Thursday 13 December 2018

Comment: Chasing pack face unenviable challenge of having to peak in both league and championship

Meath manager Andy McEntee Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Meath manager Andy McEntee Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Donnchadh Boyle

Donnchadh Boyle

Perhaps Meath manager Andy McEntee and Donegal star Michael Murphy best summed up the challenges of the counties chasing the leading pack.

When McEntee was asked if 2017, his first season in charge of the Royal county, was a success, he described the fine margins that separate a good year from an underwhelming one for teams like his that are chasing the group at the top of the tree.

"It was disappointing," he said of last season.

"I think everybody was disappointed but the truth is it wouldn't have taken an awful lot more for it to be a good year.

"Another point in the league would have had us in Division 1, another point against Donegal here (in Páirc Tailteann), we would have got into the next round of qualifiers.

"I think that would have been a good year. We didn't get to where we wanted to be, but we are not a million miles away - 50-50 I suppose, whether it was successful or not."

McEntee outlined the challenge facing the likes of Meath and other similarly-ranked counties. They have to scrap for every inch and need strong performances in the league and championship.

Division 1 football is a stated target. The experience they'd gain there could only help them in the long run and the Royals have come desperately close to that goal.

They have finished third in Division 2 in three of the last four campaigns, missing out in 2016 on score difference.

Their championship form has been indifferent, reaching just one provincial final and generally failing to gather much momentum, meaning they haven't been able to achieve their goals in either competition.

Donegal found themselves in a similar position last year. Buoyed by a host of new faces, they enjoyed some notable results in Division 1, not least a draw with Dublin and a double-scores win over Tyrone. But, like Meath, the efforts of the league caught up with them in the championship.

They lost heavily to the Red Hand before going down to Galway in a qualifier where they shipped four goals.

Murphy admitted that Donegal were much further off the pace than it had appeared in the spring. "The league is one thing, championship is another," Murphy observed.

There's other evidence too. Monaghan are one of the most street-wise teams around, winning some big games in the top flight as well as championship silverware.

But after taking Dublin to the wire in Clones in the league, they were completely outplayed when they met in the championship.

Afterwards, manager Malachy O'Rourke identified the energy the Farney men have to expend to survive in Division 1 as one of the reasons for the dramatic difference between the two games that were played just a few months apart.

"I think the one big thing is if we want to survive in the league in Division 1 against the top teams, we have to prepare really well," O'Rourke explained.

"We didn't kill ourselves training by (any) means but you're still sending out the same players week after week even if there's wee bits of injuries and so on.

"If you want to win the games, you have to do that. So it means the boys are playing a lot of football, I suppose there's a physical tiredness, there might be a mental fatigue there as well, whereas Dublin in fairness probably that day (in Clones), some of their regulars weren't there. I'd say they hadn't done much training, so it's a completely different competition."

And therein lies the problem. Dublin and Kerry, and perhaps to a lesser extent Mayo, aren't weighed down by the same necessity to deliver in the league.

They can go without some of their front-line players and still expect to retain Division 1 status.

Kerry's absentee list stands at 19 heading into their opener against Donegal but they can call on a host of decorated underage players in the interim.

It was a similar story with Dublin last year. Jim Gavin's side were abroad for much of last January but didn't lose in the league until the final and in the process they set the record for the longest unbeaten run in league and championship.

After their league campaign finished, they were given a month off. Then they timed their run perfectly and dismantled a Tyrone side that had played their best football too early on their way to a third consecutive All-Ireland title.

So when Dublin and Kerry put much of their efforts into coming right at the business end of the championship, the chasing pack are forced to go to war early and often.

Peaking twice in one season is a hard ask, as Roscommon showed in 2016. They raced out of the traps and recorded a rare win on Kerry soil and dished out a hammering to Cork as they made a league semi-final in their first year back in the top flight.

They went nowhere that summer. Last season, they were relegated after five rounds of the league but would win a Connacht title that summer.

The emphasis had changed and Roscommon reaped the rewards, but it's a high-risk strategy.

Had Connacht flopped in the championship in 2017, Kevin McStay's tenure would have a very different look to it.

Cian O'Neill will face a similar conundrum this time around. His Kildare side are back in Division 1 for the first time since 2014 and he'll have to strike the balance between maintaining top-flight status and working to close the gap on Dublin for when it matters.

For Kildare and others, waging war on two fronts is just one of the challenges they have to overcome.

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