‘This is the be-all and end-all’: Four counties still chasing glory in crunch weekend for Division Four

While critics call for league finals to be scrapped, Laois, Longford, Wexford and Leitrim are pursuing a place in the Division Four decider. Each knows that winning it would give their county a lasting lift

For the teams at the top of Division Four, this is comfortably the biggest weekend of the year. They don’t need Croke Park to do a hype job around it, they have no lily to gild or pudding to over-egg. For Laois, Longford, Wexford and Leitrim, the basic reality of the situation is obvious. Get promoted this weekend and 2024 will be deemed a success. Fail to do so and it’s a 12-month hangover.

Laois are top of the league and a draw against Waterford – currently winless and sitting 32nd of the 32 counties – will see them into the final. For the other three, it’s Boar-on-the-Floor time. Longford play Wexford, Leitrim play Tipperary. If Longford win, they’re up. If Wexford win, they need Leitrim to lose. If Leitrim win, they need Longford to lose. If everybody draws, Wexford go up on points difference. The margins couldn’t be tighter, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

“Probably the biggest game of our year,” says Paddy Christie, Longford manager. “I suppose if we got to a Tailteann Cup final that would be pretty big. Or even a semi-final, since it’s played in Croke Park. But if I’m being honest about it, if you’re doing one, two and three, this weekend is number one and the Tailteann Cup and Meath in the Leinster Championship are 2a and 2b.

“This is a game against Wexford, it’s winner-takes-all for us. I would imagine for them and for Leitrim as well, when they got together at the start of the year, promotion out of Division Four was the number one priority. And it’s the same for us.”


Wexford manager John Hegarty doesn’t shilly-shally over the magnitude of it either. “The reality of it,” he says, “is that regardless of what happens in the championship or the Tailteann Cup, getting to a league final and getting promoted, that is success. No matter what happens the rest of the year, you’re coming back the following season with an opportunity to progress further and to play at a higher level.

“It gives you a better platform to build on. The momentum you generate from getting promoted from Division Four sets you up for the following year. We had a good experience in the Tailteann Cup last year. We had four games in good weather, we got a bit of a buzz going and we played well and competed. But the reality is, all our focus has to be on the league and getting out of Division Four. That’s why this weekend is so important.”

For the Longfords and Leitrims and Wexfords, the small steps are the big steps. All three have provincial championship matches on the first weekend of April, a fortnight from today. But in the week that’s in it, they haven’t given those matches so much as a glance. The prize this weekend is so completely out of proportion to what’s on offer in the first round of Leinster or Connacht.

“If we beat Wexford on Sunday,” says Christie, “then we play a league final in Croke Park. If later in the summer we get through to the Tailteann Cup semi-finals, that would be two Croke Park appearances in the same season. That would be so important.

“A lot of our younger players have never played in Croke Park. And some of our elder panel members have only played there a few times and they were mostly bad experiences, playing Dublin in Leinster Championship games and getting beaten by 20 points. So really, it’s vital that we get these guys good experiences in Croke Park. To play games there where you know that on your day, you can give winning a serious crack. That’s massive for us.”

In all the loose talk about the worth of the league and the chat about getting rid of league finals, it says plenty that nobody has stopped to ask the lower orders what they think. Christie is one of the greatest full-backs ever to play for Dublin. Hegarty played 105 times for Wexford, in every division of the league. They know the rhythms of the season. A league final might be a nuisance for some of the higher-ups but that’s not the life they’re living.

“That’s a luxury that Division Four teams just don’t have,” Hegarty says. “The idea that a Division Four team would be going, ‘We’ll use these few weeks as a prep for the championship ...’ is so far from reality. Every game now is an All-Ireland for teams in Division Four. To progress, you need to go up the divisions. It’s as simple as that. So the league is the be-all and end-all.

“Teams around our level give the league everything they have. They give championship their best shot but they don’t have the time to give it the focus it requires. If you’re going to pull off an ambush against a team from Division Three or Two, you need to give it time, planning, analysis. You need to give it everything. But getting out of Division Four takes up all your time. It has to.”

It isn’t just about progress, not immediate progress at any rate. Every manager involved in teams down around Division Three and Four will tell you that the biggest problem they face every year is squad turnover. Players go travelling, players retire, players decide to devote their one and precious life to something else. When late autumn comes around and Christie and Hegarty need players doing their gym work, Division Three football is a more enticing carrot than the alternative.

“If Longford got two appearances in Croke Park this year, I just couldn’t see anything but positives the following year,” Christie says. “It would mean that everyone would go training in preseason in October and November in the knowledge that they were getting ready for a higher level of football when the end of January comes around.

“When things are going really badly, it’s that bit harder to get everyone motivated to do that hard training that you need to give yourself a base to improve from. If you can give fellas something psychologically to aim for, it’s worth its weight in gold. The momentum of a promotion carries over into the following year. That’s probably more important even than it carrying through to the summer.”

All of which is why neither of them can really fathom why anyone would consider getting rid of league finals. Down the divisions, counties get to experience few enough showpiece occasions as it is. The idea that you’d whip out four Croke Park finals just because the calendar is getting tight strikes them both as carrying a pretty large whiff of let-them-eat-cake.

“To me, that just shows you the difference between the haves and the have-nots straight away,” Christie says. “If you’re with Longford or Tipperary or Carlow or Wexford, Jesus you’d bite the hand off anyone offering them a place in a league final in Croke Park. If we beat Wexford on Sunday and get ourselves into Croke Park the following weekend, that in itself would be a huge achievement. The next achievement would be to play well. And an even bigger achievement would be to beat a Laois team that, in fairness, have looked to be the best team in the division.

“Maybe I’m naive or maybe I’m not clever enough. But to me, the Longfords, the Tipperarys, the Wexfords and all the other teams at our level need to win O’Byrne Cups, Division Four titles, Tailteann Cups – basically anything that’s going. Just to get something into the county that gives them a bit of pride and inspires young fellas to want to follow them.

“A league final is a huge deal. People talk about scrapping them – I just can’t have it. For me, the possibility of getting to a league final would have been one of the main reasons some of our older lads came back this year. And knowing that the Tailteann Cup is there so they could get to Croke Park twice. That’s such a huge thing for them.”

And so it goes. Lunchtime throw-in, Wexford Park, the fourth Sunday in March.

In its own small way, the biggest game of the year.