While the Allianz Football Leagues won’t be fully over until the four divisional finals are played this Saturday and Sunday, last weekend was the completion of the ‘real’ business.
Obviously, the deciders this weekend afford teams a chance to play in Croke Park and will crown champions, but a team can lose by 25 points safe in the knowledge that their promotion to a higher division will not be risked.
Depending on championship opening dates, the finals may well be distractions for some of the counties involved.
Last week was when the important matters came to a head, with promotion and relegation determined and extra significance placed on who went down from Division 2 and up from Division 3.
This year, for the first time since 2008, the All-Ireland senior football championship won’t be open to all counties, with those in Division 3 and Division 4 of the 2023 leagues competing in the new Tailteann Cup unless they manage to reach a provincial final.
It meant that there was an awful lot riding on the meeting of Offaly and Cork in Division 2 in Bord na Móna O’Connor Park in Tullamore and it went right down to the wire before the Rebels claimed victory by a point.
Fall from grace for Cork
Having failed to win their first five matches, Cork were up against it with two rounds left but they pulled out wins at home to Down and away to Offaly to secure their status and avoid what would have been a second relegation to Division 3 in the space of four league campaigns. Even to be where they are, scrambling around the nether regions of Division 3, is anathema to supporters who can recall a relatively recent time when Cork were regularly challenging for the Sam Maguire Cup, winning it in 2010.
Since then, the trophy has been won by Dublin, Donegal, Kerry and Tyrone, all of whom remain strong contenders, even allowing for Dublin’s relegation to Division 2 for next year. Cork’s decline has been relatively swift and, as is always the way when these things happen, the way back seems to be a precipitous incline. However, a young group of players will surely benefit from the experience of grinding out survival, even if a Munster semi-final against Kerry on May 7 is likely to be a test too far for now.
Unless they get to the Leinster final, Offaly will have to participate in the Tailteann Cup. One would hope that the new competition will have a more positive fate than its sort-of predecessor, the Tommy Murphy Cup, which was contested from 2004-08.
Initially run so that counties knocked out of the All-Ireland could potentially get a day out in Croke Park, in its final two editions it consisted of teams who would have been in Division 4 the following year, unless they got to the provincial final. Lacking any kind of promotion from the GAA, it failed to generate any real interest and so it was a mercy when it ceased.
Now, as the new equivalent comes into view, one would hope that lessons will have been learned. Former Offaly footballer Ciarán McManus gave an interview to Pat Nolan of The Irish Mirror last week where he shared his not-so-fond memories of playing in the Tommy Murphy Cup and feared that the experience with the Tailteann could be something similar.
“Staying in the top 16 in the first year would be a great achievement for this team and not to be relegated into that, what’s the name of the cup? The Tailteann Cup is it?
“Even that, not even remembering what the name of that cup is just shows it just doesn’t appeal to me, this second-tier championship.”
There is certainly a conundrum there in that the counties topping Division 3 or battling relegation from Division 2 will almost certainly be absent from the business-end of the Sam Maguire race and would be favourites for the Tailteann Cup, but you can’t say during the league that you’re trying to get relegated or avoid promotion just to ensure a better chance of silverware.
Even now that we know the counties likely to be involved, some of them will be contesting provincial semi-finals which they are obviously going to try to win – should they come up short, the Tailteann may feel like a booby prize rather than something to target.
Not helping either is the fact that RTÉ is going to be showing only the semi-finals and final live, but they will argue that three games out of 17 isn’t a bad return when there are so many big Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire matches to show, too. TG4 has done wonders in broadcasting the games that nobody had previously bothered with – it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to see what they could make of the Tailteann Cup.
An All-Star Awards scheme for the competition would definitely be a positive move; conversely, getting the games out of the way on Saturday afternoons would be a clear sign that it is a nuisance rather than a competition worth winning.
Second-tier need not mean second-class – in soccer, the English Championship is the 10th-best-attended league in the whole word – but supporters respond to what they are shown and told. Ultimately, the GAA hold the bulk of the responsibility for how well or badly the new competition fares.
Martina Griffin, whose entry was chosen for the recent competition to win a copy of Game of My Life: Cork Hurling.