SEVEN-YEAR RESULTS SHOW THAT ONLY TOP SIX LEAGUE FINISHERS CAN WIN SAM.
Two days to go to the start of the Allianz Football League and the message to counties is clear: only those who finish in the top six in Division 1 have a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland title.
That’s based on results since the 2008 restructuring of the League into four divisions of eight, based solely on rankings.
Prior to that, the League was split into two Divisions (1A, 1B, 2A, 2B) with the top 16 counties in the premier group and the other 16 in the second band.
Over the last seven seasons, no county who finished lower than sixth in Division 1 has taken the Sam Maguire Cup.
Indeed, three All-Ireland winners (Kerry 2009, Cork 2010, Dublin 2013) won the Division 1 title, prior to completing the double five months later.
The lowest-ranked League teams to win the All-Ireland in that period were Donegal (2012) and Kerry (2014), each of whom finished sixth in the Division 1.
If the pattern of the last seven seasons is maintained, the two teams relegated from Division 1 in April have no chance of winning the All-Ireland; nor have the top sides in Division 2.
Derry and Monaghan are bookies’ favourites to drop out of Division 1, while Kildare, Meath, Galway and Down lead the betting for promotion in Division 2.
Armagh are in Division 3 this year but are quoted as sixth favourites for the All-Ireland title, presumably on the basis that they came within a point of Donegal in last year’s quarter-finals and are heading on an upward swing.
However, it would represent quite a surge to win the All-Ireland from Division 3, a group Armagh were drawn into after being relegated last April when finishing in joint seventh place with Galway in Division 2.
They had a better scoring average but lost out on the head-to-head because of the defeat by Galway in Round 6.
Donegal had high hopes of breaking the Division 2 barrier last year when, after winning promotion, they reached the All-Ireland final, only to lose to Kerry. Down also reached the All-Ireland final from Division 2 in 2010, but lost to Cork.
Donegal showed no great interest in the League under Jim McGuinness so it will be interesting to see if the approach changes under Rory Gallagher. They won the 2012 All-Ireland after finishing sixth in Division 1, a feat replicated by Kerry last year.
It was the second successive year that Kerry had flirted with relegation (they also finished sixth in 2013) but made a spectacular recovery in the championship, retaining the Munster title before winning the All-Ireland for the first time since 2009.
It has inevitably fuelled the theory that the League is not all that important in an All-Ireland context, but the fact remains that no county over outside the top six in Division 1 has landed September glory over the past seven years.
Dublin’s experiences provides clear example of how the League can shape a team into a winning outfit. They had a dismal spring record for many years prior to 2010, when manager, Pat Gilroy targeted the League, eventually missing out on a final place on scoring difference.
It was the start of a new era for Dublin, who lost the 2011 League final by a point to Cork before later winning the All-Ireland title. And when Jim Gavin succeeded Gilroy as manager at the start of the 2013 season, he stressed the importance of the League.
Dublin later completed the League/All-Ireland double and retained the League title last season.
It means that Cork and Dublin have won the last five Division 1 titles between them, while taking three of the five All-Ireland crowns.
There was a time when League success almost came to be regarded as toxic for counties with genuine All-Ireland ambitions. Kerry (1997) were the only county to complete the League/All-Ireland double between 1989 (Cork) and 2003 (Tyrone).
Kerry (2004 and 2006) later won the double as the League assumed a much more important role in the seasonal planning.
A change in the fixtures calendar played a big part in the change of attitude.
Playing the League in the one calendar year was introduced early in the new Millennium, leading to an upgrading of the competition.
Prior to that, three rounds were played pre-Christmas, often leading to a distorted table as counties involved in the closing stages of the All-Ireland championship usually started the League with weakened teams, due to club and other activities.
That often left them falling so far behind that they were unable to make up the ground in spring. That cleared the way for others to pick up League titles, only to be overtaken once the championship began.
The League’s status suffered as a result but once the impact of the new calendar became apparent, beginning with Tyrone in 2003, the landscape changed.
Now, it’s generally accepted that the League is a fairly accurate indicator of a county’s prospects in the championship.
The last five All-Ireland titles (see table) have been won by counties who averaged seventh or higher League placings in the same period.
Cork, who won three successive Division 1 titles in 2010, ’11 and ’12 lead the League consistency table, followed by Dublin (two wins and a runners-up spot).
As in the championship, Mayo remain the enigma. They are the only county to have remained in Division 1 over the last 15 years but have won only one title, beating Galway in the 2001 final.
In more recent times they reached League finals in 2010 and 2012 but lost both to Cork.
They were beaten semi-finalists for the past two years. It leaves them in third place overall on the five-year League consistency table, eight places ahead of great rivals Galway, who have been in Division 2 for the last three seasons.