Posted by Ewan MacKenna

Donegal and Roscommon are among the big movers as Kildare and Armagh fail to live up to their big reputatations

2012 Cork v Kerry 520x280

1. Cork (- from last week’s rankings)

They don’t play near the edge, they play over it. It’s a trait they may have learned from their nearest of neighbours and greatest of rivals over recent years but it is working for them as they can beat you so many ways. They won the league playing ugly, they won against Kerry by steering clear of that for the most part and they footballed their way out of a corner in the second half of their Munster opener. On top of all that they have the confidence of 2010, the hurt of 2011 and the most complete line-up in Gaelic football even if they are very much a side of two parts. They comprise firstly, and most importantly given their gameplan, of the meanest defence in the top three divisions this league and it’s little wonder. Starting with Pearse O’Neill and Alan O’Connor in the middle followed by the likes of Noel O’Leary and Eoin Cadogan, they are an immovable object. The opposition simply cannot afford to run at them or they’ll lose the ball and energy. With Graham Canty and Michael Shields, the alternative of the high ball in isn’t an attractive proposition either while Paudie Kissane doesn’t get the credit he deserves as an attacking force.

Then there’s the other half, an attack that has quantity and quality. What cost them most of all last summer were injuries to forwards but right now they have eight top-class players to fit into six attacking positions with Aidan Walsh, Donnacha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding, Colm O’Neill, Ciarán Sheehan, Paddy Kelly, Paul Kerrigan and Fintan Goold all looking for a role. There’s some serious scoring in that group and so many ways to get scores, be it O’Connor’s frees, O’Neill’s accurate shooting from play, Kerrigan’s pace or Kelly’s and Goold’s play-making. We were proven right in thinking they’d be too strong for Kerry. We also think they’ll be too strong for everyone else this summer.

2. Dublin (-)

That’s the kick up the backside they needed and they got it without losing. The Leinster semi-final was the perfect day for Dublin as they even learned it’s time to ditch Diarmuid Connolly because even his talent is not worth the risk. Say what you will about Wexford suiting them but the All-Ireland champions should be and are better than that and it was a performance that suggested there’s been an arrogance there so far this year and they were coasting. Mickey Harte said earlier in the year it’s so hard to go back-to-back because players forget how hard it was to win the first All-Ireland in all the hype and celebration. But Dublin will now remember what it took and have time to knuckle down.

We wonder how they’d fare against a team with the intensity of Donegal because their defence and midfield is more open and less imposing than it was a year ago and it’s an area they really need to work on. But they do have what is bordering on being the best attack in the country. In all the talk of Bernard Brogan’s obvious scoring feats, the importance of his brother has been lost. But Alan Brogan is the real key here, the best link man in football right now and Kevin McManoman has gone from super substitute to super starter. There’s serious scoring potential there, especially with their fast-break style. They just need to tighten up now to be a more complete team. What’s crucial is they’ll have realised that after getting lucky and they’ll now win Leinster by playing better football.

3. Donegal (+3)

The cynicism doesn’t help their reputation but if you take away the fouling out the field and the stall tactics, there is so much to admire about their revolution in 2011 followed by their evolution in 2012. In two years under Jimmy McGuinness they have the endurance that some top track athletes don’t have after a lifetime of training to be the best. Take a guy like Frank McGlynn who defends harder than most, covers more ground than most and has such a skill set he can do the job of several men. It’s remarkable and he’s one of the most underrated players in the country on a team that is also underrated.

They are far less ponderous and far more direct than last season too and that has allowed Colm McFadden to up his game. Yes, he’s one-footed but against Tyrone we saw him stand up and take the game when it was there for the taking in the second half. He made it his. They are also very close to being number two on this list, will win Ulster and suddenly we can talk about them being capable of winning it all. But for that to happen, Ryan Bradley needs to show every day like he did in the Ulster semi-final,  Patrick McBrearty and Mark McHugh need to continue their progress, taking pressure off Michael Murphy and McFadden inside by kicking five points between them and Neil Gallagher needs to dominate the middle third from kickouts. That’s all possible though.

