Friday 9 December 2016

Mismatch virus spreads north

Ulster now hit by alarming slump felt elsewhere in recent seasons

Published 08/06/2016 | 02:30

Despite the best efforts of David McKibbin, seen here tackling Monaghan’s Karl O’Connell, Down suffered one of their heaviest SFC defeats in Clones on Sunday. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/SPORTSFILE
Despite the best efforts of David McKibbin, seen here tackling Monaghan’s Karl O’Connell, Down suffered one of their heaviest SFC defeats in Clones on Sunday. Photo: Philip Fitzpatrick/SPORTSFILE

Maybe now we should all appreciate New York a whole lot more.

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Who would have thought that 14 games into the 2016 football championship, they would have featured in the most exciting game, having run Roscommon to a point (1-15 to 0-17) in the Connacht first round?

Since they can't compete against county teams on a regular basis, New York are effectively lone rangers, yet they extended Roscommon (third in Division 1) to the very maximum.

The exiles were eventually squeezed out but their gutsy performance should have sent a jolt of energy coursing through underdog veins everywhere.

If only. Instead, we have had to endure the worst start to the championship for many years as favourites bolt home with monotonous regularity.

Kildare v Wexford was the only other really close finish (0-9 to 0-8) in a contest bereft of other redeeming features. Otherwise, it has all been utterly predictable.

We've come to expect that in Leinster, Munster and Connacht but, worryingly, the contagion has now spread to Ulster, for long offered as an example of a provincial championship at its competitive best.

Indeed, any suggestion that the provincial system be disbanded attracted an immediate and stern instruction to look at Ulster as a reason to maintain the status quo.

That argument has collapsed so far this year. Four games in, the average winning margin by Fermanagh (v Antrim), Tyrone (v Derry), Cavan (v Armagh) and Monaghan (v Down) is 11 points.

It's the highest in any of the provinces, including much-maligned Leinster where the average victory is by just over seven points, although it increases to nine without Kildare v Wexford.

The overall winning margin across the four provinces averages 8.14 points. All 14 favourites have won and, judging by the odds on next Sunday's six games, the sequence is set to reach 20. The shift in Ulster is the starkest of all. Indeed, not since 1963 have the opening four games been won by such a large combined total.

In recent weeks, Down, who truly are a mess these days, Derry and Armagh all lost by margins that would have been unimaginable not very long ago. More ominously still, their respective conquerors, Monaghan, Tyrone and Cavan, did not have to do anything special to run out the easiest of winners. It's possible, of course, that this is a one-off rogue season in Ulster. Even if it is, the timing could not be worse as the other provinces aren't exactly compensating.

It would be unfair to pick on Ulster, which has maintained a highly competitive element for so long, but obviously the concern has to be that this could be the start of an unfortunate trend there too.

Derry, Armagh and Down were quite awful but then their rate of deterioration has been gathering pace for quite some time. Similar declines have been rampant in Leinster where Meath, Kildare, Laois, Offaly, Wexford and Westmeath are shadows of what they once were.

So too in Connacht where Galway have slipped so far behind Mayo that their prospects of avoiding a sixth successive championship defeat by their great rivals on Saturday week aren't accurately reflected in the 11/4 odds. In truth, it should be higher than that.

Impressive

Cork have dipped alarmingly too, although it may not be as long term as most of the others. Still, there's no confidence in them on Leeside to make any great progress this year, though if a dark horse were to gallop from the stable it could be them.

Dublin, Kerry and Mayo, followed by Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal are setting impressive standards but why are so many of the others falling so far off the pace? Losing is one thing but wipe-outs are altogether different. That, combined with the absence of upsets, is the really disturbing issue for the championship.

A total of €21.8m was spent on training all county teams last year, equating to almost €60,000 for each of the 365 days. Armagh, Derry and Down spent over €2 million between them and while that was for all teams, the vast bulk went on the senior footballers.

Presumably, the same applies this year, yet between them they have won only four of 24 league and championship games. Down have lost all eight of their games, during which they scored an average of 9.4 points per outing.

Truly, there's a lot of soul-searching required across a great many counties because something is going radically wrong. If you doubt that, check the results - they are telling a harsh truth that cannot be ignored.

Irish Independent

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