Posted by Ewan MacKenna


2012 Cork Kildare 520x280

1. Cork (- from last week’s rankings)

That was frightening and once they stopped giving away ball en route to the half-forward line against Kildare and when they mixed up their tactics after the break, they were devastating. Their footpassing improved, they were less lateral with their handpassing and crucially they used their size, speed and endurance to break tackles and open up space from midfield. Repeat performances will mean no one will be able to live with them as man-to-man they are the best team out there and they also have the best bench out there. Throw in the speed of thought and action from the line in the quarter-final - something as impressive as it was new - and that may well be the final piece of the puzzle because Conor Counihan ensured that there were 15 in-form players on the park all at once.

They have meanest defence in the top three divisions this league and it’s little wonder. Starting with Aidan Walsh 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 high-class players to fit into six attacking positions with Donnacha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding, Colm O’Neill, Ciarán Sheehan, Paddy Kelly, Paul Kerrigan, Pearse O'Neill and Fintan Goold all looking for a role. There’s some serious scoring in that group. There'll be an All Ireland too in a few weeks.


2. Donegal (-)

There is so much to admire about their revolution in 2011 followed by their evolution in 2012 and they now have the personnel and the character to match their brilliant if cynical tactics. Neil McGee may be the best man-marker in football right now, Karl Lacey may be the best defender in football right now and Frank McGlynn is the most improved player in football right now. They've size and skill in midfield with Neil Gallagher returning to fitness to join Ryan Bradley and Rory Kavanagh and then there are their forwards, which unlike a year ago have the support, the speed of movement and the skill to score enough. Mark McHugh is having a great year and Colm McFadden is unidentifiable from the ponderous, one-footed forward of a year ago. Granted we'd like to see more than just horse-work from Michael Murphy.

How quick it has all come to them as well. Provincial titles may not mean a whole lot to the other true contenders but it’s a sign of how far they’ve come in a short space of time that capturing Ulster was still new and exciting for this group and beating Kerry blew their minds. But there are some problems. During the second quarter of the quarter-final they did revert to their 2011 model and couldn't get the ball to their attacking players quick enough. But there's a bigger problem still that's not of their making and it's their next opponents. Donegal have shown they can hold tight when most teams throw everything at their defence but Cork aren't most teams and if they were to concede a goal in the first half of the semi-final we'll watch closely for their response.


3. Dublin (-)

Here's one for you. If they potter through their semi-final as they've pottered through every game this year they'll be the defending champions back in the final but without an obvious All Star. That surmises their season. They are still there but not playing well and Laois was the latest game against inferior opposition in which they were fortunate to fall over the line. Without Alan Brogan, some quality forwards look completely headless; without Michael Darragh MacAuley staying put in midfield they don't look capable of matching up against the teams above them on this list; but their main problem remains at the back. Kevin Nolan has been the only success story of their defence this time round and that's disappointing given a year ago it was the improvement there, through quantity over a lack of quality, that was the basis for their success.

But now, without the ball, they have been going from one unsatisfactory extreme to the other. Against Meath in the second half they were opened up and completely lacked the trademark intensity that not only cut short opposition attacks but created turnovers, counters and high scores not so long ago. Against Laois, their tackling was unruly and over the top, not unlike 2010. Given how they are playing, they can be glad they are present, even if they aren't correct. And while a statement win didn't come until August last year, there were little shoots during the league that suggested something big and strong might grow. They haven't been there this year and the fact they are still in the competition has been more down to the quality of the opposition and not the quality of their play. That's worrying and when being judged by their own high standards, they are well below both their best as well as the very best this time around.


4. Kerry (-)

We hate to say we told you so, but what we had predicted in the run up to the quarter-final came to pass. Against lesser teams, they can play an orthodox game and trust their defence to go man-to-man. That frees up their six forwards to spend most of their time in the right half of the field, the half-forward line can then pull the strings, the full-forward line can find space and the result is usually a high score that's enough for a victory. But that doesn't happen against the best and we saw how their dynamic changes when they have to drop deep and pack up their defence against both Cork and Donegal. It's necessary but it takes away so much of their forward potential.

