When I was in college there was a lovely old professor who identified certain difficult accounting questions as ones you wouldn’t want to attempt before your third whiskey.

I don’t think he was a GAA man but I reckon he’d be on his fourth Jameson before risking an explanation of the permutations around Kildare’s last two Allianz Football League games.

In the old days of course it was relatively straight forward with no tie-in between League performance and Sam Maguire Cup qualification. Once issues of League relegation and promotion were resolved you could move on to the serious business of provincial and All Ireland Championships without so much as a backward glance.

So what’s changed?

In a nutshell the GAA have decreed that only sixteen teams in the country will compete for the Sam Maguire Cup with the remainder of counties playing for the Tailteann Cup, basically an Intermediate Championship, once the Provincial Championships are out of the way. And the latter is the cause of all the complications.

In any “normal” sport, the top sixteen teams in the league (with Division 3 promoted sides replacing those relegated from Division 2) would go forward to the “play-offs” or “Champions League”. Or Sam Maguire.

But of course the GAA is still beholden to the power of the provinces and therefore a system had to be devised which retained the primacy of their championships. As in most things in life compromise was needed. And a hybrid approach was born.

But Before All That – What about Promotion and Relegation in the League?

The League structures as such are essentially unchanged with four divisions of eight and a two-up/two-down system between the divisions. But for Division 2 teams in particular, avoiding relegation is only the start of their concerns.

But we’ll get to that later. As regards relegation, it’s actually more straightforward than it might have been for Kildare. That’s because of the “head to head rule”. You what, Gay?

(You need to be on at least your second whiskey at this stage).

Let’s dive in… if three or more teams finish level on points then their rankings are decided by reference to their scoring difference, with various other measures coming into play if that is equal.

But if only two teams finish level, unlike in the Premier League for example, the GAA in their wisdom throw out the scoring difference as a differentiator and instead use the “head to head” result between sides whereby whichever of the two sides won the round robin encounter between them is ranked the side which lost. If it was a draw we’re into other measures.

Of course, this goes against the very idea of a league where the full seven (in this case) matches played should be used to determine rankings rather than narrowing it down to one game where, by the way, one of the teams has home advantage. But as we often say in the GAA “it is what it is.”

How Doomed are Kildare?

That’s the million euro question. What’s clear is that performances to date would not give you a lot of confidence in an escape act but, fortunately, and relatively unusually, the Lilywhites actually have a relatively straightforward path to redemption. Firstly, a reminder of the points table as it stands with thanks to the great Really Unofficial Kildare Fan account on Twitter (@KildareFan2023).

As things stand

You’ll note firstly that although Kildare have a highly unimpressive looking scoring difference they are currently placed above Clare, who also have 2 points, in the table, and this will continue to be the case if they finish level with eachother (but only with eachother!) due to the head-to-head rule, Kildare having somewhat fortuitously won the clash between the two in Ennis.

With that advantage in the bank, the remaining fixtures also look relatively kind, if you could ever say that about a team whose confidence seems shot to bits at the moment.

Clare are undoubtedly the unluckiest team in Division 2, having thrown away those leads against us and the Dubs. They should be safe, but instead they are in grave peril, and it doesn’t get any easier with their penultimate game this Sunday coming away to unbeaten Derry. It is dangerous to do so with Clare, who are a very decent team, but let’s assume for simplicity that they lose to Derry.

Conveniently that game will be over by the time Kildare throw in at 3.45pm in Limerick on Sunday. After the season we’ve had this game basically boils down to a Final for the Lilywhites (assuming Derry play ball earlier in the day) in that a win over the Treaty will relegate the home side and crucially, leave Clare only in a position to match Kildare’s points total of four if they were to beat Limerick in their final game in Ennis.

With Kildare’s advantage on the head-to-head and with no mathematical possibility of another team finishing in a three-way-tie with Clare and Kildare, the relegation picture will essentially be settled with a Clare loss and Kildare win on Sunday.

Neil Flynn’s winning point in Ennis could yet prove vital for Kildare

But what if we lose – surely then we are doomed? On current form, with Limerick having gained a point against Meath and perhaps generating a new manager bounce with Ray Dempsey’s departure, you’d have to say a Treaty win isn’t out of the question by any means.

