Elite teams facing sum of all fears
Numbers don't add up to survival for big boys, writes Martin Breheny
WHEN Mickey Harte and Damien Cassidy greeted each other prior to the Tyrone-Derry clash in the first round of the Allianz Football League they would never have thought that they would both be heading into round six needing to win their remaining two games to retain a realistic chance of remaining in Division 1.
When Joe Kernan took off on a new adventure with Galway early last month, he didn't think that relegation worries would be high on the agenda by the end of March. Neither did Jack O'Connor and Kerry, for whom relegation concerns tend to be for lesser football people.
However, it was always likely that Monaghan, who were promoted from Division 2 last year, would struggle to survive in the top flight. That's how it has turned out but Seamus McEnaney has his warriors battling with typical defiance and are now two points better off than Tyrone and Derry, both of whom they beat, as they try to drive on with Galway and Kerry towards the survival chute.
Their closing schedule is pretty tough, however, as they are away to Mayo and Kerry in the last two rounds.
Nine points was enough for Derry to earn a place in the final last year but with Cork, Dublin and Mayo all on eight with two rounds to go, it would take at least 10 points to secure a top-two finish this time.
The scramble to avoid relegation is even more intense, not to mention important in terms of impacting on next year. With the exception of 2003, when Roscommon were the unlucky victims, six points were enough to avoid relegation in every season during the last decade. That's again likely to be the case this year.
Kerry, Tyrone and Derry won seven of the 10 Division 1 titles since 2000 between them, while Galway reached three finals, but all four have struggled this year as Mayo, Cork and a much-improved Dublin took the initiative. Dublin's unbeaten run ended against Cork last week but they are still on eight points with two rounds to go, a level they haven't reached for over a decade.
It's very different for Tyrone who, even if they win their last two games, will have experienced their worst league campaign for a decade. However, the most spectacular decline in the entire league is being endured by Westmeath. Having crowned the 2008 campaign by beating Dublin to take the Division 2 title, they have since lost all 12 league games, conceding an average of 17 points per game, and are now heading for relegation from Divisions 1 to 3 in successive seasons.
Meanwhile, Fermanagh look to be heading from Divisions 2 to 4 in successive seasons.
The unpredictable nature of Division 1 is, according to Kernan, down to the fact that most counties haven't had settled teams.
"Cork and Mayo were probably the most settled from the start and it has showed in the results. In fairness to Dublin, they have done very well with a new-look team but the rest of us have been erratic. From my perspective, it has been all about getting to know the Galway players and putting a shape on things," Kernan says.
"We've been unlucky with injuries -- some serious, some minor -- but we're getting there on all fronts. It's certainly an interesting league and, in the end, the big question will be who takes the most out of it to bring on into the championship."
The revamp of the league after the 2007 season has had a significant impact on many counties' fortunes as it introduced a much clearer distinction between the divisions. Up to then, the top 16 counties were divided into Divisions 1A and 1B, with the bottom 16 in 2A and 2B.
Divisions 1A and 1B were -- in theory at least -- meant to be of similar standard whereas the new system of rating counties 1-32 in four groups has a sharper focus in terms of deciding on placings.
It's a fairer, but tougher, way of settling the spring rankings and, on the evidence of the current league, is leaving many counties facing uncomfortable truths.
Last year's experience won't provide any encouragement for teams currently struggling with relegation as the two counties who were bottom of the table in Divisions 1, 2, 3 after five rounds were all relegated.
Either Cork or Mayo -- and possibly even both -- will definitely be in the final, with Dublin also deep in the mix to reach the Division 1 decider for the first time since 1999. All three are on eight points but since Cork and Mayo still have to play each other in the final round, there are guaranteed points for the winners while a draw would be useful too as it would mean only Dublin could catch them.
Technically, Kerry, Monaghan or Galway, all of whom are on four points, could catch the leaders but, in reality, relegation is more of a concern for that trio. Avoiding relegation is now the sole target for bottom pair, Tyrone and Derry.
Round 6: Saturday: Dublin v Galway; Tyrone v Kerry; Derry v Cork; Sunday: Mayo v Monaghan.
Round 7: April 11: Cork v Mayo; Kerry v Monaghan; Tyrone v Dublin; Galway v Derry.
One win from either of their last two games against Westmeath and Laois would guarantee Down (9pts) promotion in successive years. Armagh, Donegal, Kildare and Meath are all on six points but Donegal have a slight edge as their remaining two games are at home to Meath and Armagh whereas Kildare are away to Laois and Meath in their close-out games.
Westmeath look certain to be relegated and are likely to be joined by Tipperary or Laois.
Round 6: Saturday: Laois v Kildare; Donegal v Meath; Sunday: Armagh v Tipperary; Westmeath v Down.
Round 7: April 11: Down v Laois; Meath v Kildare; Donegal v Armagh; Tipperary v Westmeath.
Antrim lead on eight points, followed on six points by Louth, Wexford, Offaly and Sligo. Fermanagh and Roscommon are bottom on two points and deep in relegation trouble. Bad news for both but especially for Fermanagh, who could drop from Divisions 2 to 4 in successive seasons. Cavan (4pts) are in the relegation amber zone but have their remaining two games at home which is an advantage.
Round 6: Saturday: Antrim v Louth; Cavan v Offaly; Sunday: Roscommon v Wexford; Fermanagh v Sligo.
Round 7: April 11: Wexford v Antrim; Offaly v Louth; Cavan v Fermanagh; Sligo v Roscommon.
Clare lead on 10 points from five games but have a tough finish against Longford, Waterford and Limerick. Wicklow are on nine points but have played a game more than those around them.
Their clash with Waterford next Sunday is crucial as a victory there would leave them with a 13-point finish (they play Kilkenny in the last round) which might well be enough for promotion. It's two from Clare, Wicklow, Waterford, Limerick for promotion.
Round 7: Saturday: Carlow v Leitrim; Limerick v Kilkenny; Longford v Clare; Waterford v Wicklow.
Round 8: April 3: Kilkenny v Waterford; Leitrim v Longford; Clare v Limerick; London v Carlow.
Round 9: April 11: Waterford v Clare; Limerick v Leitrim; Wicklow v Kilkenny; Longford v London.