4. Kerry (-1)

Say what you like about 2009 and their resurrection through the qualifiers that ultimately led to an All-Ireland, but back then they had the presence of Darragh O’Sé, Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly and Tom O’Sullivan as well as the form of Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy to carry them to glory. Right now they’ve none of that and while James O’Donoghue was the latest youngster to look like he could be big news in the future, it’s too soon for him and others to pick up where the last generation left off.

Of course these things are all relative and in speaking about a decline in Kerry, it’s worth noting they are still number four on this list. But gone are talk of All-Irelands and all of a sudden, the likes of Mayo and Tyrone would fancy beating them. We think they know their own limitations too as Jack O’Connor’s tactics were robbing Peter to pay Paul. Because of an ageing spine in defence from Seamus Scanlon to Eoin Brosnan to Aidan O’Mahony, he was forced to drop his half-back line deep and Donaghy spent as much time on the back foot as he did on the front. On their day, Kerry are the most capable attacking team in the game but they need more structure in their attack, they need Donaghy beside Colm Cooper and they need to leave Declan O’Sullivan at 11 and hope he gets back to his best so he can orchestrate all around him.

5. Mayo (-)

Let’s not get lazy here. After the league decider got well away from them, the usual rubbish about a Croke Park curse and more final misery was heaped upon a group of players that haven’t been around the senior ranks for very long. This is a different team to those who never got the deserved recognition for reaching finals and it’s no harm that this new generation of players experience what it’s like to be so close but so far, just like they experienced against Cork in the league. You need to lose one to win one, and the likes of Ger Cafferkey and Cillian O’Connor haven’t lost that senior final until this time around.

They are by a distance the most impressive team in Connacht. We saw that against Leitrim where their physicality bullied a smaller team into submission with Lee Keegan, Kevin McLaughlin and Alan Freeman standing tall alongside more tried and trusted names. But if they are to go further, there are obstacles to overcome. Aidan O’Shea is every bit the genuine star as he is injury prone and the side will not hit dizzying heights without him. After beating Cork last year, some in the opposition camp said they’d never seen intensity like it, but can Mayo reproduce it and will it have the same impact when it’s expected? And where will the scores come from as Conor Mortimer needs to offer more on the big day, while Andy Moran and Alan Dillon need another huge season.

6. Kildare (-2)

Five years of work undone in 70 of the most crippling minutes even Kildare fans will ever endure. So much went wrong and after all that work and after the creation of serious athletes and a counter-attacking system that was expected to take them to silverware, they were shown up by a bunch of kids from up the road. That’s humbling and it’s soul destroying and while they may well make it back to an All-Ireland quarter-final, they won’t win anything and that will be hard to take for all within the camp.

There are some things Kieran McGeeney cannot coach like footballing intelligence (in clutch situations too many players took the wrong option in front of the posts while Tomás O’Connor was coming down with plenty of ball and had no one to pass it to) and ruthlessness (twice in the second half they had Meath on the ropes and didn’t throw the knockout punch). The likes of Mikey Conway, Ollie Lyons and Eoghan O’Flaherty went missing too and McGeeney’s performance on the line was poor as he let his full-back line go man to man and be dragged out of position while his midfield plan didn’t work but never changed. It’s a long way back from here after the dismantling of their reputation. It may be too far even for McGeeney himself. We thought they were heavyweights. They are only cruiserweights.

7. Tyrone (-)

That Ulster semi-final was heartening and while they may be in a period of transition they still very nearly got the better of a genuine All-Ireland contender. Indeed it took all of Donegal’s huge reserves of endurance and cynicism and it took Paul Durcan’s big boot deep into garbage time to stop Tyrone. Had Kyle Coney been present and correct to pick off a handful of points who knows what would have happened because he is better suited to a game like that than Owen Mulligan who continually would beat his man with a dummy only to be met by three more opponents because of the time he held onto the ball.

They do need to find a more central role for Peter Harte, leave Joe McMahon at centrefield where the amount of ball he gets on will be maximised, continue to allow Martin Penrose to come deep and push for more consistency from Mark Donnelly and Colm Cavanagh. Also, they need to continue to give youth its chance, even if Mickey Harte’s loyalty to some of the older guard is admirable. They are already very close to being the best team in Ulster and they may only be a season or two away from returning to their long-held position of being a genuine All-Ireland contender.

