Wednesday 26 June 2019

Football cream still rising to top despite the occasional blip on landscape

TURN-UP: Carlow captain John Murphy celebrates with Shane Redmond (left) and Daniel St Ledger (right) after a famous Leinster Championship win over Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile
TURN-UP: Carlow captain John Murphy celebrates with Shane Redmond (left) and Daniel St Ledger (right) after a famous Leinster Championship win over Kildare. Photo by Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Thank God for that ... we're finally here, standing at the gateway to the 'Super 8s'. After two months of faffing around, we can get down to the real business of the football championship.

And the other 25, London and New York included? Thanks for keeping us half-awake; now please go away quietly and don't annoy us.

But, before you do, a special word of gratitude to Carlow and Fermanagh, for having the temerity to topple one of the hea vyweights, albeit only temporarily. You have done your bit for preserving the (dubious) notion that the provincial championships are a living, breathing entity; a font of gloriously unpredictable competitiveness.

Apologies if we sound in a particularly sarcastic mood this morning. We are, genuinely, looking forward to the 'Super 8s' - primarily because a new product always promises something fresh and exciting, even if only the packaging is different.

But we do feel sorry for the disenfranchised 25. Not because they should be there as part of a 'Super 33' - a fundamental tenet of competitive sport is that the cream rises to the top, and it invariably boils down to a select few chasing the biggest pots of silver while the rest look on in envy.

That's why Dublin and Kerry are always here, approaching the business end of summer, having barely broken sweat. And that's why Carlow and Fermanagh, for all their earlier heroics, are not.

What's different about this summer (apart from England somehow reaching a World Cup semi-final) is the new round-robin format that awaits at the last-eight stage.

But while the structure is radically different, there is nothing particularly new about the concept of an elite eight. It has been happening for years - and maybe we just didn't see it - as the gap between Division 1 of the Allianz Football League and the rest grew into a chasm.

Gaelic football is no longer a two-tier sport dressed up as one; or if it is, we are no longer talking about a top 16 and a bottom 16.

The top eight have disappeared over the horizon.

As you peruse the composition of our two 'Super 8' groups, consider the following:

1 Seven of the eight survivors played in the top-flight this spring. They include Donegal and Kildare, wh o were both relegated. The eighth team is Roscommon, who were promoted fr om Division 2 having spent the previous two seasons in the top tier.

2 The only Division 1 outfit who won't be in Croke Park next weekend are Mayo. But again, there are extenuating circumstances behind their surprisingly early demise. Specifically, high physical mileage and perhaps even emotional baggage after so much All-Ireland heartbreak; ill-timed injuries to key personnel; the luck of the draw (getting Galway so early); and the fact that their two losses came against Division 1 rivals. In other words, one of Mayo and Kildare was going nowhere a fter Newbridge.

3 The only Division 1 sides to suffer shock defeats against lower-tier opponents were Kildare (then mired in crisis, losing to a Carlow team just promoted from Division 4) and Monaghan (ambushed by a Fermanagh side promoted from Division 3). Critically, both have recovered through the qualifiers.

4 So far this summer, there have been nine head-to-heads between teams which featured in Divisions 1 and 2 this year. They have resulted in nine victories for the former by a cumulative 92 points - over ten points per game.

5 These include four borderline cricket-scores: Kerry thumped Clare by 22 points and Cork by 17, while Donegal crushed Down by 13 points and Tyrone filleted Cork by 16 last Saturday.

True, those nine wins also include t wo relatively close battles (Galway edged Roscommon by four, Tyrone beat Cavan by three) plus an even more fraught one-point victory for Tyrone who required extra-time to banish Meath.

Yet it would be misleading to suggest, based on one performance against a then-vulnerable Tyrone, that the Royals are edging closer to our top-eight elite.

Successive years meandering through Division 2 and labouring in Dublin's Leinster slipstream have left Meath in a position where they are far more likely to lose in Longford than to be playing football in August.

Compared to their one-time September rivals, Cork's fall from grace has only manifested over the past few seasons. However, based on this year's league form (sixth in Division 2) and especially those twin debacles against Kerry and Tyrone, their descent has been far more precipitous.

Truth is, the overall quality of Division 2 fare this year was miles off Division 1 standard … and now it has been replicated in championship.

That gap can only be bridged if fallen heavyweights such as Cork and Meath start to recapture the stellar consistency of old. Easier said than done, as the 'Super 8' party gets into full swing in their absence.

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