Sunday 24 February 2019

Colm Keys: 'Statistics lend greater weight to home rule'

Westmeath manager Jack Cooney, here congratulating Ger Egan last Friday night, will be hoping his team can build on their O’Byrne Cup success in the league. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Westmeath manager Jack Cooney, here congratulating Ger Egan last Friday night, will be hoping his team can build on their O’Byrne Cup success in the league. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Out of 12 new inter-county football managers for the 2019 season, six are taking on teams pitched in Division 3 of the Allianz League.

Pádraic Davis (Longford), Wayne Kierans (Louth), Jack Cooney (Westmeath), Paul Taylor (Sligo) and Paddy Tally (Down) have all had previous experience in inter-county backroom teams but are striking out on their own for the first time while John Maughan (Offaly) is on his fifth different county, matching the spread of Mick O'Dwyer and Mickey Moran in the past.

Of all the divisions, the third is the most notorious for throwing up exactly what you don't expect or predict.

Derry, Westmeath and Laois might testify to that after falling through the relegation trapdoor against the odds in recent years.

At the other end, Louth could hardly have factored in such a quick return to Division 2 in 2017 when they surprised Tipperary on the road.

One distinction this division has is the higher return of home wins by comparison to the other three divisions. When the Irish Independent surveyed five years of league results from 2012 to 2016 ahead of the 2017 league, it found that over 60pc were home wins. By comparison, Division 1 (53.5pc), Division 2 (49pc) and Division 4 (46.6pc) were well behind. Last year home advantage was at a 64pc success rate, still well above the rest.

It may not amount to much but it still illustrates the importance of home advantage and, crucially, having those four home games from seven.

Fine margins can often decide fate. Offaly looked doomed to relegation last year but Sligo's home win over Derry, allied to Westmeath's indifference and team selection against Offaly, shifted the dynamic on the last day.

Preserved

A year earlier, Seán McCormack's free for Longford in the seventh minute of injury time to earn a draw against Antrim preserved their status.

In 2016, Kildare dominated the division but behind them the next five teams were divided on the final day by just one point. From that scrum, Clare emerged on score difference ahead of Offaly and Longford and haven't looked back.

The natural assumption is that Down, having contested Division 1 as recently as 2016, should be equipped to bounce back but when a county starts to fall it can be difficult to stop.

Tally won't be under any illusions about the task he is facing. Down have tradition for sure but the exodus of players over the last two years has been staggering. As a measure of that, from the team that started their Ulster Championship win over Armagh less than 12 years ago, just one-fifth looks like being available for Saturday night's home clash with Laois. Suspensions to Kevin McKernan among others, injuries to the likes of Caolan Mooney and Connaire Harrison's absence leave them short-changed.

It has the feel of a mini Leinster round robin with six counties from the province being joined by Down and Sligo. Westmeath have had good early-season form with an O'Byrne Cup win and with players to come back like John Heslin and perhaps their regular full-back Kevin Maguire they should have a strong hand. But only three of their games are at home.

Laois had a progressive 2018 that can be built on and if their campaign gets off to a winning start in Newry on Saturday they can pick up four more wins from six that should see them climb.

Mullinalaghta's success will come at a cost to Longford with at least eight of their panel missing, leaving them in peril for those opening three games. Even if Mullinalaghta do crash out to Dr Crokes, their round four and five games are against Down and Laois, no easy return for them. Carlow have developed into one of the most experienced sides around but, like Laois, so much hinges on a good start.

Without a dominant team 10 points should be enough for promotion while four won't guarantee survival. But Down's missing legion paves the way for Westmeath and Laois to exploit.

Irish Independent

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