8. Down (-)

In terms of both shape and style they simply aren’t suited to Cork so to judge them on their exit from this year’s league and last year’s championship is unfair. Indeed it was that exact style which Monaghan tried to implement and which took them apart for 35 minutes. In short, they simply cannot compete with controlled aggression, huge intensity, and a team breaking in numbers. For those reasons Donegal will beat them but at least they are in that final, and that took some real guts and serious self-belief.

But to prove that 2011 was the exception and 2010 was the rule, they do need to find more consistency. Word has it Dan Gordon is close to a return and they need him because Brendan McArdle looks so much better in the corner. Meanwhile Kalum King can’t afford to go missing against better teams, leaving Ambrose Rogers to carry so much weight, and the half-forward line need to drop deeper and work harder. If all that happens, it makes them formidable, particularly with Kevin McKernan showing well and the return of Benny Coulter to play alongside Conor Laverty, who is surely an All Star nomination. However they do need a system to counteract what they are about to face.

9. Meath (+2)

Where did that come out of? That’s what Banty has to work out because he needs to know just how Donal Keoghan, Donnacha Tobin, Conor Gillespie and Damien Carroll looked like some of the best players in the country if they are to repeat it. And that’s the next trick because for a county like Meath, one swallow will never make a summer. It’s time now though for all in the place to row in behind the manager and a young team that showed no fear in going toe-to-toe with one of the better teams out there. They played an under-21 full-back line, played six under-23s and still came out the other side. We know Graeme Reilly is having a great season but so too is Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan is pound by pound getting back to his best. But remember these same players were relegated and could only draw with Carlow, so we need a lot more proof before we believe they are genuine.

10. Galway (-)

We warned that it would be just as hard to fend off the hype as it was beating Roscommon and that it would be every bit as important too. We also warned that they needed to develop a Plan B because so much that went right for them in winning went wrong for them in losing and it’s easy to target and nullify their positives and expose their negatives. Take Finian Hanley at full-back who can be roasted by a powerful full-forward. Take Joe Bergin who isn’t an alpha midfielder and is part of an area that sturdy teams will take over in. Take Paul Conroy who showed he can win ball, distribute well and score, but who doesn’t have flair players around him to share the burden if he’s stuck with a sweeper in front of him. They do have a shrewd manager in Alan Mulholland and a fine batch of youngsters coming through but that’s a medium-term project. In the short term, Antrim will be more difficult than some expect.

11. Sligo (+1)

At the start of the year their players suggested staying put in Division Three and reaching a Connacht final would make it a good season and stop the rot. Job done but that win over Galway brings its own expectations because for the first time in a couple of years they again look a complete team that could find themselves in an All Ireland quarter-final. Kevin Walsh obviously decided he’d give it one more go and saw something in these players and Charlie Harrison said that he’d never been part of a better prepared team. They were words that brought pressure but he and his team delivered. Adrian Marren is like a new Dessie Sloyne, David Kelly is the best corner-forward in Connacht, and Alan Costello is capable of play-making and kicking points from 50 yards. That’s a serious forward triangle and while we don’t think they’ll win Connacht, the fact they’ve given themselves a chance is one of the stories of the season.

12. Longford (+2)

And on they go. Michael Quinn said they had to make the best of this generation of players and they are doing just that. After all, they played eight games in winning a league title and have already played four championship games with more to come. Avoid complacency against Limerick and they’ll be in a round with probably Kildare and Tyrone and Kerry and they’ll deserve to be in with those teams. Indeed a sign of where they are now at is that none of those sides would like to play them - especially in Pearse Park  - because Brian Kavanagh and Seán McCormack are a dangerous inside-forward line, Paul Barden is having a great season and Quinn is a game or two away from an All Star. It’s already been a remarkable year and they are everyone’s second side now. On a side note they need to hold onto Glenn Ryan if his home county come calling.

