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28 October 1999 Edition

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Sportsview: A fresh approach to the league

By Dan O'Neill

The old argument runs that a successful league campaign does your football championship preparations no favours. Reaching the latter stages of the competition usually interfered with the serious training for the opening of the championship, given that its climax was only a matter of weeks from the beginning of the search for that Holy Grail, the Sam Maguire. Many leading managers in the game have publicly made clear their indifference to the National League. It has only been really regarded as a blooding ground, a stepping stone or a means for lesser counties to be guaranteed some football between October and April. Hardly the be all and end all!

Kildare boss Mick O'Dwyer summed it up after his side's pathetic quarter-final display against Dublin in April when he said: ``I've never been a great believer in the league. For me the only setback is when you're beaten in the championship.'' Derry were also criticised for their approach to the Cork tie on the same day. Their management weren't overly concerned about being on the receiving end of a 14-point mauling by the Rebels.

However, the wisdom of Mick O'Dwyer and Co. has been called into question after the championship displays of the teams who reached the latter stages of the National Football League this year.

Managers up and down the country will have taken note that All-Ireland champions Meath reached the semi-finals of the NFL. Beaten All-Ireland finalists Cork are the NFL champions. Armagh reached the league semi-finals and went on in the championship to finally end their 17-year wait to capture that elusive Ulster title.

Incidentally, Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare surrendered their Leinster crown at the first fence, while Derry fell at the the semi-final stages in Ulster.

So maybe there is life in the much maligned National Football League after all. Certainly these statistics should give a boost to this season's league campaign, which kicks off on Saturday with old rivals Cork and Kerry meeting at Pairc Uí Rinn.

I must admit that I am not a great fan of the National League and would prefer a round-robin championship system operating all year round in its place. I believe this would make every game important and much more competitive.

In the absence of this system, however, we are left with the old league format. There have been some minor alterations, such as increasing the time played in the games to 70 minutes, just like the championship. Five subs will now be allowed. Furthermore, only the winners of Divisions 1A and 1B can win the competition outright - the top two in each section qualifying for a semi-final knock out. The top two in Divisions 2A and 2B will also play off for the Division 2 title. These four sides will be promoted to Division 1 while the bottom two in 1A and 1B will go down.

But it is the league as we know it, basically!

Any improvement in the approach of the counties to the new league campaign will be gladly welcomed though.

I'll not even hazard a guess at how most of this weekend's clashes should go. The first round of games in the league are notoriously hard to predict. I would hazard, though, that Meath should suffer from their All-Ireland hangovers, and don't be surprised if Clare sneak a win in the Royal county. Similarly, Cork will not have overcome their disappointment and I fancy Kerry to get revenge for their Munster final defeat. That is if they take the league serious enough!

Braveheart McCullough loses title bout



Wayne McCullough suffered no disgrace in his defeat to classy Mexican Erik Morales on Friday in his WBC Super Bantamweight title fight. The `Pocket Rocket' put on an heroic display in this bruising encounter an stood up to every shot in the armoury of the hard-hitting, deftly accurate champion. McCullough, who was given no chance of defeating 23-year-old Morales before the bout, held out to the end only to be defeated on points.

In fairness, the Mexican deserved the win but the Irish fighter went out with grace and his performance will have won him a lot of respect in the boxing world.

The same cannot be said of the Clown Prince Naseem who, despite retaining his title, will have done nothing for his waning reputation. His opponent's promoter, Bob Arum, described the bout as ``the worst fight I have ever seen in 35 years involvement in the sport of boxing''. The highlight of the fight was Naseem's wrestling style move on Cesar Soto.

The best punches of the evening were thrown amidst the watching crowd as local Mexican and Arab supporters clashed in the half empty arena. The McCullough fight though did the boxing world proud.

Morales had nothing but praise for the Olympic silver medalist. ``He is a true warrior,'' he said. ``I wanted to be the first to knock him out... But unlike Naseem, he is a true warrior with a big, big heart ``.

The Belfast fighter will no doubt be agonising over his future during the weeks ahead. Whatever he decides to do, he will still be a sporting hero in my eyes.

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