Posted by Ewan MacKenna

2012 donegal ulster 520x280.jpg

1. Cork (- from last week’s rankings)

Their greatest cause for concern is now the wait because by the time they line out for an All Ireland quarter-final it’ll be eight weeks since they played a competitive game of football. We include Clare in that because complaining about the square-ball goal is a bit like Dublin complaining about Mikey Sheehy’s controversial effort in 1978 when Kerry won by 17 points anyway. It was that comfortable in the Munster final, we learned nothing, Cork merely got a light run-out and with some very decent teams now set to come through the qualifiers and into the last eight, they need to be wary. A versus B games are all well and good, but remember all the talk of Kilkenny’s second string being the second best team in hurling and all of Dublin’s chatter about in-house games before the Wexford match this summer. Also, don’t forget Kerry-Down in 2010.

At least they are finding different ways to win clutch games. They won the league playing ugly, they won against Kerry by steering clear of that for the most part as they footballed their way out of a corner in the second half, and against Clare they killed off passion with goals. But during the coming weeks they need to retain 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 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 distance, Kerrigan’s pace, Walsh’s aerial prowess 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 if they find away over a system’s failure in terms of fixtures.


2. Donegal (+1)

There is so much to admire about their revolution in 2011 followed by their evolution in 2012. And while provincial titles may not mean a whole lot to the other true contenders, it’s a sign of how far they’ve come in a short space of time that capturing Ulster is still new and exciting for this group. But now for the hard part because with their performances comes a reputation and an expectation and it’s getting to the stage where they are many people’s favourites to win it all. It’s very possible but attacking levels need to be maintained and they need to tighten up at the back. But Jimmy McGuinness knows that and it’s why he had a boot camp a day after their victory over Down to work on defensive frailties that existed in the first half of that game.

But they are no longer the ponderous, low-scoring, lateral team of a year ago and their attack is suddenly as admirable as their work rate. As of now Frank McGlynn is footballer of the year and in front of him Colm McFadden is having a remarkable few months covering for Michael Murphy who is clearly struggling. Ryan Bradley has evolved his game and if Patrick McBrearty and Mark McHugh continue their progress, taking pressure off those inside by kicking five points between them, then more silverware is very possible.


3. Dublin (-1)

Winning Leinster was comfortable for the most part and the season starts here but they are at a standing start as many of the shoots that appeared a year ago and grew as the season progressed are not there. There have been no signs of progress in league or championship and as champions you need to evolve to stay ahead. In saying that a statement win in a quarter-final could change the perception of them but no side coming through the back door would see them as the most difficult draw, what with Bernard Brogan not reaching his peak, Diarmuid Connolly’s temperament still massively questionable and most importantly their defence not closing off alleys with numbers and hard work, making them more than the sum of their parts.

There are good news stories though and Denis Bastick has improved, Michael Dara MacAuley will form a decent midfield with him and James McCarthy is also playing well. But we saw what happens once Alan Brogan is removed. He is the best link man in football and the most important player on any contending team. He’s the glue that holds the forwards together and without his presence they look lost. 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 amidst all the hype and celebration. We don’t know if that’s the case with Dublin but right now they don’t look like a side that could go back-to-back.


4. Kerry (+3)

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 Ó Sé, Tommy Walsh, Tadhg Kennelly, Mike McCarthy and Tom O’Sullivan as well as the form of Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy to carry them to glory. And say what you like about the win over Tyrone but all they did was beat up on an inferior team in transition and they systematically fouled their way through the second half of that game. They did play majestic football at times but it’s not enough to convince us they are back and can now go through the rest of the summer winning like they have so many times before. That’s because they don’t have the players, particularly in defence.

In order to cover for Eoin Brosnan and Aidan O’Mahony down the spine of that back line, Jack O’Connor has realised he needs numbers retreating and that is detracting from the attacking influence of the half-forward line and Kieran Donaghy who, when faced with better teams, is being dragged deep. They are fighting against the dying of the light and refusing to let it go dark and while they are the best team in the qualifiers, they aren’t the team they were. It’s a relative decline and most counties could still only dream about a team this good, but Kerry expect All Irelands and this group isn’t capable of that.


