lost. “That sets us up rightly for the championship,” said the jubilant Derry manager Eamon Coleman afterwards. “Whoever lost here was bound to be on a downer.”
The Tyrone manager John Donnelly, however, took refuge in one of the GAA’s oldest certainties. “We’d always said we’d treat the championship game completely separately.”
A fortnight later there were six yellow cards in the opening 20 minutes of the championship game, one of them for an off-the-ball incident inside the first 30 seconds. Derry won again. Is there any chance the league final had mattered? Tyrone can still swear that it didn’t because for generations winning or losing in the league was like children’s Plasticine: you could mould every outcome into any shape you wished.
The dreaded prospect of a Division One league final between Mayo and Roscommon – a week before they meet in the Connacht championship – has receded with Roscommon’s defeats over the last couple of weeks, but their meeting in Dr Hyde Park over the weekend still had a split personality. It was clear that both teams wanted to win, but not at the expense of full disclosure, of course.
In the league games between Clare and Cork and Longford and Offaly over the weekend, however, different dynamics were at play. These teams will also meet again in their opening championship matches next month, but none of them had any margin for holding back, or being cute.
Longford are mired at the foot of Division Three and desperately needed a win; Offaly couldn’t afford to lose, for fear of being dragged into a relegation battle; Clare were in the lower reaches of Division Two and couldn’t afford any more slip-ups; while Cork arrived in Ennis at a crossroads in their season, something which would have been unimaginable in early March before the new championship structure was adopted.
In their post-match interviews neither the Clare manager Colm Collins, nor the Cork manager John Cleary, made any reference to the Munster semi-final these teams will contest the next time they meet. The business at hand was too important and consequential in its own right. Cleary was evidently furious with Cork’s first-half performance, but it wasn’t a case of letting the cards fall as they may and playing another hand in April – when it really mattered.
For the first time in the history of the GAA, some league games now command the same importance as a championship match. By losing to Cork in Ennis, Clare are now dicing with the Tailteann Cup, just a week after they nearly beat Dublin in Croke Park – stretched on an emotional rack, like an EastEnders character.
Longford and Offaly are among the constituency of football counties who, in the old system, had far more to gain from a productive league than anything the championship could offer. Both of them will have their sights on the Tailteann Cup, and yet the Leinster draw has not been unkind to them this year.
The winners of their first round match will have a home game against Meath, who, in the space of a few weeks, have turned into a basket case. Westmeath and Louth are in the same half of the draw too, none of which is absolutely terrifying. The flickering prospect of taking a scalp in the championship has not lost its appeal.
Sunday’s game, though, was thrashed out on its own merits. Longford kicked 16 wides, and still nearly won with a flashing goal chance deep in stoppage time. “While Offaly held on for a narrow win, Longford will have no fear of the Faithful county when the teams clash again in the opening round of the Leinster championship,” reported the Longford Leader. The evidence to support this assertion was a league game contested without reservation.
The Monaghan-Tyrone game in a couple of weeks will be an interesting test of the changing climate. Having spent nine years in Division One – the second longest existing tenancy in the division, behind Kerry – Monaghan are bothered by relegation again. Despite their win over the All-Ireland champions at the weekend, Tyrone are not out of the woods either.
The league game between them on March 19th comes less than a month before they meet in the Ulster championship. Which game is more important? The answer to that question may be the same as it ever was, but the question is no longer risible.
It is inconceivable that either Monaghan or Tyrone will be sanguine about a match that is critical to their continuing status as a Division One team. The difference in temperature between a league game and a provincial championship game has been significantly reduced, not just by the condensed calendar, but by the adjusted status of both competitions. Before long, the difference might be negligible.
For generations, the National League was the GAA’s annual festival of rock-paper-scissors. You were never sure what the other crowd were going to bring, but you knew there was every chance of winning a league game without recourse to a sharp instrument or a blunt object. Nobody in football can take that chance now.