Mixed league success for boys of summer
Published 19/03/2011 | 05:00
Reaching the All-Ireland football quarter-final is a prime target for around 20 counties who believe it's an attainable goal in any given season.
Winning the All-Ireland title is within the capabilities of a much smaller group, although any team that reaches the last eight believes they are headed in very much the right direction for the following year.
So, how are last year's eight quarter-finalists shaping up just past the halfway point of the 2011 Allianz League season? It's a mixed bag really, ranging from Dublin, who have been writing the most exciting story of the season so far, to Meath, who are in real danger of being relegated to Division 3.
Here's the state of play (in running order as they stand in the league tables) for the eight most successful championship sides of 2010.
In terms of progress, they appear to have done best of all since rebuilding after the demolition by Meath in last year's Leinster semi-final.
Since then they have beaten Tipperary, Armagh (twice), Louth, Tyrone, Cork, Kerry and Monaghan, with their only defeat coming against Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final.
It was crucial for Dublin to run a strong league campaign this year and they have certainly done that.
Three points from their final three games (Mayo, Down, Galway) would almost certainly be enough to ensure a place in the Division 1 final for the first time since 1999. Indeed, one more win might suffice.
Dublin have been averaging 2-12 per game so far, which is a highly impressive strike rate, but it will become increasingly difficult to maintain as the stakes get higher. Still, for now at least, Dublin are in a very happy place.
Division 1 title odds: Pre-League 4/1; Current 5/6.
Winning an All-Ireland/league double creates its own natural momentum and that has been very much the case with Cork, who have eased themselves into second place on the Division 1 table with three wins from four games.
Three more wins (Galway, Armagh, Mayo) would definitely earn them a place in the final, although two could well be enough.
Retaining the league might not be regarded as important among Cork supporters, but Conor Counihan is very much in the Brian Cody school on this one, figuring that the more games a team wins the more likely they are to keep winning. As of now, Cork are well on track for another big year.
Division 1 title odds: Pre-League 9/4; Current 1/1
All-Ireland runners-up can sometimes perform quite flatly in the league, but not Down.
Yes, they were disappointed with their second-half collapse against Cork last Saturday, but one suspects they would have been happy enough if they were told last January that they would take five points from their first four league games.
Having said that, they are away to Dublin and Kerry in their last two games, which makes it crucial for them to beat Monaghan in Newry tonight.
They will probably achieve that, but miss out on a league final place. However, provided they turn in good performances over the next few weeks, they will be content heading into the championship.
Division 1 title odds: Pre-League 11/1; Current 40/1.
They would need to beat Ulster trio, Armagh, Monaghan and Down in their last three games to have a chance of reaching the league final.
They are away to Armagh and Monaghan, which makes the task harder. However, it won't damage Kerry's championship prospects in any way if they miss out on the league final.
What's more important is that they gets things sorted in defence and midfield. That's still a work in progress with the jury undecided on how it's proceeding.
Division 1 title odds: Pre-League 5/2; Current 20/1.
Last week's win over Laois was hugely important on three fronts. It restored Kildare to a challenging position just off the promotion pace, took them clear of the relegation zone and restored confidence after a draw and a defeat allowed others to pull ahead of them.
Kildare will talk down the significance of promotion, but deep down they know that they should be delivering the consistency required to take them back to Division 1.
They still have to play Meath, Tyrone and Sligo and would need to win all three to give themselves a decent chance of promotion. It's a tall order which might prove just beyond them.
Division 2 title odds: Pre-League 7/2; Current 7/2.
Favourites to win promotion at the start of play, Tyrone are only just above the relegation zone with two wins from four games, so even if they win their remaining three games (Laois, Kildare, Meath), it may not be enough to finish in the top two.
Tyrone used to be one of the most reliable sides in the league, but not anymore, having won only four of their last 12 games.
That's worrying for them as the confident forecast in recent seasons was that the talent coming through from good underage sides, merged with the experienced core, would ensure a high level of consistency.
It hasn't happened, so there's a degree of anxiety among Tyrone supporters that the transition isn't proving as smooth as expected.
Division 2 title odds: Pre-League 7/4; Current 9/2.
Seamus McEnaney believes Meath are just one big performance away from restoring confidence and all that goes with it, but many of the county's supporters are exceptionally gloomy.
The big win over Dublin last June raised hopes of a revival, but Meath have regressed since then, even if they did end up as Leinster champions.
They were fancied to be in the promotion mix this year, but, having lost three of four games, avoiding relegation is now the sole target, a challenge which will require careful attention as they play Kildare, Derry (both away) and Tyrone (home) in their remaining three games. Worrying times for Meath.
Division 2 title odds: Pre-League 6/1; Current No price.
As reigning Connacht champions, they wouldn't expect to be down in Division 4, but league tables don't lie and the truth is that Roscommon's league form has been poor over several seasons.
Escaping from Division 4 is essential if they are to build on the 2010 championship momentum and while their fate is very much in their own hands, there's still choppy waters to be negotiated when they play Clare, Wicklow (in Aughrim) and Leitrim.
Still, with the St Brigid's players due back soon, the chances are that Roscommon will achieve their first aim of 2010 and be promoted.
Division 4 title odds: Pre-League 2/1; Current 1/1