5. Mayo (-1)

At this time of year, winning is what matters most. But Mayo’s own performances this league and last quarter-final mean they now need to be judged by the standards of the best and if they are to be taken seriously as All Ireland contenders, the Connacht final wasn’t good enough for so many reasons. What they got away with out west will be used to punish them when they face better teams and there was a lot they got away with. Andy Moran was on a huge amount of ball, but his hands were poor. Alan Dillon received plenty of possession too but his kick-passing was wayward. Cillian O’Connor’s free-taking technique looked oddly off. Enda Varley needed lucky frees to make an impact. Kevin McLoughlin was lukewarm after being scorching against Leitrim. And with all that, there is some serious doubt surrounding their attacking ability.

There are positives though. They haven’t yet lost, now have time to work on those forward flaws and James Horan is a coach as much as a manager and will have spotted those problems. If he can get the above right, they are a force to be reckoned with because Aidan O’Shea and Barry Moran will soon form one of the more formidable midfields about while in the backs we already knew about Donal Vaughan, Keith Higgins and Ger Cafferkey but on top of those Kevin Keane, Lee Keegan and Colm Boyle are developing. But while they can keep teams from scoring, we aren’t convinced they get can enough themselves as there’s huge reliance on Moran.


6. Kildare (-1)

Here we go again. The big qualifier win after the big letdown, the relatively easy draw and suddenly, if they can keep their eyes on the road ahead, they’ll be back in the last eight with the same question marks surrounding them as previous seasons. And there are plenty of those question marks with Limerick adding a few more such was the form of Johnny Doyle and their inability to play against a packed defence who bring intensity to their tackling and numbers to the ball-carrier. On top of that they aren’t settled in midfield with All Star full-back Mick Foley the latest to get them out of a hole in that sector as Daryl Flynn remains injury-prone, Hugh Lynch has yet to make a return and Dermot Earley no longer has the legs to solve that problem.

If they are to get over Sligo and have plans to go any further, the ball into Tomás O’Connor needs to be better and less frequent while he needs the right runners coming at him. Alan Smith needs to continue his return to form, James Kavanagh and Eoghan O’Flaherty need far more consistency, Seánie Johnston needs to settle quick and the full-back line need to stay put if their markers start switching and moving out the field. Also, Mikey Conway has to kick clutch frees in big games and Kieran McGeeney needs to trust his players more and improve his own in-game management. It’s quite a long snag list.


7. Tyrone (-1)

We knew they weren’t contenders but for a side in transition, they just saw how far they’ve to go to get back to the top. That starts with a clear-out and while Mickey Harte’s loyalty to the greatest generation of players the county has ever produced is admirable, it’s time to give youth its chance. Conor Gormley, Ryan McMenamin, Justin McMahon, Owen Mulligan and Stephen O’Neill just don’t have enough to offer and with their underage structures, it’s time to modernise the senior team. Otherwise we will only get repeat performances of the Kerry and Dublin humiliations. Next year they’ll have Kyle Coney back, Conor Clarke had an immense summer and if they can find a more central role for Peter Harte, a more settled role for Joe McMahon and find more consistency in Colm Cavanagh and Mark Donnelly, they’ve the makings of a side that can compete better than they have in their last two championship eliminations.


8. Down (-)

Better than we thought in the first half of the Ulster final. Far worse thereafter, even if we knew they’d struggle against a team that play with a counter-attacking set-up. The real danger is they’ll now feel sorry for themselves, realise the last eight is their limit and not even get that far as a result. That would be a pity because they are better than what we saw in their last 35 minutes and if they can get Dan Gordon and Benny Coulter fully fit they have the makings of a decent side. Ambrose Rogers may be the best midfielder in Ulster and in Kevin McKernan and Conor Laverty they’ve two of the better players in the province. But they need to improve their flank players and get more consistency out of Kalum King, Mark Poland and Danny Hughes. If that happens they won’t be beaten up so badly again but there’s a lot to fix in a short space of time.


