League matters

Our expert panel look to the league for signposts to the championship

John Fogarty (Irish Examiner GAA corr)

1. Both Cork and Mayo’s league form has fluctuated. Are they the best of a bad bunch?

“On form, they are more rough at the top than cream of the crop. Kerry were undoubtedly the best team over the seven rounds with Cork a distant second. A couple of semi-finals haven’t changed anything in that regard. Cork have reached another league final while tinkering with personnel and tactics. They haven’t been impressive but they’ll have got more out of this campaign than the previous two. Mayo needed their backs to the wall before coming alive and avoiding a real relegation battle going into the final round. That’ll stand to their character and hopes of going further than an All-Ireland semi-final this year.”

2. Has Jack O’Connor got all he wanted out of Kerry’s league campaign?

“For the most part, yes. The greenhorns have been blooded and several have shown themselves up to the task. James O’Donoghue, Barry John Keane and Paddy Curtin look like giving Kieran O’Leary a run for his money in the one slot available in the forwards while Shane Enright, Peter Crowley and Brian McGuire will challenge for spots in defence. But there is still an argument for Tom O’Sullivan’s inclusion at left corner-back which begs the question – what has changed since last year? A decent bench, which could be enough to push them over the line on this occasion.

3. Is Dublin’s mediocre Spring a sign of things to come in their defending year?

“They remain All-Ireland contenders but there are some worrying signs for Pat Gilroy. Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts are being targeted more and more, while there has been a drop in intensity. Bernard Brogan is still to come back, though, as well as a couple of others but they can’t for a second drop their guard when everybody has it in for them. And they are there to be knocked more than most. Dublin were already seen as city slickers but their much-publicised trappings since winning the All-Ireland haven’t gone unnoticed. Interestingly, Gilroy has slapped a temporary media ban on his players.

4. Does Mickey Harte’s assertion that a Division 2 team won’t win the All-Ireland still stack up?

“One look at what Tyrone and Kildare have beaten this year and you’d suggest Harte’s point made last year is still valid. Westmeath, Derry, Meath, Louth and Monaghan are middling teams and champagne football wasn’t required to beat them. Having said that, Tyrone are rediscovering the mojo while Kildare have finally reached Division 1 even if they have shown themselves to be brittle on occasions. They are among a group of four counties including Mayo and Donegal who are perched on the second tier behind Cork, Dublin and Kerry. However, being in Division 2 certainly doesn’t hurt them. It’s more about their own abilities than their environs.”

5. Has the new Division 1 format been a success?

“Certainly not. This league campaign has left a lot of people cold, which is not surprising given how uncompetitive it has been. Before their last two games, no team had exercised the latitude allowed by the format more than Cork. They could trial and error and yet be safe in the knowledge that they needed only the minimum to get through to the play-offs. When a team like Mayo who won just three of seven games have an opportunity to go on and win the league title, the integrity of the competition is seriously undermined.”

Trevor Giles (Irish Examiner columnist)

1. Both Cork and Mayo’s league form has fluctuated. Are they the best of a bad bunch?

“Kerry were the best team in this year’s league because they topped the table and Cork were second because they were next in line. Because of the new format and by dent of their semi-final performances, Mayo and Cork deserve to be in the final. Without doubt there is no outstanding team at present to compare to the Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh sides of a few years ago. Instead you have a top six of Kerry, Dublin, Cork, Mayo, Tyrone and Kildare with little between them.”

2. Has Jack O’Connor got all he wanted out of Kerry’s league campaign?

“He has achieved what he wanted out of the league in terms of successfully blooding new players, continuing with a settled midfield, Paul Galvin remaining injury-free and defeating their chief rivals, Cork and Dublin. Being ultra-critical there was some complacency in losing to Armagh and not putting away Mayo which may not concern Kerry but it will give encouragement to future opponents. Still they go into the championship as the best team in the land. Questions about their hunger and ruthlessness will or will not be answered from August on.

3. Is Dublin’s mediocre Spring a sign of things to come in their defending year?

“It is no bad thing for Dublin to have a mediocre league as they do not need a league title to give them confidence going into the championship. Pat Gilroy must be quietly pleased to have so many questions asked of his team so early in the season and he should be again able to lower expectations and get their workrate back to required levels. The injury status and resulting fitness levels of the two Brogans and Eoghan O’Gara to a lesser extent is a big concern, as was some of their discipline during the league. Kevin McManamon still looks a better impact player than a starter. So there are plenty of lessons for Dublin from the last few months which they will take on board.”

