DECLAN McCOY: Wishing away the seasons

I WAS struck by an interview David Clifford gave recently where he essentially said you can’t wish away the season just to wait for an All-Ireland final.

‘If you do start looking too far down the line, you’re not living in the present at all. You’re kind of wishing the time away. Even the time off the field, you’re nearly looking too far down the line’. This is coming from, in my opinion, the greatest player to ever play the game.

Now I’ve both personal and anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon, where teams are essentially writing off entire league campaigns in order to peak for championship. I must also state that I am ridiculously competitive and would view anything less than championship success as failure.

Culturally, in the GAA, we have become so guarded against celebrating or even enjoying any success that isn’t the ultimate goal of a championship title.

Let’s do the numbers. Most counties have 40 odd teams spread across three championship grades. Thirty seven of these teams will not win a championship and 34 of them will not make a final. So effectively 93 per cent of teams are wishing away entire seasons with nothing to show for it and 85 per cent of teams will not even experience county final day.

Does it then make sense to effectively write off the league to get ready for championship? I’m under no illusions by the way.

I completely understand that championships are the Holy Grail and the ultimate, in many cases, the only mark of success. I guarantee you that many readers would struggle to name the winners of last year’s Allianz Football Leagues, or even the winner of their own county football leagues as recently as two years ago.

Let’s look at a few examples:

I brought my children to the recent inter-county league finals in Croke Park where Donegal beat Armagh.

Now, there was a sense that both teams were holding back and that a league title was irrelevant in comparison to championship. Whilst I recognise this, I would have bitten your hand off for my kids to see Armagh win a trophy in Croke Park. How many young boys and girls would have been inspired by this, regardless of its diminished value?

Another example came directly after that game. I stayed to watch a bit of Derry and Dublin in the Division One decider. It was like a different sport.

I remember thinking Armagh are light years off that standard. Derry were lauded for their performance and instantly installed as one of the favourites for Sam. If you had offered me 10 to 1 that Armagh would beat Derry in the championship a mere few weeks later, I wouldn’t have taken that bet. Now, Derry are being roundly criticised for going too hard too soon and apportioning too much emphasis on the league.

It was said to me, ‘sure it’s only the league, it’s all about championship’. This proved to be right, but where does it stop? Do we diminish Armagh’s win against Derry last week as it’s only the group stage and not knock-out?

Is the next logical step to say, ‘don’t dare enjoy football or celebrate a success until you win a championship’? If you look at the numbers listed earlier, that rules out the vast majority of players, teams, supporters and clubs from deriving any pleasure from the sport.

I had personal experience of this scenario last year. Our team went 21 games unbeaten and didn’t lose a game in the entire league campaign, finishing nine points clear. I recognised at the time that this was only championship preparation, but at the same time I was enjoying it. We then lost both the league and championship finals by a point, our only two defeats of the season. The year became a write-off as the championship wasn’t delivered. Can we now only enjoy things retrospectively if we win a championship?

I have noticed a sharp drop off in crowds and atmosphere in both Louth and Armagh club football this season. The culture of ‘get right for championship’ and just get the league done and dusted is becoming more prevalent. We are losing those special nights where the club is bouncing after beating a bitter rival or a last-minute goal to beat a perceived big team as ‘it’s only the league’.

By all means structure your preparation and taper your training to ensure the team peaks for championship. At the same time, you must also recognise that it’s a long year for players, often starting well before Christmas.

Ensure everything is ready to go in the throes of summer, but don’t ‘wish away’ the season to get there.

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