Pat Spillane gives his verdict on the eight top flight teams and their prospects of lifting Sam Maguire
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THIS weekend the 32 teams competing in the Allianz League finally get a chance to draw breath and assess where they’re at after five rounds of the competition.
Granted it’s still early days in the season, but the reality is that a lot of teams have played most of their football already.
It is sobering to remember that a number of teams will play only four more games in 2019 – two in the league, one in the provincial series and one in the qualifiers unless they reach a league final.
I’m looking at the eight teams in Division 1 because the reality is that these are the only counties with a realistic chance of winning the All-Ireland in 2019.
New boss Peter Keane is enjoying a lengthy honeymoon. Unbeaten after five games, his new-look side are playing with a lot of confidence. The influence of defensive coach Donie Buckley can be seen in every aspect of their defensive play.
The introduction of Dara Moynihan and Tomas O Sé has brought pace. But for the most part Kerry have followed the Jim Gavin template by introducing athletic-style footballers in the shape of Adrian Spillane, Diarmuid O’Connor and Gavin O’Brien.
Tommy Walsh has been a revelation since his recall and their capacity to come from behind and dig out victories over Galway, Cavan and Monaghan was particularly noteworthy.
But it’s early days yet and Kerry are far from the finished article. They lack specialist man-markers and are over dependent on Sean O’Shea for scores. So far he has hit 31 of their 76 points tally, with 80 percent of his efforts coming from placed balls.
Collectively the other forwards are only averaging 0-5 per game. But the really disturbing statistic is that they have only managed one goal in their five games – and it was an instinctive fly-kick from Gavin O’Brien against Dublin.
The drive for five is bang on course despite that early season wobble. So far they have used 35 players and haven’t deviated from their trusted high pressing game plan. Even though they have scarcely moved out of second gear, they are still the leading scorers in Division 1 with a 7-68 tally. In fact, they are only fluting around at the moment.
Searching for negatives, their full-back line has been exposed under the high ball and this weakness has resulted in them conceding goals against Monaghan, Roscommon and Kerry. And they’re not quite as effective when Ciaran Kilkenny and in particular Jack McCaffrey doesn’t play – the latter’s pace provides them with the x-factor.
After three rounds of the league the second coming of James Horan looked an unqualified success. He had introduced newcomers like Fionn McDonagh and Matthew Ruane and they were at their brilliant best against Tyrone when they scored an impressive 2-13. For 15 minutes against Galway we saw glimpses too of what they can do – with a Jason Doherty point illustrating the best elements of their game plan.
Colm Boyle won a turnover; Keith Higgins carried the ball forward at pace before combing with Aidan O’Shea who released Doherty who knocked it over. And it is also worth noting that they have the best defensive record in the division.
But in the wake of suffering back-to-back losses one has to wonder whether their early season wins was down to the fact that they were back on the training field earlier than most of their rivals. The age profile of the squad is worrying and despite showing potential, so far the newcomers haven’t shown any consistency.
Granted their best forward Cillian O’Connor is side-lined but their overall forward play was woeful against both Dublin and Galway. In Croke Park they hit 14 wides only managed 0-4 from play and 0-7 in total. Against Galway they chalked up 11 wides; scored 0-6 from play and 0-12 in total. This is simply not good enough at the highest level.
Though they lost to Dublin and Kerry, their overall body of work is impressive particularly as they have been without the Corofin players as well as Damien Comer, Paul Conroy, Cillian McDaid, Declan Kyne and Sean Kelly who are all injured. They’re the only Division 1 team not to concede a goal and they have shown buckets of character.
Despite playing against the wind in the second half against Monaghan they came back to secure a win and though they were down to 14 men against Kerry they fought back and nearly got a result. But it was their performance against Mayo until they were reduced to 13 men that really caught my attention and suggested that they have finally got the balance right between defence and attack.
They kept three players up and when they attacked they did so at pace. Furthermore, in the final quarter their game management was outstanding as they frustrated Mayo at every turn. Together with Kerry they have youth and forwards and I think with pair will ultimately pose the biggest threat to Dublin. It may not happen this year but it will do down the road.
But as I have repeatedly written Kevin Walsh needs to be a bit braver. It’s no coincidence that they’re the lowest scorers in Division 1 with a paltry 3-50 – an average of 0-12 a game. They have to score more to win silverware outside Connacht.
There are two schools of thought about Monaghan. Kevin McStay has suggested that Malachy O’Rourke is timing his challenge until the summer because of the age profile of his squad, but I remain unconvinced.
Having beaten Dublin in the first round they surely had a better chance of winning the league than going for the ultimate prize.
H On the plus side, Conor McManus remains a class act, they are entirely comfortable with their counter-attacking style of play and newcomer Stephen O’Hanlon has serious pace and an eye for goal.
However, their perennial issues remain largely unresolved and they remain too reliant on McManus for their scores. Against Kerry, for example, none of their forwards scored in the second-half. Furthermore, the loss of Niall Kearns – who had heart surgery during the winter – is a big blow as he was a revelation in his 2018 debut campaign.
No team has experienced a turnaround in fortunes like Tyrone. In their first three games they only managed to score 1-27 and garnered one point – a fortunate one against Roscommon. However, in their last two games they have scored 2-31, conceded no goals and beat Monaghan and Cavan by a combined total of 16 points, though the latter win was helped by having an extra man for most of the second-half.
Peter Harte has also been a revelation, scoring 2-9 – with 2-3 coming from play. However, with the exception of the occasional cameo from Kyle Coney, the personnel up front are tasty ball players but struggle to win primary possession and lack consistency. In the crunch games in the All-Ireland series Harte will be man-marked, which has reduced his effectiveness in the past.
The bottom line is that they have reverted in their last two games to their traditional game plan, which will most assuredly not win them an All-Ireland, but we will have a better take on where they’re at after next weekend’s clash against the Dubs in Croke Park.
They were the last county to appoint a manager and were widely tipped for relegation. They might still drop out of the top flight, but apart from the Cavan game their performances have been impressive. They have a defensive system in place and brought a real work ethic to the table, even if they do play on the edge.
However, there is still much room for improvement at the back given that they have the worst defensive record in the division, conceding 7-58. Furthermore, they need to adjust the balance between defence and attack.
Last Sunday, having scored two early points in the second half against Dublin, they retreated into a zonal formation and didn’t score again for 33 minutes. They need to keep more players up front to make themselves available for the outlet ball. Overall they’re a work in progress for manager Anthony Cunningham.
Another team which was earmarked for relegation before the competition began. Though they are joint bottom of the table with Monaghan with just one win, their performances have been better than their results would suggest.
They were unlucky to lose to Galway – the sides were level before Cavan were reduced to 12 men – it was the 68th minute when Kerry went ahead against them and they had to play virtually the entire second-half against Tyrone with 14 men, while team boss Mickey Graham was also managing Mullinalaghta until their defeat in the All-Ireland club semi-final.
A lack of strength in depth is impacting on their performances, particularly in the closing stages of games. Discipline is also an issue. Aside from being down to 12 men for a key period against Galway they played with 14 men for most of the second-half against Tyrone. Their fate hinges on their derby encounter against Monaghan.