We need to nurture and develop what the National League serves up week after week

Antrim's Ruairi McCann celebrates his second goal for Antrim against Down in Newry. Picture: Philip Walsh.
Antrim's Ruairi McCann celebrates his second goal for Antrim against Down in Newry. Picture: Philip Walsh.

THE atmosphere in Newry last Saturday night and then at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday was electric.

After the Mayo versus Armagh game – even though his team had just blown a five-point lead - Kevin McStay was all smiles and he remarked on how, particularly in the second half, it had been “Championship stuff”. He was absolutely right.

The ground was packed and the football was superb. Just like the Down-Antrim game, two evenly-matched teams took turns grabbing the initiative and then losing it and the players poured everything they had into a classic.

There were 39 scores in Newry and 34 in Armagh and the finales to both games was nail-biting, edge-of-the-seat drama. No-one left Pairc Esler until Down had pulled the fat out the fire against luckless Antrim and at the Athletic Grounds – whether they were going home to Camlough or Castlebar – no-one thought of leaving to beat the traffic before Rian O’Neill had scored the equaliser with the last kick of the game.

The players were a credit to their counties, a credit to the GAA and it’s the same throughout the four divisions.

We need to nurture and develop what the National League serves up week after week.

In the two rounds of the League this year so far there have been four draws (two in Division One and two in Division Four), five one-point victories, a two-point win and three wins by three points. That means there has been a kick of the ball between the teams in 13 of the 32 games and there have been six points or less between the teams in eight of the other games and that includes the likes of the Roscommon-Tyrone clash at Dr Hyde Park which could have gone either way until the Rossies produced a grandstand finish.

There is an occasional mismatch but only four games out of the 32 played so far have been decided by a double-figure winning margin.

That is terrific entertainment, that’s what the punters turn out for and all counties need lots of that to develop their players and bring in the fans. More competitive games = more packed houses = more excitement, drama and interest = a healthier GAA.

Tradition dictates that the Championship is number one and the latter rounds at Croke Park are, for the most part, unmissable but the League deserves increased status beside the GAA’s flagship competition. As fixture-makers and planners experiment with new formats for the Championship it’s time to expand the League to a home and away basis.

The early rounds of the provincial Championships are dying a death. Last year in the Leinster Championship, Louth hammered Carlow by 15 points and were then hammered themselves by Kildare (16 points) who were then humiliated by Dublin (16 points again) in the final.

In Connacht, the two semi-finals were depressingly one-sided. Galway beat Leitrim by 23 points in the first and then Roscommon trounced Sligo by 12 in the second.

Meanwhile, Kerry drove a cart and horses through Munster, beating Cork in the semi-final by 12 points and then Limerick in the decider by 23.

Even in Ulster, where we pride ourselves on being competitive, Antrim, Down and Tyrone were all sent packing by 10 points or more.

The Tailteann Cup came in last year and, although it was a hard pill to swallow for the traditionalists (and we’re all traditionalists to some degree) it wasn’t a moment before time but there are too many (I won’t say meaningless because they all mean something to someone) predictable games to get through before we get the real contests.

Comparisons to soccer are a turn-off for self-respecting GAA folk but maybe we could take a leaf out of their book. Could we look at how the English Leagues slot the FA Cup into their fixture scheduling? Could we play the Championship rounds on weekends within the League framework?

So what’s my suggestion? Here goes: A new home-and-away format in the National League with the provincial Championships and then the All-Ireland series and the Tailteann Cup being played on designated weekends among the League fixtures.

The county that tops the table at the end of the League season is the champion (no League finals). After the final round of League fixtures are played, the season ends with the All-Ireland and the Tailteann Cup finals on the same weekend at Croke Park.

Players often say that they want more games and in this system they would be guaranteed 14 League fixtures. On top of that, factoring in preliminary-round games, the All-Ireland finalists would get a maximum of seven Championship games and Tailteann Cup finalists would get the same.

So that’s potentially 21 games which, you might argue, is a lot of football. It is but last year’s inter-county season began on January 29 and ran to July 24 which is a 25-week span so there is scope for a weekend off here and there throughout what could, and should, be a season that keeps more counties and their supporters involved for longer.

A full six-month season in which the majority of counties would have something to play for - whether it’s relegation or promotion or Championship glory or two of the three - right to the end.

At present most counties get five or six home games a season. This change would double that so they’d increase the gate receipts and inspire the next generation at the same time.

Tinker with this idea as you see fit but, as the fella said in that gangster movie Sexy Beast: Do-able? I don’t see why not. Where there’s a will there’s a way.

Here’s how the season would work if it was played this year:

Jan 28: Week One: National League round one

Feb 4: Week Two: National League round two

Feb 11: Week Three: Provincial Championships preliminary round (Ulster and Leinster)

Feb 18: Free weekend

Feb 25: Week Four: Provincial Championship quarter-finals

March 4: Week Five: National League round three

March 11: Week Six: National League round four

March 18: Free weekend

March 25: Week Seven: Provincial Championship semi-finals

April 1: Week Eight: National League round five

April 8: Week Nine: National League round six

April 15: Week 10: National League round seven

April 22: Free weekend

April 29: Week 11: Provincial Championship finals

May 6: Week 12: National League round eight

May 13: Week 13: National League round nine

May 20: Free weekend

May 27: Week 14: Tailteann Cup round one *

June 3: Week 15: National League round 10

June 10: Week 16: All-Ireland quarter-finals/Tailteann Cup quarter-finals

June 17: Week 17: National League round 11

June 24: Week 18: National League round 12

July 1: Free weekend

July 8: Week 19: All-Ireland semi-finals/Tailteann Cup semi-finals

July 15: Week 20: National League round 13

July 22: Week 21: National League final round

July 29: Free weekend

August 4&5: Week 22: All-Ireland final/Tailteann Cup final

* Qualification for Tailteann Cup would continue to be based on the previous year’s League placing and performance in the provincial Championship.