13. Wexford (-)

Once, and you can feel sorry for them. Twice, and you can take pity on them. But three times blowing up with Dublin there for the taking is inexcusable and their mindset really needs to be questioned. That they got to a point where they should win time and again is admirable and shows the quality that is there from Graeme Molloy who - on form - is one of the best full-backs in the country to Ben Brosnan, Ciarán Lyng and Red Barry who will worry any defence. It’s all well and good having talent but if you don’t win with talent that’s an indictment of your mental strength. They can make amends through the back door and by getting back to a place where Dublin will be. We doubt they can though because they’ve given us so many reasons to doubt.

14. Armagh (-5)

A complete enigma, to a large extent because of the bizarre managerial decision-making of Paddy O’Rourke. The county can be thankful he’s gone but they need to make sure that Kieran McGeeney or Tony McEntee is the next man in and with either of those at the helm they will be a serious team once more. They certainly have talent as Finian Moriarty, Aidan Forker and Kevin Dyas are good and getting better while Jamie Clarke, if he works on his shot selection, could become the best corner-forward in Ulster in the very near future. On top of that they’ve a natural leader in Ciáran McKeever. All those names just go to show how pathetic being dumped out of the championship without a win is. Going forward they need to adopt the Crossmaglen style, work ethic and actually play a few more players from the best club in the land.

15. Monaghan (-)

That’s the best we’ve seen from them in a long time, even if they didn’t get the result and a place in an Ulster final. Sure, they capitulated, but that wasn’t purely mental as some suggest. They employed a Cork-style game throughout the first half and just didn’t have the stamina to keep it up. But look on the bright side. We got passion, commitment, intensity and hunger, all traits lacking in their back-to-back relegations under Eamon McEneaney. The half-back line was superb for 35 minutes, Owen Lennon and Dick Clerkin looked more than solid, the ball into the forwards was of the style of Armagh in 2002 and Conor McManus rose to the occasion. There’s a lot there to work with but they need to get a qualifier win out of summer, build their fitness and not let it all go to waste.

16. Roscommon (+4)

We sure didn’t see that coming. On paper, they’ve a spine to match anyone in Connacht from Niall Carty and Peter Domican through to Michael Finneran and Karol Mannion and on to Cathal Cregg, Donie Shine and Senan Kilbride. But after collapsing against Galway we were sure they wouldn’t play for Des Newton as they did for Fergal O’Donnell. The manner of that defeat would have excused them not taking the qualifiers seriously, especially when you take into account the time they were left hanging around. Yet still they fought right to the end against Armagh and you can only admire how they’ve turned their season around. It was always going to take something special to banish the memory of their championship opener. We got it and now they’ve earned an unlikely shot at Tyrone.

17. Laois (-1)

They’ve never bought into Justin McNulty’s defensive system and even against weaker sides they don’t look comfortable on the back foot. And they sure don’t have the forwards to make amends against better counties, like Monaghan who they face next. Five times this league they failed to raise more than 10 white flags in a game, against Carlow 1-10 was measly and there’s a pattern here as last championship between games against Longford, Dublin and Kildare, they hit a combined 0-31. At least they are still playing ball but not for long and we can now stop harping on about what Colm Begley, Brendan Quigley, John O’Loughlin and MJ Tierney might become and how far they could take the side. But we can also question the manager as there’s been so little progress, if any at all.

18. Westmeath (-)

After the heartbreak against Louth on the opening day of their campaign they can now see that it worked out for the best. They avoided Dublin, got revenge and a home-tie against Kerry makes all the effort worthwhile. They shouldn’t be good enough to get even close in that game but they do have some decent cards to play. John Heslin going up against the most successful team in the land is worthy of his talents - although he needs to learn discipline - while they scored well and scored widely this league. Indeed since March they’ve been averaging seven scorers a game with Kieran Martin, Dennis Glennon, David Glennon and Ger Egan all having their moments.

19. Derry (-2)

John Brennan was right in everything that he said during a rant post-Donegal. He can’t scream in players ears during a game and tell them to do the basics and he can’t have his players kicking the ball straight to the opposition repeatedly. But Brennan was wrong in everything he did during a tirade post-Longford. We get the feeling he won’t want to hang around any longer with a team that are going nowhere. What we’ve seen repeatedly is Paddy Bradley having to drop deep to get possession but he’s too far out then and while Mark Friel is a good defensive midfielder, they’ve no one to drive forward with ball in hand. They’ve no playmaker either, no pace and no prospects. Darks days are here.

