Saturday 17 March 2018

Most teams want to do well in the league campaign - just not too well

Brendan Devenney, Donegal
Brendan Devenney, Donegal

Declan Bogue

AS far as the GAA are concerned, it's not a competition unless there is at least one do-or-die game at the end of it, preferably three.

League systems whereby the top team lifts the trophy at completion of their round-robin games have the novelty factor of hen's teeth. Instead, the kingmakers like to tag on a bit of knockout, in deference to the Championship format and pursuit of gate receipts.

The Allianz Football League has become an incredible competition since they settled on a satisfactory format in time for the 2008 edition, but this weekend it enters a twilight zone of bum steers and battles of who could care less.

Last year Donegal returned from a training camp in Portugal only for Monaghan to mow them down in the Division 2 final. After they reversed the result in the Ulster final, manager Jim McGuinness said: "The league final didn't rock us. Tactically, there were four or five things we were working on and it wasn't easy sometimes biting my lip on the sideline.

"But we had to look at the bigger picture, no disrespect to the league or anything. We had to prioritise."

His successor, Rory Gallagher, will be thinking precisely the same thing this weekend as Donegal face Cork in one semi-final, while Monaghan have a massive test of character in facing Dublin seven days after they were spanked by them to the tune of 11 points in Clones.

Last weekend, Donegal were doing enough to ensure they stayed up. Now they have to box clever and bear in mind the fortunes of their neighbours in the north-west last year, according to former player Brendan Devenney.

"You have the prospect of playing Dublin in Croke Park and nobody wants to do that right now," says Devenney of a possible league final pairing.

"Dublin have so many boys chomping at the bit for a place. The other teams are just sauntering up to the Championship minding themselves, whereas Dublin will just blow you away. And you only have to look at the effect that had on Derry last year."

A place in the league final would leave Gallagher with only three weeks to really home in on a combustible Ulster preliminary-round wrestle with Tyrone.

"It's a very Ulster thing in fairness," explains Devenney. "Outside of the province, Cork and Kerry are the only other sides that wouldn't want to meet now.

"Other teams would not care. They would like the tough game, whereas in Ulster, everybody is ready to knock lumps out of each other. Their mindset is to lie in wait. Rory Gallagher wants to avoid it."

Donegal have won only one league title, back in 2007 when they were captained by Neil Gallagher with Devenney as their go-to forward. But would Neil Gallagher have any regrets about not winning another league? It's highly doubtful.

With a series of club fixtures coming up, Donegal could do without any more of their weekends being clogged up. Rory Gallagher will also wish for a residential coaching weekend before Tyrone come to town.

So does he send out a team with instructions to hit the canvas in the final round?

"Everybody approaches the league in the same way. They want good, competitive games and they don't want to worry about the outcome of winning it," explains Devenney.

"It's different for some sides like Dublin and Mayo - they want the tougher games because they are not going to get them in their own province.

"But certainly in Ulster, everybody wants that time to gel together. For Donegal, playing a decent game on Sunday and losing by a couple of points would be their ultimate."

Monaghan come at this weekend with different intentions. They need to find a formation that prevents a heavy defeat to Dublin, after the 17-point loss in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final and last week's 11-point home reverse.

They have spent most of this week in Portugal at a warm-weather training camp, but the cloud cover and occasional showers there since Monday left it more Aghnamullen than Algarve.

In his three league campaigns, Malachy O'Rourke has led Monaghan to the Division 3 and Division 2 league titles and now into the Division 1 semis, another spectacular staging post in an incredible coaching job.

"It's a National title. You don't get these opportunities too often," says Eugene 'Nudie' Hughes, a league winner in '85 and perhaps Monaghan's greatest-ever player.

As with every team, Hughes insists, "The main thing was to secure Division 1 status, and everything else was a bonus after that."

Should Monaghan gain a landmark win over the Dubs, that would leave four weeks between a league final and their trip across the county border to Cavan for the Ulster first-round game.

It might actually pay to unashamedly go full bore for a league final. Imagine.

Declan Bogue

Indo Sport

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