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McGuinness' men face hard road to retain All-Ireland

THE current format of the Allianz Football League – or more specifically, the structure that hands a semi-final pass to the entire top half of Division One – has attracted its fair share of criticism in recent times.

Either the qualification bar is set too low; or it creates an unwanted extra week of activity to the detriment of clubs; or it doesn't adequately reward consistency, as would be the case if the cup were simply handed over after round seven to the top-placed team (take a bow, Dublin!).

Opponents could even proffer all three of these arguments as reason for change – and, as we all know, the GAA loves nothing better than a bit of auld tinkering with its occasionally beloved league.

Notwithstanding a personal aversion to format-hopping, our own preference would be for a return to the structure that applied as recently as 2011, when the top two in Division One advanced straight to the final.

In that scenario, last Sunday would still have been high on drama without quite the same bungee-jump oscillations.

Mayo, Kerry and ultimately Donegal would still have endured the same nerve-shredding relegation battle as their games hung in the balance late on.

But we wouldn't have witnessed the incredible resurrection of Mayo, who could yet win the league despite losing four of their seven regulation games.

Trailing by a solitary point to Cork with almost an hour elapsed, they were destined for the drop.

Fast-forward barely quarter-of-an-hour and ghoulish Division Two nightmares had been replaced by dreams of Croker glory – primarily because of Cillian O'Connor and his brace of sideline beauties.

It's worth clarifying that, even in the event of a narrow Donegal victory over the Dubs, Mayo would still have made the semis ... such an outcome would instead have consigned Kerry (instead of Donegal) to share Down's relegation fate.

But consider the table if Dublin's Paul Mannion hadn't delivered at the death.

You would have had four teams locked on six points; one of them (Mayo) would have been semi-finalists and another (Kerry) would have been demoted.

Crazy or what?

Ultimately, and perhaps thankfully, the two teams finishing with the lowest number of points succumbed.

All that Jim McGuinness could complain about (by inference) was the refereeing decisions that allegedly cost Donegal and saw them become the first All-Ireland champions to suffer demotion since Kerry in 2001.

Afterwards, McGuinness was at pains to insist that relegation isn't the end of Donegal's world and that they "don't really like the league".

We'll take Jim at his word – partly because it is obvious they have not targeted league silverware, just as they didn't last spring (without any negative impact on September ambitions).

But? Well, we remain to be convinced that Donegal are necessarily any better equipped than all the other recent All-Ireland holders who have struggled in defence of Sam.

Twelve months ago, at the same Ballybofey venue, they needed a last-day victory to leapfrog relegation rivals Armagh ... and duly delivered despite trailing at half-time.



On Sunday, facing an already-qualified Dublin, they led by five points after 25 minutes and couldn't seal the deal.

This from a team whose forte has been to gradually wear opponents down, then definitively break them in the second half.

Donegal's total focus may be on the bigger summer picture but we don't quite buy the notion that they're blasé about the minor detail of spring recession.

They will be a different beast against Tyrone on May 26. Making it all the way back to September 22 will be the hard part.