20. Louth (-)

After beating Meath, a result that meant staying in Division Two, and so much more, an emotional Peter Fitzpatrick said 2010 was now behind them and they could move forward. After getting oh so lucky against Westmeath, the manager brought up that game once more. It’s symbolic because while he didn’t know where he stood, neither did his team and that Dublin game was an embarrassment. They did show some battling qualities despite their treatment by the referee in their qualifier exit but they still lost too and they’ll most likely lose Fitzpatrick now as well. The next man in needs to do whatever it takes to keep the best players in the county and get them lining out because they don’t have the depth to compete with so many second-class citizens dotted in between top-class operators like Paddy Keenan and Darren Clarke.

21. Antrim (-)

No team scored more goals in the top three divisions of the league and they still have some of that pace which made them both exciting and relatively formidable in 2009, particularly from James Loughrey. And having qualifier games come thick and fast is ideal for a group that traditionally have found it hard to keep their heads down. That trait made the London game trickier than it should have been but if they can return to the form they demonstrated against Monaghan, then they shouldn’t fear a home tie with Galway, especially given of presence of Michael McCann in midfield and Michael McGill at full-forward who has good hands, a good positional sense, good awareness and good finishing. It’s a game that should excite those players and the county.

22. Tipperary (+1)

The last time Barry Grogan didn’t top score for his county in a championship match before this year was in May 2009. This league, in the six games he played, he accounted for 49 per cent of their scores. Yet watching his county’s championship opener in America along with midfielder Brian Jones, he’ll have been stunned to see the spirit, fight and occasional quality his former teammates produced against Kerry. And hearing about his county’s exploits against Offaly, he’ll have been proud that those qualities were maintained and resulted in a qualifier win. Ciarán McDonald was excellent in that victory over Offaly, Peter Acheson and Michael Quinlivan offer a forward threat and there’s a great youth set-up. They are going places, even if Wexford should be a step too far at this point in time.

23. Cavan (-)

They impressed us by going to toe-to-toe with Donegal for a little while but if that was a moral victory, it was important they got an actual victory as well to show a young team that it’s all worth it. Gearóid McKiernan is a star in the making in midfield and he was the one who took their opening qualifier by the scruff of the neck. David Givney beside him has a big future too and Eugene Keating showed he has accuracy in the Ulster Championship defeat when taking an All Star full-back for five points. There’ve been 72 debutants in 12 championships but now it’s time to settle down with what they’ve got and build from there. Anthony Forde in the backroom team is a key appointment and they are improving, although not enough to get within seven or eight points of Kildare.

24. Wicklow (-2)

Not impressive against Waterford but that result should be taken in context because it’s already been a hugely impressive season. Remember that Harry Murphy had an impossible job as he should have been the hangover after a serious night out, yet he’s achieved something more important than Micko ever did in gaining promotion in the league. Granted, his game management against Meath was poor and he’s lucky his side are still in the qualifiers but they are, they should beat Leitrim and then they’ll be in the last 16. Without Leighton Glynn it’s hard to see them achieving much more and having the sort of run that lit up recent summers. Even so, it’s been another year to remember.

25. Clare (+1)

The pessimist will talk of the year it might have been had they not conceded a goal in Aughrim on the last day of the league and let promotion wriggle away. But there was only one way to wipe that game from the system and it was to reach a Munster final. That’s no mean achievement. They are still over reliant on David Tubridy as he kicked 44 per cent of their points this league, excluding the farce against Kilkenny, and while it shows his talent, it also shows a predictable attack too because even for a free-taker that number is way too high. But at least he will now have a chance to play for silverware, even if he doesn’t have a chance of actually winning it. Already a landmark year though.

