There was a piece with Dublin’s Barry Cahill in yesterday’s Indo where he expressed the view that the Dubs should take next year’s NFL a bit more seriously than they did this year. That wouldn’t, in fairness, be very difficult because Pat Gilroy and the lads appeared utterly indifferent to how they were performing (which was mostly very poorly) in this year’s league and they only managed to retain their Division 1 status for 2010 by beating the bejaysus out of Westmeath in their final match of the campaign. Cahill reckons that, after their summer travails dish ear, next spring’s NFL could prove the ideal way to get back on the wagon and he rightly points to the fact that it’ll make a welcome change for the Dubs to be starting their league campaign on the road, away from the early season Croke Park-under-the-lights fixture that the GAA has so cynically manufactured in recent times. The Dubs do seriously need to get their house back into some kind of order and a decent league run could be good way to start going about this.
What about ourselves? We’ve now put in two lackadaisical NFL campaigns since the last time we had a serious tilt at the competition that first made the county’s footballers famous back in the Thirties so should we also be looking for a more focused approach to the 2010 league campaign? You could argue, with more than a little justification, that our 2007 run all the way to the NFL final did Sweet Fanny Adams for us that year, culminating as it did in yet another Croke Park final defeat which was then rapidly followed by our May meltdown in Salthill and the aimless qualifier campaign that ended in such dismal fashion up in Celtic Park in July of that year. But then an indifferent league campaign in 2008 was followed by an equally indifferent championship run and a mediocre spring performance this year presaged a better, though still far from satisfactory, summer for us.
I dunno what to think, to be honest, because it’s certainly true that going hell for leather at the league is no guarantee of a happy summer. At the same time, an NFL title shouldn’t – as it’s often characterized to be – be viewed as some kind of toxic bauble that will guarantee a county to fall flat on its face the minute that Smirking Michael Lyster returns to front The Sunday Game Live. The Kerrymen (cute hoors that they are) have never seen league success as an impediment to winning Sam (I know, I know, there’s very little that they do see – apart from Tyrone – stopping them from the All-Ireland in any given year): as the table shows (even I was a bit shocked at this little nugget), on every single occasion over the past 25 years that Kerry have won the NFL, they’ve also gone on to win that year’s All-Ireland. Summer failure after league success appears to be more of an Ulster problem (probably because (a) Ulster counties tend to win the league a lot and (b) Ulster is a minefield to get out of in any given year) but Tyrone have shown recently (in 2003, to be exact) that the Double can be done by Nordies too.
That twenty-five year record also, I think, masks the shift that has taken place over the past decade, most likely because of the structural change in the championship and the increasing irrelevance of winning provincial honours. In the sixteen year period from 1985 to 2000 (i.e. right up to the change in championship structure), nine NFL champions were beaten within their province in that year’s championship, two lost at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, two more in the All-Ireland final itself while three (Meath in 1988, Cork in 1989 and Kerry in 1997) did the Double. Under the new dispensation from 2001, six NFL champions (including ourselves in that quite comical Connacht final loss to the Rossies in 2001) failed to win provincial honours later the same year but two of the three who did (Tyrone in 2003 and Kerry the following year) went on to win the All-Ireland while Armagh were beaten (by Tyrone) in the All-Ireland semi-final. However (and here’s the rub), Kerry have twice recently (2006 and this year) won the league, bombed in Munster and have then gone on to win the All-Ireland. So while winning the league might still be deemed to be injurious to your prospects of triumphing in the now seriously devalued provincial championships, the Kerrymen have shown us (they have so much to show us in Gaelic football, the hoors) that league success followed by provincial failure no longer has to mean All-Ireland failure as well. Well, not if you’re Kerry it doesn’t.
So, should we have a right go at the league next year? (In other words, should our motto, come February, be 10-MO-NFL?) While I don’t think we should go bald-headed for it, I would like if our 2010 NFL campaign didn’t feature the kind of soporific displays that we saw this year in the league against the likes of Derry and Dublin. If we went on to win the thing, then it’d be no bad thing: it is a national title, after all, and we’re not exactly tripping over such trinkets at the minute. And, of course, if we did capture our twelfth NFL crown next spring, then lose to the Fat Controller’s new charges in Connacht in early summer before roaring back to win the All-Ireland via the scenic route, we’d all be drunk till 2025 or thereabouts but that, I suppose, is another day’s work.