Thursday, April 05, 2007

National League Decision Day

"Sure the league doesn't matter a damn!"..."It's important to have a good league campaign"...."Well, we've done fine but it's the Championship that counts"...."Losing all our games and getting relegated to Division 4 makes no difference, we'll be fine come the summer"....

And so on and so forth. The thirty-two inter-county architects responsible for the construction of Championship cathedrals while simultaneously completing satisfactory NFL bungalows will be applying plenty perspective to their surveyances come Sunday evening.

Certainly, though, this weekend's decisions come with added gravitas in light of next season's league reorganisation.

With the 2008 NFL being organised into four conventional divisions of descending standard, as opposed to the current, rather forgiving, 16 team divisions split into A and B sections, this League's seeds could reap some distasteful fruit for counties finding themselves in the wasteland of divisions 3 and 4 next year.

Enter Armagh. The Orchard county, one of the accepted 'Big 3' of recent years, find themselves perilously close to exile from the NFL's Garden of Eden. Languishing second from bottom of division 1B, having harvested only narrow wins over Louth and already-doomed Down, Armagh's meeting with Westmeath in Crossmaglen is of monumental importance to Joe Kernan's former All-Ireland champions.

The long-circulating rumours of Armagh's demise may, at last, not be exaggerated, given their season so far. On the other hand, a veritable hospital wing of injuries (to the likes of full-forward lynchpin Ronan Clarke, Brian and Andy Mallon and Malachy Mackin) plus the prolonged absence of the influential Crossmaglen contingent (goalkeeper Paul Hearty, cult hero full-back Francie Bellew, the great Oisin McConville and the Kernan brothers return, but the stalwart McEntee twins - John and Tony - have announced their retirements) has severely hampered Armagh.

Put simply, a six-point win will save the 2002 All-Ireland champions, condemning Westmeath to the fiery pits of division 3 on points difference. A smaller winning margin would leave Armagh relying on Derry to beat Louth, results which would see the Wee county plummet along with Down.

In division 1A Cork and Limerick meet in what is essentially a relegation play-off, but the fascination here is in the three-way battle between Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone for the two remaining division 1 places for next season. Dublin can't play Kerry at the best of times without the full weight of history and significance being brought to bear on proceedings, so Parnell Park should fairly reverberate on Sunday with the carrot of consigning a great rival to the humdrum of division 2 next year.

Dublin's persistent inability to press for home when in winning situations seems to have developed from a troubling malady into a congenital disorder. Kerry have not remotely matched their All-Ireland-winning form in the league, although the absences of Dr.Croke's duo Colm 'Gooch' Cooper and Eoin Brosnan, and Kieran Donaghy through suspension and injury haven't helped. But there was enough about them in the draw against Tyrone last weekend, and in particular the majestic display by Darragh O'Shea, to suggest that Dublin too could be pressing their faces against the window of Chez Top 8 come next year.

If that so transpires, Paul Caffrey, and any manager reviewing a disappointing campaign, will underline the importance of leaping towards summer; all the same, he'll secretly rue the lack of the springboard a good league provides.

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