GAA football season preview: Method in the madness as counties work out their motivation

Football season opens for business this weekend with familiar adversaries meeting in Tralee

The first shots of the 2024 football season will be fired up and down the country this weekend as the Allianz Football League gets under way. The old competition, which celebrates its centenary in two years, has undergone a surge in recognition this century because of its accuracy as a championship indicator. Does that still hold?

Since the competition adjusted to a calendar year basis in 2002 the link emerged. Ten times in the past 22 years the All-Ireland champions have first won the league and played in Division One. Last year for first time since Armagh in 2002, a county from Division Two won the championship. Dublin’s league status may have been an anomaly for a county that had won eight All-Irelands in the previous 11 years but it signified a departure and at the very time that league standing started to have a direct bearing on championship participation.

To what extent were all of these doubles coincidence rather than consequence? In other words, did teams achieve success in both competitions because they were so good or were good performances in the league a necessary preparation for later in the year.

As they say in the method actors’ studio, “what’s my motivation?” If at one end Dublin demonstrated last year that they didn’t need to compete in the top division to ensue championship success, what about the suggestion that the league final has ended up too close to the championship to make it unquestionably desirable?


Last season Mayo capped a very good league campaign for Kevin McStay’s new management by defeating Galway in the final. A week later they lost their opening championship match against Roscommon. Next April they travel to New York a couple of days after this year’s league final. Does that mean they won’t be in it? Answers on a postcard.

Under Jack O’Connor Kerry simply haven’t won an All-Ireland without first winning the league, a dual strike he has organised four times. O’Connor will have three weeks to get ready for a first championship match after the league final. He may be allowing some extra time off for players, such as the Cliffords, but the motivation to do well this spring looks strong.

This Saturday evening in Tralee the Kerry manager comes face to face with an old adversary Mickey Harte, formerly a scourge for Kerry as Tyrone manager but now in charge of Ulster champions Derry. They first met 20 years ago in the 2004 league – Tyrone winning by a point but Kerry going on to win the title.

A year previously Harte’s team had given notice of what would follow in August by beating Kerry in Killarney as a statement of intent before the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final would materialise. Harte won’t be deaf to those echoes.

Since Jim Gavin’s time Dublin haven’t been overtly bothered with league achievement but although it generally goes unrecognised Dessie Farrell actually brought back a share of the 2021 competition when Dublin reached the final, which was never played because of the imminence of Kerry’s first championship match.

Galway may be contenders. After defeating Kerry last year, manager Pádraic Joyce was both mindful of the implications as well as bullish about his intentions for the upcoming league final.

“It’s going back to 1981 when we last won and that’s a long, long time. I said it before that the teams who are successful in championship pick up league titles along the way whether it’s every second or third year.”

It would be a surprise if the winners didn’t eventually emerge from the ranks of the above, all defending provincial champions.

Since last year arguably the real jeopardy of the league lies in Division Two where a lowly finish can catapult a team from the Sam Maguire into the Tailteann Cup, as happened Meath after a poor Division Two campaign but at least they knuckled down and won the Tier 2 championship.

Only Munster is this year offering a guaranteed place in Tier 1 through its championship draw with one of Tipperary, Waterford and Clare certain to reach their provincial final. That’s not to say the championship can’t throw up surprise results but there are 10 intense weeks to come in the league.

There’ll be method in the madness. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

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Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times