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Heady days for much-maligned football league

THE big chiefs of Allianz were in Croke Park yesterday to launch the latest incarnation of the National Football League. Incredibly, in an era when sporting sponsorships tend to have far shorter life spans than those of your average inter-county footballer, the insurance giant is entering the 21st year of this partnership.

Through its current and previous guise (as Church & General), its steadfast support of the GAA's self-styled "second most important national competition" stretches way back to the early '90s. At different junctures since then, the company probably had good reason to consider walking away, as a variety of county managers (and occasionally, perhaps, Croke Park too) treated the event with lip-service, if not quite disdain.

We've all heard the stories of managers running their players into training ground submission on the Saturday before a league semi-final -- partly because they didn't want to "show their hand" to rivals they'd be meeting in the championship five weeks hence.

Even if all these tales weren't true, the same managers didn't exactly go out of their way to promote the competition. The standard post-match put-down ("it's only the league" or "it's only March") was designed to convey the clear impression that what happened in spring had little All-Ireland relevance.

And often, of course, they were right. Trawl through the '90s and you'll see that most league winners invariably came up short in championship. Kerry were a solitary exception, achieving the league and All-Ireland double in 1997.

Two years later, Cork followed up their league triumph by reaching the All-Ireland final. But even '99 stands out as a National League 'lowlight'. Some arcane 'home and away' arrangement between Dublin and Cork was invoked by the powerbrokers on Leeside, so that the final was switched to Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

On a miserably wet day, the game was played in front of barely 10,000 spectators. With three matches on the itinerary that day, Tom Carr's Dublin effectively had to share changing facilities with two other counties. And as anyone who has visited said dressing-rooms will testify, they are the sporting equivalent of a "charming bijou apartment", the type where swinging a cat (let alone a Celtic tiger) should be avoided for your own health and that of the unfortunate feline.

That entire Leeside saga, at the time, still struck us as a metaphor for our unloved national leagues.

Not any more. For much of the last decade there has been a far more obvious correlation between spring formlines and summer success. Maybe it's because the competition has switched to a calendar year format; maybe the onset of the qualifiers has been a more significant factor, or maybe managers and teams just care a bit more ... whatever the explanation, the league and championship double has been achieved in five of the last 10 years, by Tyrone (2003), Kerry ('04, '06 and '09) and Cork ('10).

Could it happen again in 2013? Quite possibly, especially since -- on paper -- this year's Division One looks more competitive than any of recent vintage. Whatever happens, the sponsors are telling us to "unexpect the expected" -- which could mean anything, we reckon, bar bringing the final back to Cork!