Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the League

29 Waterford v Kilkenny 11 March 2012

Walsh Park, Venue of Legends

There’s just over four weeks to go before the throw-in for the 2013 National Hurling League, and at the risk of sounding mad, especially in the light of the retirement of John Mullane, I’m looking forward to it. A recent article by An Spailpín Fanach does a lovely job of explaining the attraction of the League to the committed. He – and he is a he – compares it to an AA meeting, but it is surely more like a crack house where the addicted come to get their fix, a place where they know the fare may be meagre but at least it won’t be laced with rat poison. Incidentally, the patriarch of the family mentioned in a previous post was among the hardy bucks spotted at the match against Dublin in 2011 who was, as I put it, One of Us. Only the best of the best darken the League’s door.

Over the years I’ve probably railed against the National League for its uselessness – feel free to root through the archives, there should be several examples where I have more answers than Larry Gogan – and there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a tournament treated with contempt by those playing it. Even on the rare occasions when one of the minnows wins it, such as when we did in 2007, there isn’t any of the hoopla that you’ll get when, for example, either Swansea or Bradford win the English League Cup. The format, requiring as seems to be expected a league with a knockout conclusion, is reviled whatever it happens to be. If the GAA was starting from first principles in the 21st century, the League would not be invented.

Or would it? The problem with bashing the League is this: what do you put in its place? Let’s imagine a new President was elected with a mandate to clear the decks of the detritus that is the League. After all the hallelujahs had subsided, matters would turn to what the GAA was going to do between Championships. And while there might be scope in football to extend the Championship in some form into the spring, you can forget about it in hurling. It’s a summer sport, a reality explicitly accepted by the GAA when it successfully transplanted the Under-21 football championship into the spring while leaving the hurling equivalent where it was. If the League were abolished something along the lines of the Waterford Crystal Cup would emerge to take its place, something with all the problems of lack of competition and crowds – aprés Spailpín, it’d be the same faces attending the games as do the current League – except it would lack the sense of continuity of a competition that has been as hardy an annual since 1945 as biographies claiming new insight into what made the Führer tick.

In fairness, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contemplate changing the calendar. Any change which was Pareto efficient, i.e. an outcome which led to an overall increase in satisfaction even if some people were worse off, would be acceptable. The latest proposals are nothing if not intriguing and it’s something I hope to look at before it gets shot down in flames. In the meantime though, there’s always the League to look forward to. All hail us lucky few who able to say we saw the new John Mullane before anyone else.