9. Meath (-)

They are certainly on the mend and they are unrecognisable from the group that were relegated and drew with Carlow. On top of that, Banty made it clear they were desperate to make the most of their second chance and he clearly believes there is serious potential here. To a point he is right. We saw against Kildare how good Donnacha Tobin, Conor Gillespie and Damien Carroll can be, we’ve seen in back-to-back games what an excellent prospect Donal Keoghan is, while Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan are having superb seasons. That’s a lot to build on and even if they are quite a way off the very best, they are certainly closing in on the teams just above them in this list and if they can continue their progress, they could well pass them out very soon. After everything they’ve endured in recent months, that deserves endless praise.


10. Sligo (-)

They were out of their depth but still they swam to the very end in the Connacht final. Midfield was a big problem but the two defensive lines — and particularly Ross Donovan — were heroic and the pressure they put on was nearing a Donegal level. Also, their forwards didn’t see much ball but were largely economical and in a game they lost by just two points, Adrian Marren kicked a bundle of wides while David Kelly never fully got into the game. But they’ve been in this place in 2010 and we all know the 24 months that followed their Connacht final loss to Roscommon. That cannot happen again and if they can bring the same intensity to a qualifier against Kildare, particularly with David Coldrick as referee, they should come out of this season with positivity, if not a last eight place.


11. Armagh (-)

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 decent 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 on-field 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.


12. Laois (-)

We’ve been seriously critical of their mental make-up and will to win in the past, so credit where it was due. They could easily have trundled away from summer in the qualifiers and no one would have been any the wiser. Instead, for the first time in an age, they manned up, bought into Justin McNulty’s defensive system — even Ross Munnelly was happy to be the first line of defence — and played clever football. We can’t get too carried away as five times this league they failed to raise more than 10 white flags in a game, against Carlow 1-10 was measly, their shot selection against Leitrim was poor and could have cost them and there’s a pattern here as last championship between games against Longford, Dublin and Kildare, they hit a combined 0-31. But they are still there, won’t fear Meath and the fact they are in with a quarter-final shout is quite a turnaround for a side that looked to be going nowhere not so long ago. It may be enough to keep Justin McNulty around for a little while longer.


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. The same goes for the qualifiers because last year we had sized them up for an All Ireland quarter-final against Kerry and they failed against Limerick. We were beginning to fancy them for a tilt at a top team outside of Dublin this year too and they failed against Tipperary having come back from way down and having had all the momentum entering the last quarter. Graeme Molloy — on form — is one of the best defenders about, Adrian Flynn is a fine wing-back, Ben Brosnan, Red Barry and Ciáran Lyng would worry any defence while Jason Ryan is one of the more competent, thoughtful managers about. Considering all that, they aren’t adding up to the sum of their parts and the reason is mental, not physical.


14. Galway (-)

Remember all that hype a couple of months ago when they announced their arrival in the first game of the championship. That’s long forgotten but if talk of this being a serious team after the dismantling of Roscommon was knee-jerk, then so to is talk of where Alan Mulholland now stands. This is year one, he needs at least two more and then we can talk about his performance. In fact he needs as long as possible because part of the reason Galway are in this mess is their overreaction to the performance of senior managers when beneath them there are serious underage flaws. What Mulholland does have at his disposal is one of the great under-21 teams from 2011. Mark Hehir has already stepped up but we’d bring in the youth of Thomas Flynn and Fionntán Ó Curraoin to centrefield. Then we’d start dotting their under-21 teammates from a year ago around the senior side, amongst the likes of Michael Meehan, Paul Conroy, Gareth Bradshaw and Finian Hanley. They might as well learn the ropes now, when little else is stirring.