26. Limerick (+2)

Not getting out of the league basement showed the decline of Limerick football, and now there’s not even a Munster final to paper over the cracks. Of course there is the excuse of John Galvin’s absence, a player who can define their season and has done so often. On top of that Stephen Kelly is struggling and there’s no settled midfield. But while Ian Ryan was unmarkable against Clare, he and Ger Collins rarely hit form together and that needs to change. As for the bigger picture, youngsters like Seamus O’Carroll, Eoghan O’Connor and John Riordan need to push on. Playing Longford will be like looking at themselves a few years back when the were punching above their weight. But those days are long gone.

27. Carlow (+2)

Brendan Murphy tweeted on Tuesday that depression was setting in. It shows what football means to him and as long as he’s desperate for Carlow to do well, then they’ll keep improving because he’s one of the best footballers in the nation. Darragh Foley beside him in midfield is improving too and that’s the foundations laid for a competitive team. But if they are to be a victorious team they need to create a conveyor belt of talent to improve both backs and forwards. Drawing with Meath and taking Laois to the wire represents some of the best results they’ve had in generations but what would be even better would be a promotion push. Then they could really start to build on those aforementioned foundations. With all that in mind, the selection of a manager with a vision and a serious work ethic is key now that Luke Dempsey has had enough.

28. Offaly (-1)

So Tom Coffey wants three years to revive the county’s fortunes. That’s dedication because not many would want to spend three minutes with this side. Five times this league they failed to raise nine white flags in a game, not once in all seven games did they reach the teens in terms of points and by the time they were relegated they averaged less than a goal and just eight points per game. Little wonder that they were held to six points by Kildare and 10 by Tipperary. But forget those defeats, they are only a symptoms of the disease. This is a county that hasn’t won a  Leinster minor title since 1989, a Leinster under-21 title since 1995 and a Leinster Championship game since 2007. With all that in mind, Coffey needs to look at building bigger, better and more confident footballers in a structure that won’t change every time the wind changes.

29. Fermanagh (-4)

Word has it that Peter Canavan may not be back and that’s a massive indictment of the performances since league promotion and of certain personnel within the camp. But whoever is over the side in Division Three in 2013 will need to take a Kieran McGeeney-style approach and try and revamp football at all levels. There are some great names still on the panel but they are great because of the past and not the present and turning to the likes of Marty McGrath just won’t cut it any longer. Cavan won the qualifier because of youth, Fermanagh lost it because of a lack of youth. But whoever is in next will also need to clear out the deadwood from a camp that’s been the most troublesome about. Many wouldn’t play for John O’Neill but even when a more professional set-up was created, many still couldn’t sit still and do their jobs.

30. Waterford (-)

That loss in Aughrim will hurt but that in itself is a positive because they went so close when few expected it. Far better teams with far bigger reputations have gone there and not taken a game into an extra innings. Indeed Gary Hurney will have to look at himself while John Owens will have to look at what might have been and the help his team are getting from within the county. Remember, there was club championship just six days before their Munster opener against Limerick in a season they could have reached a provincial final for the first time since 1960. They’ve now won just seven of 24 games since their historic promotion from Division Four. It’s still a long way from the bad old days but if they are ever to truly move forward, recent times rather than bygone days need to be the yardstick and they need to get their own administrators somehow on side.

31. Leitrim (-)

There’s a brilliant clip on YouTube by Seamus O’Rourke all about 1994 and what it meant to the county and to his father as they headed for Croke Park for the most unlikely of All Ireland semi-finals. It shows just what football means to people in lesser counties and it makes you realise what the championship is all about. Sadly though, it’ll be one of the few contributions Leitrim will make to this particular championship. They got their win over London and the fact that represents a good season says an awful lot about where they can go from here. In the past, pride and passion got teams like them close to giants, now though in an era where money and numbers matters so much, they just can’t compete and their 15 minutes of fame against Mayo were as much as they could logically hope for.

32. London (-)

So they didn’t win against Antrim but there’s very definite improvements here and it’s only going to get better if they can keep their heads down. Across their last five championship games - which involved a draw and a win as well as three losses - they’ve been outscored by only four points on aggregate. When have they ever been that competitive before? Captain Seán McVeigh very nearly dragged them across the line in this year’s qualifiers, and he now needs to drag them through the off season so they come back stronger again next year and turn narrow defeats into landmark victories.