Posted by Ciaran Whelan

Mayo's destruction of Leitrim highlights the need for the GAA to be imaginative in coming up with a solution to the provincial championship structure -- and seeding is not the answer

2012 Donegal

There were two crucial things that showed on Sunday in the Down-Monaghan game. Winning the midfield battle gives you the platform in any given game and it is still important despite the prominence of the short kick-out game. The other thing is that one of the most important periods of any encounter can be half-time.

Getting the mentality of the players right is vital in that short period, particularly if you’re going into the dressing room with a comfortable lead or, on the other side of it, if the performance has dipped way below expected standards.

In the first 35 minutes Monaghan were very good and, in fact, it was probably the best they are capable of playing. They worked hard, were intense and got to the pitch of the game quicker. Down resembled a team playing their first championship match, you’d never have thought they had already faced Fermanagh. Their first touch and handling was very poor and Monaghan gained the upper hand in midfield where Dick Clerkin and Owen Lennon were dominating.

They played smart football, they kept possession well, their forwards were showing well inside and Conor McManus and Paul Finlay kicked some fantastic scores. They were totally dominant to the extent that Down looked like a minor side in comparison. They don’t have the biggest forward line so Monaghan were bullying them around the pitch.

Ambrose Rogers and Kalum King couldn’t deliver any ball inside to the forward line and Monaghan were completely in the ascendency. They went nine points up but Down got a deserved penalty at a crucial point in the game. Conor Laverty was probably the only one showing hard inside and he stepped inside two men, looked as if he was about to over-carry it until Vinny Correy committed a silly foul.

Aidan Carr stuck away the penalty and that left six points between them which is a dangerous lead in football. Psychologically it’s difficult. A team goes in at half-time having performed particularly well and no matter what Eamon McEneaney was going to say to them, trying to keep them out of the comfort zone is a massive challenge.

On the other hand, I’ve no doubt James McCartan gave his players a piece of his mind during the break. He would have spoken about pride in the jersey and the intensity levels they needed to reach and you could see immediately that they played with much more pace to their game.

King had an excellent second half and won far more primary possession. They supported each other much more effectively and that six-point lead evaporated very, very quickly. Down could also point to a few bad refereeing decisions. They could have had a penalty and I thought for Monaghan’s goal, Michael Duffy had, in effect, stopped play and called Brendan McArdle  over to him so he shouldn’t have allowed the goal to stand. It was a bad decision but I would give great credit to the referees so far this year.  We haven’t seen any silly yellow cards, they have let the games flow but Duffy didn’t have a good game.

In terms of excitement, though, it was another great game in the Ulster championship that went right down to the wire. McCartan’side have plenty of improving to do but were able to bring Benny Coulter and Liam Doyle off the bench which gave them that added experience. Carr was very cool taking his scores and I think they narrowly deserved the win.

Monaghan will feel gutted. It was a real Jekyll and Hyde performance. All the things they did well in the first half they didn’t do in the second. Finlay and Tommy Freeman were dropping deep when they should have been receiving it inside. McManus also went out of it and they just couldn’t get that supply of ball in. They just didn’t play with the same cohesion and that was the crucial factor in the turnaround.

I’VE EXPRESSED these views before but I think the provincial championships are dead -- the championship really only kicks off next weekend when the qualifiers start. Mayo play one game to get to a Connacht final and a guaranteed a place in the last 12. It’s completely imbalanced.

You look also at the Munster championship. They’re talking about going to a seeding system which I think is completely off the wall. The weaker counties are getting weaker, there’s no doubt about that. They’re suffering due the recession and the commitment levels needed now to play for an inter-county team are phenomenal.

The bigger teams are doing more and more training while the weaker sides are struggling to get players on the pitch. The GAA have a big decision to make. They may have to go two-tier but they must be careful. Players will stop giving the commitment if they feel they can’t get something out of it. I thought it was interesting what Waterford’s Gary Hurney said, that if they see Cork or Kerry on the other side of the draw next year they might not bother playing and that says it all. The Munster championship is dead on its feet, it’s repetitive and the GAA has to be imaginative and make changes to it.

Mayo, meanwhile, were expected to win. Leitrim had a poor league and have been hampered by the loss of a number of important players over the past two years. James Horan’s side are on an upward curve. They are physically stronger and far better conditioned than last year. However, I don’t think the final will be as clear cut as some people think.  I have been impressed with Sligo and it will be a very interesting encounter.