If a defeat transpires for us it will leave us on 2 points with Clare (assuming they lose to Derry), with Limerick on 3 and Meath out of our reach on at least 5 (more if they avoid defeat against Dublin). So a three-way relegation battle will boil down to the last day results.

Let’s assume we beat Meath (those Jameson’s are making us bullish), that puts us on 4. The most Clare can reach is also 4 (with a win against Limerick, leaving the latter on 3 points). That leaves Kildare finishing third from bottom, with the old (inequitable) head-to-head rule bailing us out.

A draw between Clare and Limerick will leave us on 4 points with Clare on 3 and Limerick on 2. Safety again. What if Limerick win in Ennis? Then they move to 3 points but we’re on 4 and Clare are bottom on 2.

So basically, we more than likely “only” need to win one of our two remaining games to stay up. Let’s just do it on Sunday to remove the nerves, at least on that score (see below for further complications).

However, all bets are off if Clare win in Derry this weekend. In that scenario, a Kildare defeat to Limerick would put them bottom of the table heading into the final round of games with 2 points. Limerick would be on 3 and Clare on 4.

With Limerick and Clare playing eachother on the final day we would then only be able to overhaul one of the Munster sides. So we could conceivably be relegated on Sunday night (and most likely out of the Sam Maguire – see below).

Safety from Relegation Means We Play in Sam – Right?

As Kylie might sing, we should be so lucky, lucky, lucky. Time for another glass perhaps.

Let’s dive in with the easy part. Westmeath (yes, Division 3 Westmeath), are automatically qualified for the top tier championship as a reward for winning last year’s inaugural Tailteann Cup.

So they can literally breeze through the league and provincial games and gear their season towards peaking in one of the Groups of four that will be formed once the sixteen teams are all known.

So far so good, and the next bit is relatively straightforward too. The eight provincial finalists will automatically qualify as well, irrespective of League position, bringing us to nine qualifiers.

Fair enough, what about the other seven slots? Well, that’s where we (eventually) get back to league performance. The final slots are divvied up based on the highest league rankings with the proviso that the two promoted teams from any division rank higher than the two relegated teams in the division above.

So, in a simple world, the provincial finalists might be the eight best teams in the league (the top 6 from Division 1 and the top 2 from Division 2). With Westmeath joining them that leaves the other slots going to the two relegated teams from Division 1, teams 3 to 6 in Division 2, and the winners of Division 3 (who would outrank team 7 in Division 2).

Of course, this is the GAA. So, we have provincial championships with different approaches to seeding. Connacht, who have a lop-sided championship at the best of times with their top three teams all in Division 1 and the rest either in Division 4 or not even in the league at all (New York), go with unseeded draws.

A free for all. And of course, in this season of all seasons, of course it transpired that the three big guns are on one side of the draw with the minnows on the other.

With one of those lower-league sides guaranteed a Sam Maguire place, that removes the place for the Division 3 Champions.

In the other three provinces it is quite possible that the finalists will all come from Division 1 or 2. For arguments sake the draw makes it entirely possible that it will be Kerry v Cork, Dublin v Louth and Derry v Armagh. We give the vote here to Louth rather than Meath as recompense for 2010.

If Connacht’s final paired Mayo with Leitrim for arguments sake then Sam would be played for by those eight provincial finalists, Westmeath, Galway, Roscommon, Monaghan, Tyrone, Donegal and (assuming the top four in Division 2 were Derry, Dublin, Cork and Louth), the 5th and 6th place teams in Division 2.

So, in that nice straightforward scenario, “just” avoiding relegation in 6th place will be enough for Kildare to play Sam Maguire football this summer.

It should be noted for completeness that even if relegated Kildare can still rescue their Sam status by reaching the Leinster Final. But there’s a rather big blue wall in their way in the semi-final if they get that far…

Kildare are on Dublin’s side of the Leinster Championship draw

Good so far but what if the Provincials throw up a few shocks?

A good question, and let’s face it, most years, you’ll get a bolter or two.

