Some time last year, Ciarán Murphy from the Second Captains podcast caused minor online furor when he brazenly labelled Tyrone as “one of the worst All-Ireland champions of the last thirty years”, a claim that even the staunch Armagh legend Oisín McConville couldn’t get behind with any real conviction. Murph qualified his remarks by commenting on what he perceived as a dearth of quality in the 2021 championship, with no team, in his eyes at least, standing out from the crowd. Unsurprisingly, the assertion rankled with the Tyrone listenership (it doesn’t take much, says you), with one irritated champion of the Red Hand penning a retort in defence of Tyrone, and in doing so stating rather matter-of-factly that the worst All-Ireland champions of the past thirty years were ‘obviously’ Cork in 2010.
Now, as any inter-county manager will attest, the purported ‘soft All-Ireland’ does not exist and while this statement can be quickly supported or dismissed in equal measure depending on one’s allegiances, it is fair to say that every year, whoever manages to climb the steps of the Hogan Stand on the final day of the season will have done so on merit. You can only beat what’s in front of you, and all that. However, it is also unequivocally the case that due to asymmetry of the provinces as well as the luck of the draw that is part and parcel of any knock-out competition, the path to victory each year presents varying degrees of peril.
With all this in mind, it is worth asking the question – what has been the hardest-won championship in recent times? And likewise, what has been the quote-unquote softest? And how would one even go about gauging such an ambiguous and intangible metric? Well, here’s a thought. Each year, our beloved National League, unhindered as it is by the weight of tradition or provincial clout, provides us with a fairly solid ranking of each county in Ireland. For the sake of this piece, we will conveniently dismiss the notion that any county with serious championship aspirations might not be overly perturbed with their early-season ‘ranking’. With the positions from 1 to 32 nailed down then come championship season, it becomes a relatively straightforward task of assigning a score to each side vanquished en route to All-Ireland glory.
After Dublin's victory over Kerry in Sunday's All-Ireland final, we can now add their run to the list. Their road to Sam encompassed victories over Laois (27th), Kildare twice (13th), Louth (11th), Sligo (25th), Mayo (1st) , Monaghan (6th) and Kerry (5th) across eight games (losses and draws are discounted by the way). So, an average score of 12.62 then to go with the Dub’s return to the winners' circle.
It’s simple really, the higher the score, the softer the All-Ireland. And vice-versa.
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The softest All-Ireland wasn't Cork in 2010
And with that, having shoved each and every All-Ireland winning campaign over the past fifteen years (the league formats prior to that made everything that bit more complicated) through the mincer that is this flawless algorithm, it can be deduced that the softest batch of Celtic Crosses ever earned was by….Kerry in ’09! Jack O’Connor’s charges lost the opening round of the Munster Championship rather convincingly to Cork that year, before embarking on what should have been a relatively straightforward passage through the championship backwaters. Victories over Longford (Division 3), Sligo and Antrim (both Division 4) were anything but convincing however and it wasn’t until they startled Pat Gilroy’s earwigs in the All-Ireland quarter-final that Kerry’s season finally began to kick into gear.
In fact, Kerry’s annihilation of Dublin was their solitary championship victory over opponents from the top division that year, but Cork’s 2010 campaign followed a peculiarly similar pattern – an opening round defeat in the province followed by a series of qualifier victories over lowly opponents before a season defining victory over Dublin. For the second season in a row, the Dubs were the only Division One side bested en route to All-Ireland glory. It’s no surprise then that Kerry 2009 and Cork 2010 can be considered, by this metric at least, as the softest All-Irelands won since the change of league format. It’s hardly surprising either that Dublin’s annual procession through Leinster also sees many of their triumphs demoted to the bottom of the table. With one stark exception that is.
2013: the rockiest road
While it is likely that the denizens of Kerry football would take umbrage with the suggestion that one of their sweetest ever All-Irelands was ‘soft’, their protestations will only become more vociferous when it is revealed to them that the hardest earnest All-Ireland victory of the past fifteen years was that of Dublin in 2013. While it is rarely argued that Dublin’s six-in-a-row winning triumph was made all the more spectacular by their epic odysseys through the minefield that is Leinster, the 2013 league standings do suggest that provincial success should not have been the foregone conclusion that it soon turned out to be that year. Kildare finished third in Division 1, while Westmeath and Meath were promoted from Division 2 and 3 respectively. Meetings against three top-tier sides from there on in wasn’t exactly a cakewalk either.
