Sunday 26 October 2014

Five games left to save a forgettable Championship

Whatever comes to pass in closing stages of the football championship, it will not hide the growing gap in quality between elite and also rans

Published 09/08/2014 | 02:30

Bernard Brogan brushes aside Meath's Donal Keogan, just as Dublin have done to their opponents this year
Bernard Brogan brushes aside Meath's Donal Keogan, just as Dublin have done to their opponents this year

Five games remain to save the 2014 football championship from being an eminently forgettable affair.

It falls to Armagh, Donegal, Dublin, Monaghan, Mayo and Kerry to rescue a campaign that has been high on mediocrity, low on excitement and average on everything else.

While the average score-per-game is up by an average of more than three points, it hasn't led to an across-the-board rise in entertainment because much of the high yield has featured in easy wins. Since teams from all four Divisions of the Allianz Football League play across each other in the championship, there will always be some lopsided games, but this year's quota has been especially high.

The lack of genuine competitiveness is underlined by a series of results that show the following:

* 31 of the 58 games played so far have been won by margins of five or more points.

* 21 have had winning margins of seven or more points.

* 15 have had margins of 10 or more points.

* The Connacht, Leinster and Munster finals were won by a combined total of 35 points.

* Dublin won their three Leinster games against Laois, Wexford and Meath by a combined total of 43 points.

The prospects of a tight finish to the championship aren't bright either if the markets are to be believed.

They quote Dublin at 1/20 to beat Monaghan today and at 1 /2 to win the All-Ireland.

In fact, they predict Dublin domination for the foreseeable future, pricing them at 5/4 to complete the All-Ireland treble next year and 11/4 to make it a four-timer in 2016.

Whether Dublin's grip on Sam Maguire will remain that tight remains to be seen, but as they appear to be heading into a truly golden era, many others are slipping back.

That's manifestly the case on the evidence of this year's championship, where the gap between a dwindling band of top contenders and the rest has widened.

This comes at a time when record amounts of money are being spent on preparing teams, raising the question if, in fact, it's being channelled in the right direction.

There's also the issue of whether the All-Ireland qualifiers are fit for purpose in their current format.

Most of all, there's the reality that many counties who enjoyed good times to varying degrees in the last decade have suffered a significant deterioration.

Among them are Tyrone, Meath, Galway, Laois, Westmeath and Offaly. And while Armagh are bidding for a place in the All-Ireland semi-final today, they will be in Division 3 next season and are nowhere near as good as the team that won an All-Ireland and seven Ulster titles between 1999 and 2008.

Tyrone are now an ordinary side, facing into an uncertain future with further transition ahead once Mickey Harte brings in replacements for assistant manager Tony Donnelly and squad trainer Fergal McCann.

Meath have fallen so far behind Dublin that there's no chance of matching their great rivals over the next few seasons. Galway appear to think they are making progress after reaching the All-Ireland quarter-final this year, but they are probably deluding themselves.

They reached the quarter-final through wins over Sligo, who were in Division 3 this year, London and Tipperary, who were in Division 4, so, in real terms, Galway are not in the top 12. They haven't beaten Division 1 opposition (Mayo) in the championship since 2008, which gives an accurate indication of how far they have fallen.

While they battled back after a disastrous start to come within two points of Kerry in the second half last Sunday, few expected them to drive on and win for the simple reason that they haven't done it against good opposition for a very long time.

Indeed, Kerry's performance at times last Sunday was quite poor, adding further weight to the argument that this is a sub-standard championship. Mayo and Cork did nothing to challenge that view either.

A close finish should not disguise the reality that the quality was generally quite moderate.

Cork's inability to stem Mayo's point flow after half-time was reminiscent of the paralysis they endured in the Munster final. And while they battled back to give themselves a real chance of winning, it has to be said that Mayo's defending for Cork's two goals had more in common with Galway's security disasters than with the second favourites for the All-Ireland title.

The closing stages of championships can rescue a bad season up to then, which places enormous pressure on the remaining five games. Because, however it's dressed up or plugged with clever clips from RTÉ or Sky Sports, this has been a very disappointing season so far, both on the competitive and quality fronts.

FOOTBALL CHAMPIONSHIP 2014: THE BREAKDOWN

Leinster (10 games)

Biggest winning margin: 28pts (Meath 7-13 Carlow 0-6)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 5 games

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 9 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 1 game (Wexford 1-15 Longford 1-13)

Average winning margin: 10.5pts

Overall attendances were up on last year, which is a tribute to the traditional drawing power of the provincial championships. If competitiveness is a basic requirement for good entertainment, then Leinster failed dismally, with half of the games won by margins ranging from 11 to 28 points.

