'I don’t do cute-hoorism' - Pat Spillane ranks the top 10 counties in the hunt for Sam Maguire
Read Pat Spillane every week in the Sunday World
League form rarely lies, so the recently completed competition is a reliable guide to what may transpire in the championship this summer.
Twenty-four teams played seven games, the other eight had one additional game due to their involvement in the divisional league finals.
Based on these league performances team managers now know what works, what doesn’t and what they need to tweak ahead of the provincial series.
Sadly, for virtually all the teams in the two lower divisions of the league, the championship has become the secondary competition because the chances of them making progress are virtually nil.
What a boost it would be if a Division 3 or 4 team were to reach the Super 8s, but I’m not holding my breath. By the way, I nearly fell off my chair when I read Tomás Ó Sé’s suggestion in his Irish Independent column that Kerry were fifth in the race for Sam. I think he was engaged in a spot of cute-hoorism.
I don’t do cute-hoorism, which probably explains why Tomás is more popular. I call a spade a spade and Kerry are the third-best team right now. Based on what I observed in the league, these are my Top 10 teams right now...
THE bottom line is they were relegated again – for the second time in three seasons. At times they were unlucky: the goal they conceded against Mayo should have been disallowed, Kerry only took the lead against them in the 68th minute and they played with 14 men in the second-half against Tyrone.
Defensively they only conceded three goals – Carlow were the only other team to match that statistic.
Their star player Gearoid McKiernan is back, while Dara McVeety, Padraig Faulkner and Conor Madden would get their game with any county team.
Their scoring rate is woeful – they only managed 5-75 in the league, the lowest return for any Division 1 team. Perhaps they should play more direct ball into Madden.
Although they lost to Donegal in the final, Meath had a productive spring, finishing top of Division 2. It means that the Royals will be playing Division 1 football next season for the first time since 2006.
They also have a decent chance of reaching the Leinster final this summer, which gives them two chances of reaching the Super 8s.
However, as a work in progress they’re still in the foothills, though the form of Mickey Newman up front has been a revelation. Their midfield was very poor against Donegal and the team effectively collapsed, surrendering an eight point lead.
They scored only one point from play in the second-half.
Defensively, Donegal repeatedly opened them up and they need to add a bit of traditional Royal steel to this department.
THEY started the season at a disadvantage, due to the lateness in the appointment of new manager Anthony Cunningham. On the plus side, the form of Kerry ‘import’ Conor Cox was a revelation, while Diarmuid Murtagh is back from injury.
Although they were beaten they showed decent form against Dublin and should have beaten Tyrone.
Even though they were noticeably more aggressive in the tackle, their defence remains their Achilles heel.
They conceded 10-92 in their seven games and a -30 points difference was the worst in the division.
In their final match against Kerry – which they needed to win to have any chance of avoiding relegation for the second time in three seasons – they never raised a sweat, scoring two points from play and losing by 10.
Presumably they will overcome the challenge of Leitrim in the Connacht championship, but their form does not suggest they are capable of beating Mayo, their probable semi-final opponents.
WHAT Monaghan have achieved is remarkable. Not alone are they the only team in Division 1 with a population of fewer than 100,000, they will be playing in the top flight for the sixth consecutive season in 2020.
The squad are blessed with a collection of warriorlike players, while Conor McManus remains one of the country’s top five forwards.
They finished third from bottom in Division 1 winning just two games, though Malachy O’Rourke rested key players during the league which suggests that they are focussing on the championship.
The loss due to illness of Niall Kearns, who was a revelation last season, was a big blow and now Darren Hughes’s broken ankle will keep him out of the Ulster championship.
McManus needs more support up front. In that regard Stephen O’Hanlon was a big find, but they need more newcomers like him.
THEY scored 100 points on their way to winning the Division 2 title and in terms of physicality, athleticism and know-how they tick a lot of the boxes.
Newcomers Niall O’Donnell and 19-year old Oisín Gallen made telling impacts, while Paddy McBrearty will be back for the championship.
New coach, ex-Mayo boss Stephen Rochford, has influenced their style of play and they are kicking the ball more frequently and scoring long-range points.