It was unfair to expect another 2009 revival via the back door when that side from three years ago 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, Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy to carry them to glory. None of that has been there this time around but there is still a huge positive to take from it all and how close they were to a side as good as Donegal shouldn't be lost in the disappointment of their exit. Even in a time of transition with the likes of Shane Enright and James O'Donoghue learning the ropes, they are still one of the best teams about. Of course their decline is relative as Kerry below their best are too strong for almost anyone. But a Kerry below their best aren't good enough for an All Ireland and if Jack O'Connor is to go, the next manager must hope to find a couple of young defenders to see them climb back to the top.


5. Mayo (-)

It can be lazy to suggest the loss of one player can down a side that have been coached as well and improved as much as Mayo under James Horan. After all, the likes of Ger Cafferkey and Lee Keegan have taken their game to the level of Keith Higgins while Barry Moran in midfield has taken his game to the level of Aidan O'Shea. That group makes Mayo formidable in their own half but to go any further you have to be formidable at both ends of the field and without Andy Moran that isn't the case. He's an interesting player in that he is neither the strongest, fastest or tallest full-forward but he always wins his own ball, can take a score and his distribution is phenomenal. Remove that from the equation and you are left with six good forwards, but definitely not good enough to win it all and probably not good enough to reach a final.

In his absence, Alan Dillon now has to take on another huge pile of work just to make those around him tick. That may be asking too much and without a ready-made replacement up front, they are going to struggle from here on in. But even if Dublin proves a step too far, those in the county cannot do their typical thing and bemoan the plight and luck of their team. This is a new and exciting group trying to walk their own path and build their own legacy. And already this year they've done a great job of that. Bright days are ahead, even if there may not be another one this time around.


6. Kildare (-)

The regression has been huge this year as in 2010 they were a crossbar from an All Ireland final and in 2011 a late free from the All Ireland champions. Winning counts most but in previous seasons being so close deserved credit too. But that only makes their fall from grace all the more striking this time around and what was the most depressing was seeing up close how far they are from the best. Others have bounced back but it'll be hard for the likes of Johnny Doyle to get back up this time after realising that after all the ground gained under Kieran McGeeney, much of that has been given back and he and others will surely now never win an All Ireland. They thought they had the panel but got shown up by Cork's. They thought they had the forwards but only Tomás O'Connor and Alan Smith looked dangerous in the quarter-final. They thought they had the midfield but Daryl Flynn and Hugh Lynch have been so injury prone. They thought they had the defence yet only Doyle tracked back until the end. They thought they had the manager but once more Kieran McGeeney's in-game decision-making was awful. But there is one important side note here. Those overreacting would say it's time for a change of management. But even after their latest exit, they are better than they were pre-2008 and there is no one better to manage them next season than McGeeney. There's no point in change at the top for the sake of change.


7. Tyrone (-)

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. 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 (-)

The worst and best thing about this year's elimination was that the mistakes they were making can be coached out of their game. Against Mayo, they played with 13 players back yet none of them were marking men or space. Time and again, four would go to the opposition ball-carrier, fail to foul or dispossess him, let the ball be laid off and the onrushing attacker the had a clear run on goal. It was lazy but it also showed a lack of confidence as did such a defensive gameplan against a team like Mayo who have good but not great attacking talent. There are too many passengers dotted amongst the likes of Conor Laverty, Benny Coulter and Ambrose Rogers and dotted amongst players down on belief like Dan Gordon, Mark Poland and Kevin McKernan. As it stands they are good enough to be in league semi-finals and All Ireland quarter-finals but unless there are huge improvements, they are not anywhere near good enough to win those games.


