League still plays second fiddle to Sam


Kevin Beirne previews the 2013 National Football League

Gaelic football and hurling are two very unusual sports in their rejection of a league campaign as the decider for who is the champion in that sport. Although the Heineken Cup and Champions League are seen as the pinnacle of their respective codes, that it more to do with the inclusion of the best from all the countries, as a league system would simply not work.

American sports rely heavily on the playoff system, with the Superbowl being one of the most recognisable games in world sport. But even though the playoffs are what determines the eventual winner of the highest prize in their sport, an initial league phase precedes all that drama.

Only in the GAA is the league format shunned so much and the brutality of a knock-out contest championed so greatly, although the introduction of the qualifiers has reduced the harshness somewhat compared to what it once was.

It is no secret that the Championship in the summer is where the true champions and legends of GAA are decided, but since the league was reformatted in 2002, five of the nine winners have gone on to win the All-Ireland  Football Final the following summer.

In the league, Cork are searching for their fourth straight title, having won the last three leagues. During this time they have only won one All-Ireland, which followed their first league title in 2010. They will kick off the new season when they face-off against 2011 All-Ireland Champions Dublin in a repeat of the 2011 league final.

Both Cork and Dublin will be disappointed with their respective performances in the 2012 All-Ireland Championship, as both would have gone in to it with hopes of bringing Sam home with them. Cork won the Munster Championship, following an impressive five-point victory over Kerry in the semi-final, only to lose out to eventual winners Donegal in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Dublin also won their provincial championship, meaning they took their seventh Leinster title in eight years, but the defending All-Ireland Champions never seemed to get out of first gear throughout the summer. They eventually limped out of the competition after losing to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Dublin have a lot to answer for, after such a poor outing in the summer, and will hope that a good league campaign can help put the 2012 Championship behind them and ensure it was a blip as opposed to the new norm. That being said, it shows how much expectations have risen in the capital that a semi-final berth is seen as a complete failure.

Another team who failed to live up to their pre-summer hype were Kerry, who usually come alive around the time the race for Sam kicks off. Two losses in the one summer will have hurt the Kingdom’s pride more than it would for most counties.

There is a sense that this Kerry team’s days are done and that new blood is badly needed. While Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy both turn 30 this year, it would be a brave man who writes them off now.  Kerry finished the last National Football League campaign on top of the table, but lost out in the playoffs to Mayo.

During the season, Kerry had only lost once, to the eventually relegated Armagh. Kerry have not won either the league or the summer Championship since 2009, when they did the double. Down in the Kingdom, four years without a trophy is an eternity and it will be interesting to see how the players handle the pressure.

The All-Ireland champions from Ulster, Donegal, will look to use the league to try some new things in anticipation of the defense of their crown in the summer. The Donegal faithful will hope that Jim McGuinness finds a way to balance his new role with Glasgow Celtic with coaching their heroes.

Teams like Kildare, Tyrone and Down will be hoping that they can use a successful year in the league to give them momentum going in to the summer’s Championship. Kildare, in particular, will hope that they can be in the mix by the end of the season as they attempt to end Dublin’s Leinster dominance.

Mayo’s 2012 season was a successful, but ultimately bitterly disappointing campaign as they managed to lose in the final of both the National Football League and the All-Ireland, with their sole victory in a final coming in a two-point victory over Sligo in the Connacht Championship.

Despite the disappointment of losing the two biggest finals of the year, Mayo should take solace in the fact that they beat Kerry in knockout football and also overcame the defending champions Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final. In truth, both finals were a stretch too far for a team that is lacking a true superstar.

It is sure to be an interesting season in the National Football League. All eight teams are capable of beating any of the other seven on their day. Regardless of who wins, it is hard to see a team from the other divisions mounting a real challenge for Sam in the summer.

Tyrone are the only team in the top division not to have made the All-Ireland quarter-finals last time around, having lost to Kerry in the qualifiers. In fact, since the 2002 reformatting of the league, every single All-Ireland champion has come from the First Division. Just a quick glance at this year’s teams gives you no reason to think that trend won’t continue.