15. Longford (-)

Did they take their eye of the ball? Or did they run out of steam? We think the latter because this is a side that has played with huge intensity since the closing stages of the league in April and across the championship they haven’t been able to maintain their high-pressure defensive game for more than 50 minutes in any of their outings. It caught up with them against Limerick as their midfield - their obvious weakness in terms of personnel - struggled, Michael Quinn was overrun and Brian Kavanagh couldn’t buy a yard. But if it’s a disappointing end, then it’s because it finishes a great season and if they can stay in Division Two in 2013 and Seán McCormack can stay at the high level he is reached, then they are going places. On a side note they do need to hold onto Glenn Ryan if his home county come calling because he’s as vital as any player.


16. Westmeath (-)

That Kerry loss put the heartbreak of their Leinster exit to Louth into perspective but they should also be proud of how they handled the Munster side and took the game to them for much of the qualifier. Paul Sharry was excellent at wing-back and John Heslin is developing into a superstar and a team needs to be build around his ball-winning and fast breaks from centrefield. He is that good. Michael Ennis is good too and if the forward line is lacking quality it certainly makes up for it with quantity. They had eight scorers as they exited the championship, while during the league they’ve been averaging seven scorers a game with Kieran Martin, Dennis Glennon, David Glennon and Ger Egan all having their moments. They could do with a marquee attacker but at least they’ve Division Two to look forward to and while the end to this season will hurt, it should also provide hope.


17. Roscommon (+1)

What a bizarre season where we are left none the wiser as to whether the players are buying into the Des Newton era as much as they bought into the Fergal O’Donnell era. The bad of Galway, the good of Armagh, the predictable against Tyrone. 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 they need more than one performance a year for those players to become more than overrated names as only Cregg has shown any real consistency this term while Shine in particular has struggled to repeat his heroics of previous years. If they could get it right, they’ve the makings of a serious team in the medium term having won two of the last three Connacht under-21 titles and having just gone back-to-back at minor. That’s a big if though and they should be looking to get out of Division Three as starters.


18. Tipperary (+2)

And on they go but do keep in mind they’ve been relegated from Division Three and have beaten no one of any great ability this championship. It’s why the Down qualifier at the weekend will tell us if the revolution is happening right now or if we’ll have to wait a little longer until those minor-winning teams grow older. All in all though they are the most exciting story in football as no non-traditional county has threatened the establishment so much in an age. And it’s little wonder they’ve gotten the better of Offaly, Wexford and Antrim when you look at the performances of Ciarán McDonald, Brian Fox, Michael Quinlivan and Peter Acheson. They’ve nothing to lose against Down and even being competitive against a top-eight team would make this a huge season and make those minor winners want to keep improving.


19. Monaghan (-2)

Yet again they give it a go in Ulster and collapse in the qualifiers. And if this year’s exit isn’t as embarrassing as their loss to Offaly in 2011, it should hurt just as much because for 35 minutes against Down they reminded us of the intensity they can play with and the passion they can bring. But then there was the loss to Laois having led 0-5 to 0-2 and having controlled the opening stages. Little wonder Eamon McEneaney could take no more of the wild inconsistency from players who promise much and then lie. That opening half up north where the defence was a throwback to the 2007 level, where Dick Clerkin and Eoin Lennon looked more than solid, where Tommy Freeman returned and where Conor McManus looked like he and Paul Finlay could be a force to be reckoned with is now long forgotten. They leave the summer looking for a manager to take them into Division Three on the back of one championship win in two years.


20. Antrim (-1)

Everyone else seemed to be surprised at their efforts against Galway but we weren’t. In fact in the build up we talked about how they were made in the perfect mould to topple the Connacht side in Casement. But that should not have been the end and it was something they should have built on, what with no more than Tipperary and a badly-bruised Down in the way of a last eight place. They had the talent to go further as James Loughrey is still the exciting and speedy player coming up from the back and Michael McCann is one of the better midfielders in all of Ulster as not only can he dominate possession but he can score as shown when he kicked more from play than anyone else on the field in their last win. But knowing all that will make their exit even harder to take. A major opportunity has been lost.


