Saturday 10 December 2016

Six struggling teams in pressing need of National League kickstart

Published 25/02/2016 | 02:30

The return of Keith Higgins would be a major boost for Mayo as they bid to get League campaign on track. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
The return of Keith Higgins would be a major boost for Mayo as they bid to get League campaign on track. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Almost three-quarters of the Allianz Football League is still to be played but if last year's trends are replicated, division-shaping patterns may have already been established.

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It's enough to send a shiver down the spine among teams that have started badly. Counties will have taken stock and worked on raising fitness levels during the three-week fixture break in preparation for a very busy period, featuring five games over six weekends.

Kerry, Mayo and Down are still without a point in Division 1, as are Cavan and Armagh in Division 2 and Westmeath in Division 3.

Derry and Tyrone, who now lead Division 2, were bottom of Division 1 after two games last year and finished the campaign in the relegation slots. At the other end, Cork, Monaghan, Dublin and Donegal were the top four and went on to take the semi-finals places.

Kildare were joint bottom of Division 2 this time last year and were later relegated with Westmeath, who were joint fourth heading into Round 3.

Armagh and Fermanagh led the way in Division 3 and were later promoted while Wexford, who were bottom of the table a year ago, were relegated with Louth (fifth after Round 2). Offaly and Longford, both later promoted from Division 4, were first and joint-second respectively this time last year.

All of which suggests that a good start to the League can be more than half the battle, while a poor opening sets the tone for a difficult campaign.

It makes next weekend's games especially important for Mayo, Kerry, Down, Armagh, Cavan and Westmeath as they attempt to kickstart their season.

Mayo

"We didn't get the two points and we don't do moral victories in that dressing-room," said Stephen Rochford after the two-point defeat by Dublin.

His side had played immeasurably better than against Cork in the opening round but an improvement on a dismal display was never going to be enough to satisfy the new manager.

Rochford was always headed for intense pressure in Mayo right from the start so he could have done without so many injury issues, plus the absence of club-tied Castlebar Mitchels players. The injury situation is easing and Keith Higgins, Lee Keegan and Kevin McLoughlin should be available for the Donegal game.

It's a very long time since Mayo lost their first three League games so Sunday's clash with Donegal could define how they fare in a competition where outright victory would be a significant pre-championship boost.

Kerry

"We have been in this situation before. We are not going to panic," said Eamonn Fitzmaurice after the surprise home defeat by Roscommon.

Indeed, Kerry's tortoise-slow start to the League saw them win only two of nine games over the first three rounds in 2013, '14 and '15. They need to beat Down on Sunday to prevent it deteriorating into two from 12 games.

While the League title may be regarded as a non-essential in Kerry, the reality is that they won it in 2009, '06, '04 and '97, seasons when they also captured the All-Ireland title.

Down

Eamonn Burns was quoted last week as saying: "You just have to lift yourself because the players are looking to you to lift them. You can't look at boys with a sad face, you have to stand up and get on with it."

Down lost their opening two games (Donegal, Monaghan) by a combined total of 19 points so 'getting on with it' will require an early turnaround to avoid being sucked into relegation trouble. They were pre-season favourites for the drop and have done little to alter that assessment so far.

Armagh

Crossmaglen Rangers' exit from the All-Ireland club championship will benefit Armagh as the return of some top names to county duty makes a big difference.

Kieran McGeeney's men need to improve their strike rate, having scored a total of 0-23 against Meath and Laois, while they managed just 0-20 against Donegal and Galway in last year's Championship.

Saturday's clash with Fermanagh is important as a defeat would leave Armagh four points adrift of Peter McGrath's squad, who were also promoted this year.

Cavan

They have the same problem as Armagh - they don't score enough. They averaged 0-11 per game in two League outings so far. The defensive set-up is secure but if Cavan are to mark real progress, they need to increase the strike rate, starting against Meath on Saturday.

Westmeath

Pre-season favourites for promotion to Division 2, they are bottom of the table and in serious need of a win at home to Tipperary on Sunday. Otherwise, they can forget about promotion as ten points is the average required to escape from this division.

Westmeath dropped from Division 1 to the bottom of Division 3 in the space of two years, during which they have won only two of 16 League games.

Carlow respond to reservations over SFC plan

Carlow have stepped up the attempt to attract support for their proposed changes to the All-Ireland SFC by contacting the rest of the counties to explain the advantages and to respond to reservations expressed by the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC).

Their blueprint, which will be considered by Congress this weekend, involves the retention of the provincial championships, prior to running off the All-Ireland championships on a seeded basis as follows:

Top seeds: Provincial winners and runners-up from previous year (8)

Second seeds: Beaten provincial semi-finalists (8)

Third and fourth seeds: To be determined by finishing positions in the Allianz League in the current year.

Round 1 would feature third and fourth seeds against each other, with the winners advancing to play second seeds. The eight winners of that round would play the top seeds to clear the way for the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

Carlow contend that their plan has several benefits, including the retention of the provincial championships, linking the League to Championship seedings, fewer mismatches in the All-Ireland series as seeding would match teams of roughly similar standard and no increase in the number of games.

They also argue that it would restore equilibrium between club and county action and make it possible to compile a detailed fixtures programme early in the year.

Responding to the CCCC reference to the plan as "change for change's sake," Carlow have told other counties that is emphatically not the case.

"The provincial championships are still valued and vital. Our format recognises that, while bringing a fundamentally more balanced All-Ireland competition. It isn't necessary for a proposal to be extreme to be a credible alternative," state Carlow in their explanation to other counties.

They also point out that under their system, the provincial championships could run concurrently with the All-Ireland series, thus creating more space for club activity.

Irish Independent

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