League, Provincials and All-Ireland: The Contest Between Our Contests
Updated: Aug 5, 2019
Let’s imagine a GAA fan. We don’t really need to, we know they exist. They’re not imaginary. They’re very real. I’m one. You’re one. But for the sake of this point let’s conjure one up in our head. This fan can be anything you want – it could be a straw-hatted Cork lady, or a fake-sideburned Roscommon aul' lad. It could be a ten-year old Mayo boy who travelled to the game on a club bus, or it could be a shaven-headed Hill 16 merchant intent on arriving to the game on time, mar dhea. GAA fans are a colourful bunch, but it’s up to you how you picture them.
Ireland is full of GAA fans. We know this. It’s inarguable, and it’s almost as inalienable a fact as those self-evident rights the US constitution grants to its citizens, the ones they uphold so dearly. Our imaginary fan is one of them. An equally inalienable fact is that there’s nothing this GAA fan loves more than a match, whatever he or she looks like. The cut and thrust of two teams, representing their locality, the winners taking home nothing more (but nothing less) than the glory and prestige. The glory and prestige which, of course, can be lost so quickly at the next meeting.
Now - let’s go one further. If our fan loves a match, by god there’s nothing they love better than a competitive match. I write this having just finished watching Wexford versus Tipperary do battle in the semi-finals of the 2019 hurling championship and I’m lost for words. “Glorious”, while true, doesn’t even begin to cover it. “Exhilarating”? Yes, but again not even close. “Superlative”? Yes, but probably not a word your common or garden GAA fan uses. I certainly don’t use it daily. That’s more a word for journalists (along with my pet peeve “imperious”, although that’s a complaint for another day). “Crazy” gets quite near. But one word that does cover it adequately and which fully describes matters in its own terms of reference is “competitive”. Wexford and Tipperary drew with each other during that match eleven times. Eleven!
Another thing this GAA fan looks forward to more than anything else is the Championship. The pinnacle of the game, the highest sporting award in the land. But what has this become? I’m a Dub, which everybody knows means I’ve sat and watched some championship drubbings handed out by our county football team in the last 8 or 9 years. Matches predefined from the outset, the result known fully in advance. Games for which Paddy Power predicted a 14-point spread, and whose predictions were either proved correct or not high enough. Fixtures for which Jim Gavin, in his pre-match interview, tried to pass off as a “serious test” or a “big challenge”. While we understand and fully accept respect given to opposition, there’s not a soul in the country bought into any of these PR statements. I’m not telling anyone anything they don’t know when I say that the Leinster Football Championship, and to an extent the All-Ireland stages, have become the exact antithesis of what a sporting competition should be. Everything predicted from the outset. Nothing to look forward to (barring another Dublin win, if you’re of that mind). Spiritless dirges, akin to death marches for one of the teams involved. Right now, there’s very little to look forward to from a spectatorial point of view when heading to a match. The surprise element is long gone, at least since Jim McGuinness’s outflanking of Jim Gavin in the 2014 All Ireland semis.
But wait. Why are we just talking about Leinster, aren’t there three other provinces? Things don’t look so good there either. Ulster is the shining light of the Championship’s provincial stages when analysed from a competitive perspective. Everyone loves it, even if the quality of football ranges from middling to dire. But of the nine counties challenging, just four - Armagh, Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan - have won since 1999, and while others have made the final the only ones to even come close were Fermanagh and Down drawing replays in 2008 and 2003 respectively (both went on to lose by more than 5 points). Based on that, literally less than half the available teams can expect to win this. Down south of the country, Tipperary celebrated the establishment of the Free State in 1922 by winning the Munster Football Championship (oddly also devoid since of a name dedication), but only two teams other than Cork or Kerry have won it since - Tipp again in 1935 and Clare in 1992. Three upsets in nearly a century! And even those three upsets only involved two teams. Things look a little better in Connaught of course, but there’s no denying Mayo’s dominance this decade, taking five of ten.
So where do we look to find the challenges, the competition, the actual gladiatorial thrill of a contest? The simple answer is the League of course. The only national competition we have which is ranked and in which teams play at their own level. The only national competition based on consistency when faced with challengers playing at the same form. The only national competition in which the victors can say at the end “we did not rely on luck to win this competition, we are just winners”. I’m leaving aside the rather nonsensical notion of a league final, because to my mind anyone who tops the group should get the plaudits even if the records don’t reflect that. Teams play each other week in, week out, running out contests that are anything but predictable.
More stats: since 2001, the variation in league winners across all divisions utterly trumps any championship differences (bear in mind the following metrics reflect those who topped the league on points rather than winning those weird “finals”, so sometimes there were joint winners). Leaving aside historical naming differences like “Division 1” or “ Division 1A”, 9 different teams have won the first division; 16 have won the second division. The third division is again equally split between 16 and an amazing 20 have won the fourth division. What does that tell you about that competition? Some of these results are huge for the counties involved: all condescension or head-patting aside, where else would counties like Tipperary, Antrim, Louth or Offaly look for gold these days? Every competition has its own validity, and there’s not a player in the land that doesn’t deserve a reward for the effort they put in.
The simple fact is that the League is the most equitable and most competitive contest that football has in Ireland. As one of the aforementioned GAA fans, and perhaps I mirror your imaginary GAA fan from the start, I’ll categorically state it’s also the most entertaining. Forgive me my Dublin-centric viewpoint, but from where I stand there’s nothing better than playing the best teams in the land on a regular basis and actually not knowing what the result will be. Bringing the kids out to watch a real contest. In 2019 alone I was lucky to watch some cracking matches in Clones and Tralee, both of which Dublin justifiably lost. Draw and defeat with Galway and Monaghan in 2018. Draws with Tyrone, Donegal and Kerry in 2017. I could go on but I’m sure you get the message. Win, lose or draw these were all competitive, equal matches. The kind we love. They were contests.
And aren’t contests what sport is all about?