4. Does Mickey Harte’s assertion that a Division 2 team won’t win the All-Ireland still stack up?

“A few years ago a Division 2 team could not win the All-Ireland as Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh were so strong. But there are signs of that changing. Donegal were close to reaching the final last season while Tyrone, unbeaten all year, are contenders especially with a defence which only conceded 1-66 in seven games. However the potential loss of Kyle Coney could be the biggest blow to their hopes of Sam Maguire. I am a big admirer of Kildare and feel they have an outstanding chance of winning the All-Ireland — but need to stamp out the type of lackadaisical attitude that almost cost them in their final game against Galway.”

5. Has the new Division 1 format been a success?

“I don’t like a format where four teams from eight qualify for semi-finals, it rewards mediocrity. It has been an unqualified success on the field and off it financially for Mayo no matter what happens tomorrow. Cork’s consistency has to be admired. It also leaves a month of a gap for the Division 2 and 3 teams between their last game and the final which is too long.

Steven McDonnell (Former Armagh star)

1. Both Cork and Mayo’s league form has fluctuated. Are they the best of a bad bunch?

“Division 1 this year has been more competitive than ever. Each team has been capable of beating one another on any given day. Cork and Mayo are the teams that are currently on form and they deserve to be where they are. Mayo appear a lot stronger than Mayo teams in the past. They’re coping better with the bigger days. Cork’s season got off to a slow start. They were missing key players but they’re back now. I heard they’ve lost just six or seven league games in the last five years. That’s phenomenal.”

2. Has Jack O’Connor got all he wanted out of Kerry’s league campaign?

“They mightn’t be in a league final but you can’t really argue with Kerry’s record this year. They only lost one round game against Armagh and that was because the visitors to Tralee were well up for it and Kerry took their eye off the ball a wee bit. Kerry could have easily won their semi-final but they would be very happy with where they are at the moment. It keeps them out of the limelight which will do them no harm. They’ve also new defenders and forwards which will only add to the competition in the panel.”

3. Is Dublin’s mediocre Spring a sign of things to come in their defending year?

“Dublin will be up against it this year. They’ll know that too. A lot of teams will know how they operate and they’re going to have to come up with something new. Like Kerry, it takes the limelight away from them, which mightn’t be such a bad thing. This break they have before their first championship game will give them the time to work on new things. Bernard Brogan wasn’t seen in the league either and had he played it could have been a different story. But they won’t be too worried about not making the league semi-finals.”

4. Does Mickey Harte’s assertion that a Division 2 team won’t win the All-Ireland still stack up?

“I wouldn’t agree with Mickey. We were the last team from Division 2 to go on and win an All-Ireland and this Tyrone team are definitely in the shake-up. I still feel they’ll miss the likes of Philip Jordan and Brian Dooher when the pressure comes on but they’re building again and you can’t dismiss them. They play the best brand of football, fast and exciting. Peter Harte has been the standout performer in the league. The standard in Division 2 isn’t much lower than Division 1.”

5. Has the new Division 1 format been a success?

“It’s hard to know – we’ll probably need another year of it before making a real judgement. The league semi-finals have added another game for teams in Croke Park and you can never get enough games there. As for whether teams didn’t take the league as seriously because there were four play-off spots, I don’t buy into that at all. I’ve never been in a dressing room when a manager didn’t want to win a game. As a player, I wanted to win every game, challenge or not. Teams with big egos like Kerry, Dublin and Cork want to win everything they can.”

Fintan O’Toole (Irish Examiner GAA reporter)

1. Both Cork and Mayo’s league form has fluctuated. Are they the best of a bad bunch?

“No one has characterised the staggering inconsistent league form more than Cork and Mayo. How to reconcile the Cork team that were awful in the second-half in Ballybofey with the one that were outstanding in the second-half in Castlebar? How did Mayo succumb at home to Down before blitzing Dublin at home? Yet both eventually got it right when it mattered. Mayo were beneficiaries of the new format and Kerry may have reason to feel aggrieved they are not vying for league silverware this year. But Cork’s remarkable league consistency, this is their fourth successive April in Croke Park, and the harder edge to Mayo’s play entitles them to be the last two standing.”

2. Has Jack O’Connor got all he wanted out of Kerry’s league campaign?

“Only as Kerry’s championship unfolds will that be properly answered. Yet the evidence suggests that Kerry’s ambition in the league was to infuse their team with new blood and discover young talents. O’Connor should be pleased that Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher are now one of the best midfield combos in the country, that Shane Enright is nailing himself down as a fixture at corner-back, and both Peter Crowley and Brian McGuire look capable of slotting into half-back roles. Questions remain though particularly in attack. How can you best exploit a talent like Declan O’Sullivan, at centre-forward or full-forward? Do you persist with Kieran Donaghy at half-forward or return him to his natural berth at full-forward?”