21. Limerick (+3)

Finally they get their best team — excluding John Galvin of course — onto the field together and we all saw that they can compete with big names when that happens. Stephen Lucey, Johnny McCarthy, John Riordan, Stephen Kelly, Ian Ryan and Jim Donovan were immense for 70 minutes against Kildare and their physicality, tackling and ball-carrying were phenomenal. But in the end it was just another moral victory and those names must be sick of those words after a decade of hard luck. Indeed they make Mayo’s house of pain look like a massage parlour. They’ve pulled themselves off the canvas before, but it’s getting hard to get back up each time and they are hugely reliant on the same core of six or seven players. Lose one or two and they revert to the side that couldn’t get out of Division Four.


22. Derry (-1)

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 don’t know why he’d want to hang around any longer with a team that are going nowhere, especially after turning on Paddy Bradley for his critical comments regarding funding by the county board. On the field, what we’ve seen repeatedly is Bradley having to drop deep to get possession but he’s too far out then and while Mark Friel is an okay 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 and they’ll do well to maintain Division Two status.


23. Louth (-1)

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 on. After getting 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 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 because they don’t have the depth to compete with so many second-class citizens in between class operators like Paddy Keenan and Darren Clarke.


24. Clare (-1)

Well that was a day out and nothing more. But anyone who thought the Munster final would be anything else was deluded and just being in that showpiece game was a serious accomplishment as all things are relative. Now they are in the last-12 — granted the draw was horrid — and giving that a real lash would make it a fine season, even if they’ll be back to Division Four at that point after missing out on promotion on the last day. 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.


25. 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. They should take that Fermanagh result with them from this season rather than the annihilation against a rampant and angry Kildare. Gearóid McKiernan is a good midfielder in the making and he was the one who took their opening qualifier by the scruff of the neck. David Givney beside him has a decent future too and Eugene Keating showed he has accuracy in the Ulster Championship defeat when taking an All Star full-back for five points and was popping up for good scores in their exit too. Anthony Forde in the backroom team is a key appointment and they are improving, although they’ve been shown how far it is they have to go.


26. Wicklow (-)

Not impressive against Waterford and couldn’t kick muck off a boat rope by the banks of the Shannon. We said in the Micko era that real improvement would come about via league promotion and not by big days in the championship so we cannot come down too hard on Harry Murphy. Besides, he was missing Ciarán Hyland and Leighton Glynn, James Stafford’s performances haven’t been up to his early-season standards and they are one-dimensional with obvious long-balls into Seánie Furlong the cornerstone of their game. But their last two games have shown them how much work needs to be done if they are to be competitive at a higher league level come the new season.


27. Carlow (-)

Brendan Murphy tweeted after their exit 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 is a promotion push. 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 (-)

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. Leitrim (-)

There’s not an icy heart that won’t have been melted by that win over Wicklow and they gave it a serious go against Laois in what was their All Ireland final. Those feats took guts and courage because we saw Barney Breen after the Mayo defeat and he was hurting for players that never stood a chance despite all the dedication and commitment. Yet despite that, despite the lack of finance, despite the lack playing numbers, despite the fact they can’t keep their own few footballers in the county, they came out and won their first ever qualifier. It passed so many with everything else that was going on, but in its own way theirs is one of the stories of the season, even if it's already over.


30. Fermanagh (-)

So Peter Canavan will be in charge for the 2013 campaign but he 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. Canavan also needs 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.


31. Waterford (-)

That loss in Aughrim will hurt and Gary Hurney will have to look at himself while whoever the new manager is 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.


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? Captain Seán McVeigh very nearly dragged them across the line in this year’s qualifiers, and he’ll be a huge loss as he heads home but others need to stand up and drag them across the off season and remind them they are close to something special.