9. Laois (+1)

We had huge admiration for this group and how they turned their season around before their quarter-final exit. But even in defeat we left the Dublin game with even more admiration. You cannot forget where this team have spent most of the year as they were outclassed in Division One, deservedly beaten by Longford and were clinging on against Carlow. Their manager was clinging on too but they finally bought into this defensive philosophy and while their ultimate exit will have hurt, there are so many positives to take forward. Eoin Culliton, John O'Loughlin, Brendan Quigley, Colm Begley, Ross Munnelly and Colm Kelly all had fine years while the full-back line has grown in stature too. Going forward they could do with a blue-chip forward inside but while he may not exist, they can at least head for 2013 knowing they are good enough to get promoted from Division Two and good enough to compete with the very best at a provincial level. We didn't think we'd be saying that a few months back


10. Meath (-1)

What a bizarre season. Relegated and embarrassed by Louth, decent against Wicklow, awful against Carlow, brilliant against Kildare, good against Dublin, horrific against Laois. There is no trend there and now that it has come to the end, so has Banty's time in charge. He may be glad because there is nothing worse than such a lack of consistency. He didn't know how good or bad the team was by the end and we aren't sure they did either. At least he's found a new generation of players for the next man in to mould into high-level footballers. Donnacha Tobin, Conor Gillespie and Damien Carroll have potential while Donal Keoghan has already excelled. That's a start but they need to get Cian Ward and Stephen Bray playing like they once did and find some sort of consistency in Brian Farrell and Joe Sheridan as those two were having really good seasons but then disappeared against Laois. Given the names there, they need to be careful with their next appointment and need a coach like James Horan as opposed to a career manager.


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 not everyone was happy with Paul Grimley, what with Tony McEntee and Kieran McGeeney out there. Time will tell as they certainly have talent. 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 was. 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. As for a level to judge Grimley on, with some small semblance of luck they should be last-eight material.


12. 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.


13. Sligo (-)

That exit was just as bad as Down 2010 after they narrowly lost a provincial final too. And this exit could set them back just as far as all the good they showed against Mayo and Galway was washed away in 70 embarrassing minutes. Midfield is a huge issue as they've been cleaned out in their last two games and with that going so badly wrong, they can't get enough ball into Alan Costello, David Kelly and Adrian Marren. On the other side, with so little possession, the defence comes under huge pressure and you can't expect them to play with the intensity and desperation of the Connacht final each and every game. They have some really good players, just not enough of them and while they've a good manager that may not be the case for long. Kevin Walsh was hugely dispirited after their exit and he didn't see a whole lot that would make him want to hang around.


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 did well to tie up Glenn Ryan before Kildare imploded.


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 (-)

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 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 for starters.


18. Tipperary (-)

So it finally ends but they've so much to take with them from 2012 and so much to inspire all those underage players who have massive potential. Ciarán McDonald, Brian Fox, Michael Quinlivan and Peter Acheson will all just miss out on All Star nominations but if they can build on this year, who knows? Barry Grogan and Brian Jones may be back for next season and then there's integration of the All Ireland-winning minors. That's a lot to look forward to but they shouldn't expect miracles in the short-term but they must expect to get out of Division Four next year and beginning climbing the ladder and facing better opposition all year round rather than just in the qualifiers. It's still possibly four years before they can think of challenging the best in Munster and an awful lot needs to go right in that time for it to happen. But they are on the right track and there isn't a more exciting story in football.


19. Monaghan (-)

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 (-)

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 (-)

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 harder 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 (-)

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 (-)

The Peter Fitzpatrick era ends with him saying that he's a Leinster-winning manager, it's just that his players never got the credit. That sums up the last two years and while his complete obsession with that 2010 game is understandable, it has done the team no good ever since. It's probably for the best that he's gone, even if he became a Fine Gael TD off the back of it. The next man in has Division Two football to looking forward to but he must get the best players in the county either back home or back playing. They have some top-quality operators like Darren Clarke and Paddy Keenan, but they've too many second-class citizens around the place as well and until that changes, they'll have to keep carrying players that aren't good enough to reach higher ground.


24. 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.


25. 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.


26. Clare (-)

How will they look back on the year? Disappointment, and that's incorporating a place in the Munster final. It wasn't much of a day out and the Kerry draw was horrific and they leave the stage realising how far they are off the best in their province and how they'll never win anything. But the biggest blow to Clare football may have been losing out to Wicklow in Aughrim on the last day of the league as that cost them promotion. That's where a county at their level really builds and it'll be hard after reaching a provincial decider to drop all the way back down to the bottom and start again. But they have to, and they have to succeed there if they are to ever go anywhere.


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 and their new manager, whoever he is, 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.