Friday 24 May 2019

'Only Dublin can beat Dublin, though at a stretch I would give Mayo a chance' - Pat Spillane's championship verdict

Action from Dublin and Mayo during the 2017 final
Action from Dublin and Mayo during the 2017 final

Pat Spillane

It is just as well that the 2019 All-Ireland football championship is all about whether Dublin achieve football immortality and win the five-in-a-row for the first time.

Frankly there is not much else to get excited about as the Leinster and Munster championships are foregone conclusions.

Dublin will win their ninth title in a row and their 14th in 15 years without having to shift out of second year.

Ditto with Kerry in Munster, who are on course for their seventh final win in a row. Gone are the days when we could look forward to one decent game in the series, but Cork's slow decline put paid to that and their demise has serious financial implications for the Munster Council.

The same applies in Leinster, where even the Dublin fans have grown tired of watching their team streamroll over opponents in Croke Park. The probable presence of Meath in this year's final should keep the attendance over the 40,000 mark, but the era of a sell-out Leinster final is long gone.

The situation is less drastic in the other two provinces. Connacht looks set for a showdown between Mayo and Galway, and both have serious aspirations of ultimately challenging Dublin for the title.

The Ulster series will be the most competitive of the four and there is at least the possibility of a shock or two along the way.

However, its the fate of the counties at the other end of the spectrum that is worrying. Any arguments against introducing a second-tier championship are no longer valid.

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Up to 10 teams have no chance of winning a game in the provincial series, never mind challenging for a place in the final.

By Round 2 of the qualifiers, 16 counties will have exited the series. How are they supposed to improve under this crazy system?

My sincere hope is that the 2019 championship will be the last which uses the current format. The GAA have spent long enough debating the topic. We need a tier-two championship.

As for the five-in-a-row, who knows? My view is that the answer lies within the Dublin squad themselves. They have consistently proved to be the best team in the country by some distance. Now they just have to go and prove it again. Only Dublin can beat Dublin, though at a stretch I would give Mayo a chance as well, even if I can't really see them landing the All-Ireland.

 

Connacht

The Connacht Council got what they wanted as the two big guns, Mayo and Galway, are on opposite sides of the draw. Barring a huge shock along the way they will meet in what should be the best of the four provincial finals on June 16 in Pearse Stadium.

Even though the Provincial Councils have tightened up their schedules, why does it still take seven weeks to play the six games in the series?

Galway have a ludicrously easy passage to the provincial final. Having beaten London they now face Sligo, another team who will be playing in Division 4 next season.  The prize for getting to the provincial final is that a team gets two bites at reaching the Super 8s.

Mayo have a slightly trickier passage, though with home advantage they ought to account for Roscommon in the semi-final.

Even though they were relegated from the top flight of the league and Leitrim won promotion from Division 4, I expect Anthony Cunningham's side to advance to that semi-final against Mayo in Castlebar.

Galway have had the Indian sign over Mayo in the last four years, beating them on seven occasions in all competitions.

Mayo haven't beaten the Tribesmen in championship football since 2015 and they have consistently found it difficult to find a way through Galway's massed defence, while their discipline has also let them down.

However, on the law of averages they are due a change of fortune. I expect Mayo to win the Connacht title, but the two sides will be big players in the Super 8s.

Final: Galway v Mayo.

Verdict: Mayo.

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Mayo’s Keith Higgins tries to dispossess Antaine Ó Laoí in Castlebar. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach. Photo: Sportsfile

Leinster

What will be most interesting about this championship are the attendance figures, as crowds have been on the slide in recent years due to Dublin's absolute dominance. Even their own fans have tired of seeing them demolish opponents.

On the field the outcome is entirely predictable – and it's not just the final which is a foregone conclusion. With the exception of the Laois v Westmeath quarter-final, all the other ties could be accurately forecast unless the form book is thrown out the window.

Dublin, of course, are the only team in Leinster who played in Division 1 this season, which means the rest have a lot of catching up to do. The bottom half of the draw is made up entirely of teams who competed in Division 2 and 3 last season.

After their heroics over the last couple of seasons, Carlow look in disarray, with team manager Turlough O'Brien, his assistant Steven Poacher and key player  Brendan Murphy all fighting suspensions.

Meath, who will operate in Division 1 next season, look likely to emerge from this half of the draw. Dublin will hand out a couple of ritual hammerings on the way to the decider. I simply can't see Kildare offering them a real challenge in a probable semi-final.

The Royals are a work in progress and probably need a minimum of two years in Division 1 before they could challenge the Dubs. They will be aiming to avoid a drubbing in the final and reach the Super 8s via the qualifiers.

Final: Dublin v Meath.

Verdict: Dublin.

 

Munster

The lights went out on the Munster series once Cork went into decline.

The Kingdom won their two matches in the competition by a combined tally of 39 points last year and things have actually got worse in the meantime, with both Cork and Tipperary relegated from Division 2.

What's most alarming is the drop in standards in Cork football.

This is a county which has more registered clubs, teams and players than any other, and yes that includes Dublin, yet Cork can no longer be considered a top-12 county.

I still expect them to reach the provincial final, which is again scheduled for Páirc Uí Chaoimh. There was a decent turnout at last year's final between the home side and Kerry, but I simply cannot imagine we will see a repeat of that crowd this time around.

The Munster Council will be doing exceptionally well to get 25,000 to their football showpiece.

The problem for Kerry is that they will learn absolutely nothing from their two games. They paid a heavy price for their easy passage through Munster last year, so it will be interesting to see their approach to this year's series.

Final: Cork v Kerry.

Verdict: Kerry.

 

Ulster 

The quality of the football might not be of the highest calibre, but at least the series will be competitive.

Two of last year's All-Ireland semi-finalists, Tyrone and Monaghan, as well as the defending provincial winners, Donegal, are the leading contenders – and there is at least the possibility of an upset.

Tyrone have the most demanding campaign, having been drawn in the preliminary round. However, Derry and Antrim played in Division 4 this season so Tyrone's passage to the provincial semi-final ought to be relatively smooth.

Fermanagh did beat Donegal in the league, but Declan Bonner's side were experiencing a dip in form. Such is their firepower it is unlikely lightning will strike again when the counties meet.

So I expect a Tyrone v Donegal semi-final showdown and if Tyrone don't revert to type, stick with their kicking game and continue to deploy Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane in the full-forward line, I anticipate a Red Hand win. Regardless of the outcome, both counties will make the Super 8s.

Monaghan look the most accomplished side in the other half of the draw, but I have my doubts.

They could struggle in the middle third of the field due to the loss of Darren Hughes and the probable unavailability of Niall Kearns, who had heart surgery last autumn.

Armagh are my dark horses, even though they have an appalling provincial record under Kieran McGeeney. They struggled in the league as well, but I fancy them to account for Down and then beat Monaghan – who I expect will eliminate Cavan in the first round.

Final: Armagh v Tyrone.

Verdict: Tyrone.

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