Dublin featured in three of the one-sided canters, their giant thumb weighing down oppressively as they racked up their 28th win (plus one draw) from 30 Leinster games since the start of 2005.

Worryingly, the gap between Dublin and the rest continues to widen, suggesting that the 'rising tide lifts all boats theory' is not applying in Leinster.

Dublin games apart, there were other one-sided encounters, led by Meath's 28-point demolition of Carlow, who drew with the Royals two years ago.

Meath are no better now than in 2012, which points to a severe Carlow slump, further illustrated by their 19-point defeat by Clare in the qualifiers.

The fact that only one game – Wexford v Longford – was won by a margin of less than four points and that the average win was by 10.5 points consigns Leinster 2014 deep into forgettable territory.

Connacht (6 Games)

Biggest winning margin: 22pts (Mayo 4-18 New York 0-8)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 2 games

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 5 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 1 game (Mayo 0-12 Roscommon 1-8)

Average winning margin: 10pts

Roscommon's gritty attempt to unseat Mayo was the only highlight. Even then, it was the closeness of the game rather than the quality of play that made it interesting.

When that clash is taken out of the equation, the average winning margin was 12.2 points from five games of very moderate standard.

For a second successive year, the final was an uncompetitive affair with Mayo playing well within themselves when easily resisting Galway, who took their giveaway tally to 7-31 in their last two clashes with Horan's men. To put that in context, that's three points more than Galway conceded against Mayo in four games between 2002 and 2005.

Munster (6 Games*)

Biggest winning margin: 12 pts (Kerry 0-24 Cork 0-12)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 1 game

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 4 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 1 (Cork 0-16

Tipperary 1-11)

Average winning margin: 6.4pts

*Includes one draw – Clare v Waterford

Munster tends to be defined by the Cork v Kerry clash, which makes this year a wash-out. It delivered the most one-sided Cork-Kerry final for 24 years, enriched only by the superb performance from Kerry's James O'Donoghue, who scored 0-10.

Ulster (10 games*)

Biggest winning margin: 13pts (Donegal 3-16 Antrim 0-12)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 1 game

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 4 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 4 games

Average winning margin: 5.2pts

*Including two draws.

It was by far the most tightly-grouped province, although it also had two big wins for Donegal against Antrim and for Tyrone against Down in the first round replay. Two draws and four games where the winning margin was one to three points made for a competitive campaign, although not one that will be recalled for its excellence.

All-Ireland qualifiers Rounds 1 & 2 (16 games)

Biggest winning margin: 21pts (Down 4-18 Leitrim 0-9)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 6 games

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 8 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 8 games

Average winning margin: 7.25pts

Separating counties into A and B groups, depending on where they were drawn in the provincial championships, was designed to provide more certainly on the schedule, thus increasing room for club activity.

In practice, it didn't do a lot for clubs, but it certainly took away from the attractiveness of the qualifiers, where the permutations in the various draws were limited.

Round 1 and 2 produced eight close games, which was encouraging, but they also delivered some very one-sided contests, led by Down's 21-point win over Leitrim who had lost several players to the US, while others dropped off the panel.

Leitrim manager Seán Hagan resigned shortly afterwards, citing a lack of interest among some players in the qualifiers as a contributory factor to the difficulties encountered after the Connacht quarter-final defeat by Roscommon.

Is that a sign of things to come among weaker counties, whose real ambition is to make as much progress as possible in their provincial championships, only to switch off when they lose?

Even some counties from higher up the ladder made no impression in the qualifiers. Cavan recorded the lowest score (0-5) in the entire championship when losing to Roscommon; Derry lost at home to Longford, while Tyrone gave their flattest championship performance for years when losing to Armagh.

All-Ireland qualifiers Round 3&4 (8 games)

Biggest winning margin: 7pts (Cork 0-21 Sligo 1-11)

Winning margin 10 points or higher: 0

Winning margin 4 points or higher: 5 games

Winning margin 3 points or less: 3 games

Average winning margin: 4 pts

Last Saturday's Monaghan v Kildare clash, which went to extra-time, was the highlight of two rounds that produced three close games and five where the winning margin was five or more points. Two had pre-season challenge game appearances about them, returning massive scores. Tipperary were involved in both, beating Laois 3-17 to 4-9 and losing to Galway by 4-17 to 4-12.

All-Ireland quarter-finals (2 games)

Kerry 1-20 Galway 2-10

Mayo 1-19 Cork 2-15

When Galway conceded 3-14 to Mayo and 4-12 to Tipperary, only the most loyal of their supporters could have expected a defensive improvement in Croke Park last Sunday. It didn't happen, as Kerry easily ripped them apart, without having to do anything special.

Cork scored the highest amount ever recorded in a quarter-final without winning. What does that say about the Mayo defence?

Irish Independent

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