Ulster and Munster are the two divisions most likely to throw a spanner in the works you’d imagine. After all Cavan, who look a good bet to finish first in Division 3, won the Ulster title as recently as 2020, and Down, another Division 3 team, look upwardly mobile.

That pair could conceivably meet in the Ulster semi-final, guaranteeing one of them a Sam Maguire spot, although Cavan would have to overcome the winners of Armagh and Antrim and Down would have to beat Donegal to get there. Neither are entirely unimaginable.

In Munster, Cork may be moving in the right direction on the evidence of the league and they should reach the final having avoided Kerry but they still need to do the business against Clare and then Limerick to get there.

If those two finish bottom of Division 2 their only hope of a Sam Maguire place is reaching a provincial final. If they do, it puts another spanner in the works for Division 2 teams higher up the table.

Even in Leinster, it’s not entirely beyond the bounds that a team outside of Division 2 gets the dubious honour of facing the Dubs on final day. Offaly, Longford, Meath, Louth and Westmeath are on the opposite side of the draw to Dublin.

On league status, Louth and Meath would be favourites although you wouldn’t rule out Westmeath by any means. The Lake County reaching the final would actually free up a Sam Maguire spot for another team based on League ranking, due to them qualifying already through the Tailteann Cup. Do keep up!

But what if Offaly or Longford make it through, unlikely as that might seem? That leads us towards the Worst Case Scenario.

The Worst Case Scenario (for Kildare)

If the “worst” came to the worst and each of Ulster, Munster and Leinster provided a provincial finalist from Divisions 3 or 4, joining Connacht in doing so, then you have a scenario where Divisions 1 and 2 only have four automatic qualifiers from the provincial series and they will be joined by Westmeath and four (other) Division 3 or 4 teams.

That leaves only seven spots available for the remaining Division 1 and 2 teams based on league position.

If for example Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Derry were the “big” teams in the provincial finals that would leave Galway, Roscommon, Monaghan, Donegal, Armagh and Tyrone from this year’s Division 1 and just one team other than Dublin/Derry from Division 2 in the Sam Maguire.

Assuming, as expected, Dublin and Derry fill the top two league spots in Division 2, that leaves just the 3rd place team in the division joining a motley crew in the top tier competition. With Cork and Louth currently 3rd and 4th on six points and the pair meeting this weekend (and Kildare having lost the head-to-head against both anyway), Kildare cannot finish 3rd.

So in Summary

  • A defeat for Clare against Derry on Sunday and a win for Kildare in the later game in Limerick would be enough for the Lilywhites to avoid relegation, irrespective of the result in their final game against Meath
  • Even if we lose to Limerick, we can still save ourselves with a win against Meath IF Clare have lost to Derry and Meath lose to Dublin in Round 6.
  • However, if Clare win in Derry and Kildare lose to Limerick we are relegated and out of the Sam Maguire Cup with a game still to play (unless of course we beat Dublin in Leinster).
  • There is no scenario where Kildare can secure their place in the Sam Maguire Cup for definite at the end of the league, as they will not finish higher than 5th.
  • 6th place in Division 2 will be enough to qualify for Sam IF neither Leinster, Munster or Ulster feature a Division 3 or 4 provincial finalist (or one from the bottom two of Division 2 for that matter).
  • If one of Leinster, Munster and Ulster feature a lower league provincial finalist then only 5th place or above will be guaranteed a Sam Maguire place.
  • If two of Leinster, Munster and Ulster feature a lower league provincial finalist then only 4th place or above will be guaranteed a Sam Maguire place.
  • If ALL of Leinster, Munster and Ulster feature a lower league provincial finalist then only 3rd place or above will be guaranteed a Sam Maguire place.
  • If Westmeath get through to the Leinster Final then one additional place will be allocated based on league ranking. This may allow the Division 3 champions into the top tier competition or give a reprieve to a lower ranked Division 2 team depending on how many other Division 3 or 4 teams make it to a provincial final.

As that old professor, God rest him, used to also say, “It’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel.”

Any Good News?

Yes… there’s always next year.

But seriously, with the condensed fixture calendar, the line-up for the provincial finals (and therefore the Sam Maguire Cup) will all be known by the end of April, which is just seven weekends away.


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