The delegates at last year's GAA Congress have ensured that this year's National Football League should be one of the most dramatic and consequential of them all.

It's often said these days that the league is the best competition the GAA has. To advance that argument is to mark oneself out as a proper fan.

Perhaps not on the level of the kind of connoisseur who might go to a Sigerson match with no student card on him, but certainly, better than your classic championship day-tripper, who goes along in summertime and squints at his programme and demands to know where in the hell they found this No. 5 out of.

It’s an increasingly mainstream view. How has the league, once an afterthought, occasionally touted for abolition, ascended in popularity in the modern era?

It helps that it has the most obviously logical structure. It wasn’t always so. It took the GAA a while to settle on the revolutionary format of dividing 32 teams into four groups of eight based on quality.

Back in the day, they used to push the reset button on the formula seemingly every other year.

Tracing league records in the 1990s is a slightly confusing experience, between all the 1As and 1Bs, Group As and Group Bs, Division 3 Norths and Division 3 Souths.

The constant chopping and changing makes it a bit hard to follow the thread of who was coming or going year on year. In some seasons, there was no relegation at all. At other times, there are instances of teams being promoted from Division 3 to Division 1. Teams were relegated from Division 2 to Division 2 (not a typo).


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In a couple of years, 1992-93 and 1997-98, there appears at first glance to be no quality-based streaming whatsoever. (In fact, they were deliberately engineered to be 'mixed ability’ groups.)

Kilkenny 1-05 Mayo 2-17 (decent effort from Kilkenny) is an actual scoreline from Group A of the 1997-98 National League.

The imperative at the time seemed to be to give every team in the competition the chance of winning the league. Thus, it was always technically possible to win the league from Division 4. Meath won two league titles, in 1989-90 and 1993-94, from Division 2.

But now, they’ve realised that no one really cares who wins the league. And in that appalling realisation the league found its liberation and its raison d’etre.

The league, unlike semi-finals, isn’t for winning. It’s about status. It’s about promotion and relegation and finding your level. It’s about proudly wearing the tag of Division X (ideally 1, obviously) outfit going forward.

In 2008, they decided to split the 32 teams into four divisions of eight – we don’t know which group of consultants were employed to come up with this new-fangled formula – and have simply stuck with it.

As a result of this consistency and unchanging stolidity, it has acquired real gravitas.

There are other, less happy reasons for the league’s new-found popularity. Provincial silverware is now effectively out of reach for an expanding number of counties – anyone outside the top 2 divisions, the rest of Munster outside Cork and Kerry, the entirety of the former Ireland East constituency. 

Still, it's hard to get worked up over who wins the league. Which makes it an odd fit for the 'best competition in the GAA'

It's old news that the gripe of the age is that too many championship games are hopelessly one-sided affairs where the result is known as soon as the draw is made about 10 months before.

By contrast, the league pits teams of mostly even standard against each other over seven rounds with a tangible reward and a tangible penalty at the end of it.

Still, it's hard to get worked up over who wins the league. Which makes it an odd fit for the 'best competition in the GAA'.

Mayo had a great old party on the pitch and in the stands after turning over Kerry in last year's decider. But history will probably record it as a heartwarming consolation prize for a generation of players who came so close to winning an All-Ireland on so many occasions.

The only way that the identity of the league winners will really matter is when they finally bite the bullet and make the league the championship. Or convert the championship into a league - as has more or less happened in hurling, rendering the hurling league effectively redundant. 

Are there any tweaks to be made? Tweaks that don’t undermine the basic structure of the four divisions as they’ve existed since 2008 (bearing in mind our earlier words about consistency and stolidity).

The GAA has never gotten around to assimilating the idea that a competition could possibly conclude without a final. A competition that hasn't had a final simply isn't finished yet.

Stephen Cluxton celebrates victory in 2018

In the championship, and indeed in most competitions that insist on having finals, the final is the showpiece and the dramatic crescendo. By the time the various league finals arrive, the real action has already taken place.  

Recent seasons have witnessed some terrific final day drama. In 2018, we had Kevin McLoughlin’s famous final day point in Ballybofey, keeping Mayo in the top division and relegating Donegal. The same day, Fermanagh scored three points in injury time to win by a point in Pearse Park, pipping Longford to promotion in the process.

Last year, Down’s one-point loss to Louth cost them promotion to Division 2 after they’d won five games on the trot. While the odd Division 4 team might get a giddy kick out of playing in Croke Park, for Divisions 2 and 3, once the matter of promotion is settled, the league final seems like a give-it-a-lash challenge match.  

On the evidence of this, the GAA could consider embracing the unthinkable and getting rid of the finals altogether.

Just award the title to the team who finish top of the table. 

It is a bit of a leap of imagination for the GAA to embrace the idea that the team who finishes first in the league should win the league. 

But it would – provided there’s no runaway winner - add another layer of drama to the final day action, it might give the league itself a more distinctive cachet among GAA competitions, and it would free up another weekend on the calendar. And aren’t they keen to free up weekends on the calendar?

One of the most exciting weekends of last season arrived in the final weekend of the Leinster hurling league when Galway, All-Ireland champions just two years before, were eliminated on points difference. In Parnell Park that day, while the Dubs celebrated in the middle of the pitch, members of the Galway backroom team stood huddled over a couple of mobile phones in the dugout. 

Parnell Park proved cups are not a prerequisite for drama

Such drama already applies at the bottom of Division 1, but what about the top? 

Imagine teams and supporters down in Killarney or Navan, busily checking their phone to see whether they've won the league. It would provide the tournament with an added USP. The only downside would be having to transport replica trophies around the place.      

The decisions taken at Congress last year move the real drama further away from the summit of the league and towards the middle-ranked counties hovering between Divisions 2 and 3.

League form has been tied into the championship before – the despised Tommy Murphy experiment. But now a wider net of teams are involved.

On the 22 March, 12 games will throw in simultaneously at 2pm (the Division 4 games throw in an hour earlier). 

Cork will be down in Longford potentially needing a win, provided they haven't completed the job earlier, to ensure that they're afforded a safety net in the race for Sam Maguire in 2020. Given the identity of their provincial sparring partners, it's a safety net they could do with.

In a sense, it will feel like the championship has begun that weekend.

After the drama of the 22 March, the finals will probably be a humdrum anti-climax.

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