3. Is Dublin’s mediocre spring a sign of things to come in their defending year?

“The celebrations that ensued after Dublin’s All-Ireland success were predictable and deserved. The challenge after ending a silverware drought is to rediscover their previous hunger and clearly there has been a sense during this spring that Dublin’s focus has wavered – the disappointment in Newry against Down and the capitulation in Castlebar against Mayo. Yet not having full access to the Brogan brothers, their attacking lynchpins, has been an issue and Pat Gilroy will be pleased that DCU Sigerson Cup winners Johnny Cooper looks likely to fit into the mould of an inter-county senior. The spring may have had concerns but ultimately the summer should see Dublin in contention.”

4. Does Mickey Harte’s assertion that a Division 2 team won’t win the All-Ireland still stack up?

“The sense before the league that football’s Big Three would battle it out for the championship honours has not been shaken. Division 1 sides Dublin, Kerry and Cork still look to lead the way. Harte’s charges Tyrone and tomorrow’s opponents Kildare both occupy a place on the rung below on the ladder. Certainly Tyrone have rediscovered the verve of old in recent weeks as Peter Harte has turned into a player of serious substance and Kildare have finally dragged themselves up to the top division. But both have questions to answer and progress to make in the coming months if they are to disprove Harte’s theory.”

5. Do you believe the new Division 1 format has been a success?

“The introduction of semi-finals for the football league was a move designed to generate some drama and excitement in the closing round of Division 1 games. It did manage to achieve that with the majority of teams retaining an interest until the conclusion of the round-robin series. Both players and management amongst the elite counties seem pleased with the presence of semi-final ties, particularly camps like Cork and Mayo who face extended breaks before they make their championship bows in June. Yet all that good work was undone by the absurd decision to stage the semi-final double-header in Croke Park and the predictably poor turnout that day must lead to a re-examination of the venues chosen for games of that prestige in future.

Ray Silke (Irish Examiner columnist)

1. Both Cork and Mayo’s league form has fluctuated. Are they the best of a bad bunch?

“While their form has fluctuated during the league campaign, both sides are in the final on merit. To say they are the best of a bad lot is incorrect, as both Dublin and Kerry are likely to be key contenders for September silverware. Dublin will have to reboot for the championship but they are capable of doing so and if they can get Bernard Brogan back to his best and build on Eoghan O’Gara’s potential they will be a different side to the one which togged so inconsistently in during the spring. Mayo are an improving entity too and they will be highly motivated to get some national silverware on Sunday. Younger players like Colm Boyle and Cillian O’ Connor and an improving Donal Vaughan have added some renewed vigour to their challenge.

2. Has Jack O’Connor got all he wanted out of Kerry’s league campaign?

“The younger players have gotten some much needed game time and they will give him genuine options off the bench come championship time.

I did not like the sloppy play and attitude that allowed Mayo catch them in the semi-final. With the retirement of Tommy Griffin (who was a very capable utility defender) and the probable retirement of Tom O’ Sullivan they could do with some more cover in the full-back line.

Jack seems very happy with his new talent, and is on record as saying that he is “very pleased with how the league” went for his team.

Who are we to argue? However, the verification of that judgement will take a few months to arrive.”

3. Is Dublin’s mediocre spring a sign of things to come in their defending year?

“Not necessarily. The reality is that when they lost some of their league games they were without some of their top players. They are a different prospect up front when Bernard and Alan Brogan are at full tilt. Their success last year was based on a massive work-rate and intensity and the likelihood is that Pat Gilroy knew his players could not maintain that effort. He needs to get some of them off Twitter and stop strutting around the city if they want to get back to where they were last year.

“The hammering they suffered at the hands of Mayo was a real wake-up call and one I expect them to heed.”

4. Does Mickey Harte’s assertion that a Division 2 team won’t win the All-Ireland still stack up?

“Yes it probably does. One question though — has he changed his view on this, now that his team are promoted? I don’t subscribe completely to the view no Division 2 team can win the All-Ireland in any given year. Yes, the best teams populate the top flight, and Cork, Kerry and Dublin deserve to be considered a step above the rest based on their recent achievements. However Tyrone themselves, and Kildare will feel that if everything went well for them in a particular season that they could be considered challengers. The bottom line is that, based on all we have seen in the past three or four years, the “Big Three” will be hard stopped again in 2012 and they ply their trade in Division 1.”

5. Has the new Division 1 format been a success?

“It is debatable whether there is any need for two semi-finals. The crowd that turned up to Croke Park suggested that the paying public were not overly enamoured by what was on offer.

Perhaps just having a final as per the other divisions would suffice. Personally, I think semi-finals are fine, but they are not attractive enough to merit a fixture in Croke Park.

Perhaps if the top two teams were given home advantage in a 1 v 4 and 2 v 3 fixture, it would act as an incentive for sides to get into the top two slots.”

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