THE National Football League is arguably the most underappreciated competition in the Irish sporting calendar.
Bar the latter stages of the All-Ireland championships, and possibly the Ulster championship too, the NFL is arguably the best, most compelling, entertaining and competitive period of the inter-county football calendar.
Due to the kill-or-be-killed nature of the league structure, most counties invariably find themselves in the division most suited to their current position in the hierarchy.
There is the odd blowout, such as Cork and Derry’s recent big wins up in Newbridge, or Cork’s 6-18 to 0-12 hammering of Limerick in Pairc Uí Chaoimh two weeks ago, but usually, the scorelines are tight this time of year.
An illustration of this is the fact that in the 16 fixtures played in Division 1 up to the end of Round 4 only six of these 16 games ended with a winning margin of over three points.
It’s tight at the top. Small margins end up deciding games.
There is, of course, the fight for the league titles themselves, but the relegation scraps can almost be more compelling and probably the cherry on top for the league is that every county now knows that their respective league finishing position potentially impacts their place in the All-Ireland championship later in the year.
We have a brand new All-Ireland football championship structure this year, where the top 16 sides in the country will face off in a round-robin competition after the end of the provincial championships.
These sixteen sides will be understood of the eight provincial finalists, Westmeath (due to the fact that they won the Tailteann Cup last year), and the next-best seven teams, based on their respective finishing positions in the league. All the other counties drop down to play in this year’s Tailteann Cup.
It will be interesting to see this being played out in the next few months, as this is very much a leap into the unknown for all concerned.
The Division 1 teams know that they are guaranteed one of the league qualifying spots, even in the event of an early provincial exit, but from Division 2 down there will be a scramble, with the teams in Division 3 and 4 knowing that their eggs are solely in the provincial championship basket, in terms of qualification – the seven league spots are never going to stretch that far.
Each county in Division 2 resembles a golfer finishing up their round in a major early on the Friday not knowing where the cut line is going to end up, but knowing that every single shot and position might count.
With that in mind Cork manager John Cleary will know that every two-pointer they put on the board is a step towards qualification.
Even if Derry and Dublin have probably jumped the gun now in terms of promotion to Division 1 next year, every league game is still hugely important from a Cork perspective.
Should Cork lose to Clare in the Munster Championship quarter-final in Ennis on April 9, or the subsequent semi-final, then everyone will be desperately lunging for the league tables in an attempt to calculate where the cut line is likely to be.
It is very much a wait-and-see game as to whether this new structure proves to be a winner.
A lot will depend on how seriously the Tailteann Cup teams take their tournament.
The link-up is certainly an area that hurling can improve upon. Currently, there is no link whatsoever between the National Hurling League and the All-Ireland Hurling Championship.
The league is almost seen as a hindrance. One way of making the relevant league would be to grant an automatic place in the All-Ireland qualifiers to the eventual league winners.
This would be particularly useful to Cork and the other four big hitters in the Munster Championship, as every year it is a dogfight just to get out of Munster.
To have that security blanket of qualification would be a huge incentive and would make everyone’s attitude towards the league change overnight.