Saturday 16 December 2017

From goal-fests to flying half-backs - 10 mid-term observations after four rounds of the NFL

James McCarthy celebrates scoring the third Dublin goal against Cork (SPORTSFILE)
James McCarthy celebrates scoring the third Dublin goal against Cork (SPORTSFILE)
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Number fives have been number one. After four rounds of the Allianz Football League, the yellow jersey for the season's best player so far rests between Dublin's James McCarthy and Donegal's Ryan McHugh.

Significantly, both have done all their damage coming off the right wing, though McCarthy did drive Dublin to victory against Cork from midfield in the second half last Saturday night.

Their athleticism, ball control and constant probing has set them apart. McCarthy scored the goal to wrap up a fourth successive win and grabbed a key point off his left foot against Mayo.

McHugh set up two goals against Down and kicked two points against Mayo, neither man forsaking defensive duties to make such valued contributions.

Goals back in vogue

Past the halfway point in the regulation part of the league and it is already apparent that goals are fashionable again after last year's 23 per cent slump.

Division One experienced one of the sharpest falls, dropping from 77 in 2014 to 48 last year but already there have been 33 goals scored in the top flight with three rounds in what can presumed to be better conditions to come.

Division Four produced just 39 goals in 2015 but the eight counties have banged in 28 so far.

Last year there were only four counties who averaged a goal or more per game in Division One or Two but after four rounds there are eight on or above that mark.

To date the goals have been going in at an average rate of slightly over two per game, back up to 2014 rates after a drop to 1.45 per game at this stage last year.

Kerry spread net furthest

Four rounds gone and Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice has cast his net furthest, Denis Daly became the 33rd player used in the campaign and with Michael and Paul Geaney, Anthony Maher, possibly James O'Donoghue to come back in that figure could finish closer to 40, depending on the availability and progress of some of the promising under 21 squad.

Dublin's free-taking conundrum

Dean Rock started every one of Dublin's 16 competitive games in 2015 and the first three games of the 2016 season, providing a vital free-taking service but that 19-match run ended at the weekend when he was left out of the team.

In his place Cormac Costello came in and nailed eight frees while Diarmuid Connolly stepped up to convert a 45 and a long range free from his hands. Bernard Brogan and Stephen Cluxton still remain options.

Dublin bring certainty to almost every part of their game but the balance between free-taking and general contribution may have to be weighed up again.

Roscommon have figured a way out

"We have to figure out a way of operating in the midfield area. We just don't have the size like Mayo and other teams have."

So said Roscommon joint-manager Kevin McStay after their Connacht League win over Mayo in January.

Four league games in and, so far, that potential Achilles Heel, has not yet throbbed like they might have expected.

The pairing of Enda Smith and Ian Kilbride, supplemented by Cathal Shine's well calibrated introductions, has kept them honest there so far.

Three wins from four has put Roscommon tantalisingly close to safety in Division One. McStay said they'd have to earn the status. So far they have.

Cuthbert revisionism

After four rounds of the 2014 and 2015 leagues Cork led Division One with seven wins from eight including home and away wins over Dublin.

Currently they are second from bottom with just two points and a 23-point scoring difference against them. Managing Cork is no armchair ride.

Former manager Brian Cuthbert, who was in charge for those league campaigns but stepped down after two adverse championship campaigns under a weight of local criticism, can afford a wry smile.

McCann quite the man at wing-back

Tyrone have scored four goals in their opening four Division Two league games that have brought four consecutive wins.

Tiernan McCann has had an involvement in all four, scoring the first against Galway and then providing the assists for Padriag McNulty against Laois and Sean Cavanagh and Aidan McRory against Derry last weekend.

The significance is he has made these contributions from half-back where Mickey Harte has recast him this season and from where his electrifying pace from a deeper positions has really cut open unwitting defences.

Cavan throwing the shackles off

Having scored just 1-24 in their first 175 minutes of league football Cavan have undergone quite the dramatic transformation since the interval in Navan when they trailed Meath by 1-9 to 0-5.

Since then they've scored 4-33 in 105 minutes of league football, their three goals against Armagh on Saturday night the first time in four years (they scored four goals in a league game against Tipperary) since they scored more than two goals in a league or championship game.

Already in four league games they have scored the same number of goals as they did in 10 between league and championship last year.

At the forefront is Seanie Johnston who has blazed 1-11 in the two games that he has started since his exile with the county ended late last year.

Be careful what you don't care about

How many Westmeath supporters woke up on Monday morning, June 29 2015 and declared that they couldn't care if their county football team never won another game! A first ever championship win over Meath had that intoxicating effect.

So far the indifference felt then has come to pass.

Westmeath have played six games (two championship, four league) and have yet to win one. After hitting Meath for 3-19 they have scored just one goal in those subsequent matches and have not scored more than the 1-10 against Sligo.

The prospect of dropping a league division in three consecutive years is a very real one now as 17 defeats from their last 20 league games hits hard.

Meath's second half syndrome

It is with some trepidation that Meath manager Mick O'Dowd must look to the second half of any match these days.

In 11 league and championships over the last 12 months they have lost big interval leads in the league - seven points against Laois (2015), eight against Cavan, nine against Galway and eight against Westmeath in the championship last summer.

They've also 'lost' second halves against Roscommon (2015 league), Wicklow (2015 championship), Tyrone (2015 championship) and Fermanagh (2016 league).

Clearly they're doing something very right to establish early supremacy but it goes without saying that locking them down is an absolute priority.

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