Friday 28 November 2014

Magnificent Seven leaving rivals for dust

Published 03/04/2013 | 05:00

Cork’s Aidan Walsh has been one of the league’s most impressive performers

No matter how you analyse it, there is a breakaway group of seven in Gaelic football that have escaped the peloton and are staying away.

The current league standings have only hardened what we have gleaned from the number of All-Ireland quarter-final appearances the top seven have made over a five-year period.

Dublin, Kildare, Cork and Kerry with five, Tyrone with four and Mayo and Donegal with three each are out on their own in making it to the last eight of the championship and that has been consolidated over the first six rounds of this year's league.

Granted, Down have been formidable at home but they have been somewhat out of their depth otherwise. Is there any reason to believe that any of the promoted teams from this year's Division 2 will do any better in 2014?

Donegal – most settled first 15 or weakest squad?

Kerry have given game time to more players – 33 so far – than any other team in all four divisions. Donegal – with 25 – have been the second-most economical team with their resources, three more than Westmeath's 22.

The average number of players used by each Division 1 manager in six rounds has been 29. It points to a very settled team and a management that know they don't have to make too many personnel changes.

But Donegal, without Karl Lacey, have essentially operated with 20 players, as five of the 25 used – Marty Boyle (against Kildare), Odhran MacNiallais (Down), Matthew Smyth (Kerry), Gary McFadden (Kerry) and Martin O'Reilly (Mayo) – have made brief appearances in just one of the six games.

Ryan McHugh and, to a lesser extent Ross Wherity, have been the 'finds'. No top-flight team is more exposed to injuries.

Jim Gavin will do it his way

What worked for one Dublin manager clearly won't be the modus operandi of another.

Pat Gilroy reconstructed Dublin over two seasons with defence an absolute priority. But his policy of 'conceding less' has been supplanted by Jim Gavin's 'score more' approach and the 2011 team looks like it has been consigned to the distant past already.

Gavin (right) has already made clear his philosophy and how it is built around an attractive kicking game. The prominence and progression enjoyed by Johnny Cooper and Paddy Andrews, two players who didn't 'cut it' under Gilroy, underlines that when doctors differ patients can survive.

Kildare's changing of the guard

Already in this league campaign seven U-21 players have been given league debuts by Kildare. Fionn Dowling brings the figure to eight altogether while Fergal Conway would surely have made it nine if injury didn't intervene.

In any bookies' this morning they are clear favourites for this year's All-Ireland U-21 title.

The careful husbandry of this team over the last three years and their gradual integration into senior football has been one of Kieran McGeeney's biggest successes in his six years there. They have given renewed cause for optimism.

Westmeath's second-half turbo

After dropping two divisions in as many years, Westmeath have now reversed that with a quick return to Division 1. Their surge from Division 2 has come courtesy of a remarkable trend that has seen them come from behind in all six games to either win or draw as they did against Galway.

In some cases it has been wind-influenced or, in the case of the game against Wexford, the erroneous sending-off of Daithi Watters, which allowed them to come from two points down to win by eight.

But no one can doubt their resilience and self-belief as a game progresses based on these statistics. From six down against Galway (0-8 to 0-2) they drew, while they came from five down (0-10 to 0-5) to beat Armagh by a point in the last round to secure promotion.

Cynical? Mayo and Donegal have conceded the least amount from frees

Just short of one in every three points (32.4pc) in six rounds of Division 1 have been scored from a free or a penalty. Cork (1-28 out of 4-74) have the biggest rate of concession but Mayo, Donegal and Dublin have been much more careful about where they have coughed up their frees with only around 28pc conceded from frees. With just 0-20 scored against them from 4-62, Donegal have conceded the least from frees.

Kerry – a vision of the future?

Slowly but surely Kerry have found a way to start performing again. No one doubts that they will be a force in this year's championship but with age and mileage catching up on their protagonists, those opening four games didn't bode well for their mid-term future.

Life after Declan O'Sullivan, Gooch and the O Se's? Not a pretty picture.

Some away respite for Meath

After just one win and a draw on the road in four successive league campaigns, Meath have at least proved they travel a bit better than the average French club rugby team with three away wins against Wicklow, Roscommon and Antrim to give their campaign a degree of positivity.

That's said, it's taken Division 3 to ditch the travel bug and give it to Donegal instead who, for the second successive season, have lost all their away games, bringing to seven in succession the number they have lost in 2012 and 2013 – a very different story to their Championship campaign on their travels.

Aidan Walsh – the game's leading player?

As forwards, there are no more influential than Dublin's Bernard Brogan or Donegal's Michael Murphy. Any shortlist for 'footballer of the year', even at this early stage of the season, will be dominated by this pair. But Cork's Aidan Walsh is right up there in that company.

Prevented from playing with DCU, his form for Cork has been exceptional, now that the management have ditched experimenting with him in the forwards as they did in last year's league campaign.

Walsh has scored from midfield in all six league games for Cork, compiling 1-12, eight points of which have come in their two games in Ulster against Down and Tyrone, a province where Cork have traditionally struggled to win.

Managers safe for now

This time last year one manager – Tipperary's John Evans – had stepped down while three more were on the brink of losing their positions.

Cavan's Val Andrews left after the last round, Offaly's Gerry Cooney did likewise a few weeks later, while Seamus McEnaney fought off a no-confidence battle after Meath lost their last league match to drop to Division 3.

With one-round of the league to play, all 32 managers look relatively secure this term.

Irish Independent

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