Saturday 21 April 2018

Martin Breheny: Five hits and misses from the National Football League

From gold stars to abject failures: who did what this season

Cork manager Brian Cuthbert talks to his team
Cork manager Brian Cuthbert talks to his team
The Derry team gather together in a huddle, along with manager Brian McIver, after victory over Kerry
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

After coming within two points of being relegated to Division 3 two years ago, Derry have made the most impressive progress in the entire Allianz Football League, powering up the ranks so imperiously that the county's supporters now believe a new, exciting era is being launched.

The next phase of the adventure takes them to Croke Park next Sunday where they will face Mayo in the Division 1 semi-final to decide who plays Dublin or Cork in the final two weeks later.

While that quartet pursue the big prize, most of the other important business has been decided in a two-month campaign which has left all 32 counties with a report card awaiting careful study in preparation for the championship.

 

GOLD STARS

DERRY, CORK

Having come up from Division 2, Derry started the season as 5/4 second favourites behind Westmeath for a quick exit from the top group, yet had a semi-final slot secured after six rounds, which allowed them the luxury of fielding a largely second string against Mayo last Sunday.

That's impressive work by Brian McIver and his ambitious squad, whose league record since losing to Galway in the opening round of Division 2 14 months ago reads: Played 14, Won 10, Drew 2, Lost 2.

Cork topped Division 1, which at face value may not look all that surprising for a county that won the league in three of the last four years.

However, this season's progress has been achieved under new manager Brian Cuthbert and a re-built squad which has adapted quickly to the fast lane.

Despite having booked a semi-final place after Round 6, they maintained the high tempo last Sunday when warning Kerry that the new Rebel force means business. Was it a significant marker for the Munster championship?

 

FIRST CLASS HONOURS

CAVAN, ROSCOMMON, TIPPERARY

Cavan and Roscommon had promotion from Division 3 secured after five rounds, while Tipperary were on their way out of Division 4 after six rounds.

 

SECOND CLASS HONOURS

MAYO, DUBLIN, DONEGAL, MONAGHAN, CLARE

Mayo and Dublin had identical records in Division 1, winning four, drawing one and losing two of their seven games. Interestingly they lost to different opponents. Dublin were beaten by Cork and Derry, while Mayo's losses came against Kildare and Tyrone in the opening two rounds.

As the top two in the game last year, they would have been expected to make the last four more comfortably than they did. Indeed, Mayo might well have missed the semi-finals if Derry hadn't fielded a weakened team last Sunday, while Sean Cavanagh's late wide in Omagh cost Tyrone a qualification place ahead of Dublin.

Division 2 is not Donegal's natural habitat these days and they duly dealt with the business of escaping at the first attempt. That's all they can be judged on for now. Monaghan, who dropped from Divisions 1 to 3 in successive seasons (2011-12), have gone the other way just as quickly, maintaining the impressive progress of last year. As Ulster champions, that was to be expected.

Clare clinched promotion from Division 4 after holding their nerve in a tricky away assignment against Antrim last Sunday.

 

PASS WITH DISTINCTION

TYRONE, MEATH, WICKLOW

Six points were enough to earn a semi-final place in Division 1 last season but Tyrone lost out on eight points this year.

Having drawn level with Dublin late on after trailing by nine points in the 30th minute, it was very disappointing for Tyrone to be squeezed out by Diarmuid Connolly's late point, prompting Mickey Harte to respond to a query on whether they would take many positives from the game: "There aren't many cups for moral victories."

Having been promoted from Division 3 for this season, Meath finished third in Division 2, taking seven from a possible eight points (including a draw with Donegal) in their last four games. It leaves Meath in reasonably good shape for the Leinster championship.

Wicklow started and finished well in Division 4 but wobbled in the middle, losing to Clare and Leitrim, which left them on 10 points, one adrift of promoted Tipperary and Clare. Harry Murphy will be reasonably content as he plans for the Leinster opener against Laois in Aughrim next month.

 

PASS

KERRY, DOWN, LAOIS, GALWAY, SLIGO, FERMANAGH, WEXFORD, LIMERICK, LEITRIM, WATERFORD

Kerry just about make the pass grade after winning only three of seven games for a second successive year. The finish could scarcely be any more different either for, while they beat Tyrone in Omagh in their final game last year, they lost heavily at home to Cork last Sunday. The one encouraging aspect of Kerry's campaign was that they had the best defensive record in Division 1.

Down's inability to pick up away points – they lost to Galway, Meath and Laois – cost them dearly. They took five of six points in Newry but needed a better return on their travels if they were to remain in the promotion race.

Laois rescued themselves from dropping into Division 3 with a win over Down last Sunday but were still three points worse off than last year. Galway were extremely lucky to avoid the drop on five points, surviving ahead of Armagh on the head-to-head rule but were two points short of last year's haul and three down on the previous year.

Fermanagh, Sligo and Wexford had promotion hopes ahead of the Division 3 campaign but were easily outpaced by Cavan and Roscommon. Indeed, Wexford had to beat Longford last Sunday to avoid dropping from Divisions 2 to 4 in successive seasons.

Limerick, who were promoted from Division 4 last year, survived in the higher group, while Leitrim finished fourth in Division 4, up three points on last year. Waterford just make the pass mark.

 

FAIL

KILDARE, WESTMEATH, ARMAGH, LOUTH, LONGFORD, OFFALY, ANTRIM, LONDON, CARLOW

This is quite a large group who will try to zap the league campaign from the memory bank and hope it won't have any negative impact on their championship season.

Kildare started well with a win over Mayo but lost five in a row, leaving them heading out of Division 1 after two seasons in the top flight. Jason Ryan has a lot of work to do to restore confidence for the championship.

Westmeath were always likely to be relegated from Division 1 but will be disappointed by most of the margins (they lost the seven games by an average of 10 points). Armagh will be in Division 3 next year for the first time since the mid-90s, a depressing thought for a county that enjoyed so much success in the interim. Relegated from Division 1 two years ago, the downward spiral continues after three seasons when they have won only six of 21 league games.

Louth were voted most likely to be relegated from Division 2 for the past two years but survived on both occasions. However, the axe finally fell after a campaign where draws against Armagh and Galway yielded their only points.

Longford were promoted from Divisions 4 to 2 in successive seasons (2011-12) but have now dropped back to the basement equally quickly. It's a depressing slide but at least there's the consolation that they begin their Leinster championship bid at home to fellow strugglers Offaly next month.

Offaly's attempt to consolidate in Division 3, after being promoted last year, yielded only a single point in what was a thoroughly miserable campaign which doesn't augur well for the summer tests.

Antrim, who dropped from Division 3 last season, were one of the major flops of the entire league. They were fancied to be among the promotion contenders but won only two games, leaving them with a national rating of 30th. They are better than that but didn't spark at all this spring.

After their championship exploits last year, London would have expected to pick up more than three points in Division 4 but never got any momentum going.

The same goes for Carlow, who had the worst defensive record in any division, which played a major part in leaving them as the lowest-ranked team in the country.

Irish Independent

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