The management were also ruthless in whipping off rookie full-back Brendan McCole after just 14 minutes of the league final.
On the other hand, playing in Division 2 is not ideal preparation, but the biggest blow is the decision of Odhrán Mac Niallais to opt out of the squad.
Settling on one position for Michael Murphy is a key issue. I believe he should play on the edge of the square and they need to stick to the style of football they played in the league final against Meath.
AT half-time in their round seven league game against Tyrone, Galway looked on target to reach back-to-back league finals. It would have been a huge achievement given that they were without the Corofin players as well as Damien Comer and Paul Conroy for the entire campaign.
Apart from Dublin and Kerry they have the best forward division around, with Comer, Shane Walsh, Ian Burke and newcomer Antaine Ó Laoi all top performers. Too often, though, they are starved of possession due to Galway’s defensively oriented, counter-attacking game.
I did detect signs of them getting a better balance this spring, though their second-half defensive collapse against
Tyrone could mean a return to safety first tactics.
The bottom line is that those tactics failed miserably in their two biggest games last season: the league final and All-Ireland semi-final against Dublin. They need to be braver but will take solace from their excellent record against Mayo.
EVEN though they failed to reach the league final, no team had more momentum at the end of the series. They were unbeaten in their last five league games – one draw and four wins – including a memorable Croke Park victory over Dublin despite being down to 14 in the last 20 minutes.
The transformation in their fortunes is primarily due to a change of tactics – they’ve started kicking the ball more
frequently and deployed Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane, two proven ball winners, in their full-forward line.
The key issue is whether Mickey Harte will now hold his nerve and persist with this approach in the championship.
I would still have concerns that once they come under pressure they will revert to their safety first game, which will not secure them Sam.
Like Mayo they started their preparation early as new boss Peter Keane found his feet.
Regardless of their league final loss, I believe this team will not be far away from an All-Ireland this year – and could even win it.
They topped Division 1, introduced some really promising players like Shane Ryan, Graham O’Sullivan, Diarmuid O’Connor and Dara Moynihan, showed commendable character in coming from behind against Cavan, Monaghan and Galway to eke out wins and were the top point scorers (104) in the league.
On the other hand they only managed one goal in their first six matches and were hugely dependent on Sean O’Shea to keep the scoreboard ticking over.
Defensively they need to do more to protect their ‘D’ and ideally unearth a couple of man-marking defenders, as well as a ball-winning midfielder.
THEIR spring form carries a health warning – they were one of the first Division 1 teams to return to training because of their early exit from the All-Ireland series last year.
Still, it was a productive campaign as they secured their first Division 1 title since 2001 and clearly have momentum going into the championship having won their last three – against Kerry (twice) and Monaghan.
They have unearthed more young talent than any of their rivals, with Matthew Ruane, Ciarán Treacy and James Carr all impressing.
The influx of new talent enabled James Horan to ‘mix and match’, which give the youngsters valuable game time and allowed the veterans a chance to rest.
I’m not convinced, however, that their attack is the real deal. They managed one point against Roscommon and four against Dublin. Horan is still unsure of what his best 15 is and Galway – their probable Connacht final opponents – have become their bogey side.
TELLINGLY, winning the title was not a priority for Jim Gavin’s side. Even though they rarely moved out of second gear they were still the highest scorers in the top three divisions with a 9-95 total.
Still, they lost three of their regulation games compared to one last year, when they had already qualified for the final. Losing fosters doubt in players’ minds and provides a chink of light to opponents.
Dublin’s vulnerability in the full-back line is now well documented and the form of Cian O’Sullivan must be a source of concern to Gavin.
Philly McMahon has just recovered from injury, didn’t start a league tie and has only played a few minutes of football since the All-Ireland, so there will be question marks about his form as well.
Also, with the exception of Darren Gavin, no new talent was unearthed.
Sorting out the full-back line is the number-one priority and the answer may lie in bringing Rory O’Carroll back.
Otherwise, the Dubs need to bring something fresh to the table by tweaking their tactics up front.