As for Murphy’s assertion that Tyrone’s most unlikely of All-Ireland victories in 2021 wasn’t all that, well the numbers would cast doubts on those aspersions. The 2021 leagues were, if you recall, divided between north and south that year, adding a layer of complexity to this otherwise foolproof ranking system (Just for clarity, the tried and tested arbiter that is points difference was administered to separate teams here). Even so, Tyrone encountered top tier opposition in three of their five games, while Mayo, their opposition in that year’s decider, shared the spoils (remember when that was a thing?) with Kildare as Division 2 victors. So while Murph’s claims that the 2021 championship lacked a de-facto ‘great team’ may hold water to some degree, I don’t think anyone could denigrate Tyrone’s smash-and-grab as ‘soft’ either.
And what of Dublin in 2023? It tips towards the "easier" end of the table, but still ranks as a tougher run to Sam Maguire than the Dubs' triumphs in 2018, 2017, and 2015.
And so, it can finally be confirmed that while every All-Ireland is seen as equal, some All-Irelands are in-fact more equal than others. That being said, as Peter Keane once alluded to, you don’t exactly pick them up in “lucky bags” either, and you can rest assured that Dublin will not care one jot about the route taken to get there.
|Champions (Season)||Wins (Ranking)||Score|
|Dublin (2013)||Westmeath (10th), Kildare (3rd), Meath (18th), Cork (5th), Kerry (6th), Mayo (4th)||7.67|
|Donegal (2012)||Cavan (22nd), Derry (14th), Tyrone (9th), Down (4th), Kerry (3rd), Cork (1st), Mayo (2nd)||7.86|
|Tyrone (2021)||Cavan (21st), Donegal (3rd), Monaghan (6th), Mayo (9th), Kerry (1st)||8|
|Dublin (2019)||Louth (20th), Kildare (12th), Meath (10th), Tyrone (3rd), Roscommon (7th), Cork (15th), Mayo (1st), Kerry (2nd)||8.75|
|Kerry (2022)||Cork (14th), Limerick (18th), Mayo (2nd), Dublin (8th), Galway (10th)||10.4|
|Dublin (2016)||Laois (16th), Meath (13th), Westmeath (23rd), Donegal (4th), Kerry (2nd), Mayo (5th)||10.5|
|Tyrone (2008)||Louth (20th), Westmeath (9th), Mayo (6th), Dublin (10th), Wexford (17th), Kerry (2nd)||10.67|
|Dublin (2011)||Laois (10th), Kildare (13th), Wexford (19th), Tyrone (12th), Donegal (9th), Kerry (3rd)||11|
|Dublin (2020)||Westmeath (12th), Laois (13th), Meath (8th), Cavan (15th), Mayo (7th)||11|
|Kerry (2014)||Clare (26th), Cork (3rd), Galway (14th), Mayo (4th), Donegal (10th)||11.4|
|Dublin (2023)||Laois (27th), Kildare (13th), Louth (11th), Kildare (13th), Sligo (25th), Mayo (1st), Monaghan (6th), Kerry (5th)||12.62|
|Dublin (2018)||Wicklow (32nd), Longford (19th), Laois (25th), Tyrone (4th), Donegal (7th), Roscommon (9th), Galway (2nd), Tyrone (4th)||12.75|
|Dublin (2017)||Carlow (27th), Westmeath (25th), Kildare (10th), Monaghan (4th), Tyrone (6th), Mayo (5th)||12.83|
|Dublin (2015)||Longford (26th), Kildare (16th), Westmeath (15th), Fermanagh (18th), Mayo (5th), Kerry (6th)||14.33|
|Cork (2010)||Cavan (21st), Wexford (19th), Limerick (25th), Roscommon (24th), Dublin (3rd), Down (10th)||17|
|Kerry (2009)||Longford (24th), Sligo (25th), Antrim (26th), Dublin (6th), Meath (13th), Cork (9th)||17.17|