Posted by Shane Stapleton

Down and Derry had a proper battle in Celtic Park but there was too much one-way traffic elsewhere

2013 Derry Down

There’s an Irish saying for when you come out victorious after playing below your best level, and that’s to "win pulling up". Dublin’s first gear was a frenzied speed for Westmeath and they had the game all sewn up after going 0-8 to 0-0 ahead midway during the first half.

It didn’t matter how good Westmeath’s football was because Dublin were too strong and fast for them, and the Lake County certainly weren’t the better footballers either. It was difficult viewing because the Dubs just trotted around the pitch and took scores if and when it suited. There was never an argument.

Offaly sort of made us wonder for a bit but their four-point loss was really an eight-point defeat wearing a designer suit. Kildare had them at their ease from when they decided to play with a bit more vim in the second half. From minutes 44 to 66, the Lilywhites hit six scores on the bounce and left another seven attempts behind them. Any time Offaly asked a question, as they did by hitting 1-2 near the very end to trim the deficit from eight to three points, there was a response.

No fact bears that out better than Offaly only putting back-to-back scores together on one other occasion in the game, and that early in the first half. Kildare also won pulling up, it’s just that the handbrake went down too early.

Not that they look to be anywhere as potent in attack as Dublin, Donegal, Mayo or Kerry, who are sides that have goals in them. You wonder where Kildare will get them if they can’t cut through a Division 4 side with any great regularity. Tomas O’Connor has great potential and an ability to field ball but he and few of his teammates look like scoring goals.

So often we speak of the ‘what if’ of GAA transfers and you wonder if Kildare would have loved to have been able to bring in Offaly’s Niall McNamee. The Rhode man hit 0-4 from play, had Michael Foley in trouble, and all of this with limited supply. An All Star that may never be, given the have-not level of his county right now.

Before Sunday’s clash between Down and Derry, the average winning margin of all games in the championship this year was as much as 11.8 points. Gulf, chasm, you name it — it’s unhealthy. There is plenty of talk of a tiered championship and it has merit; very few people don’t complain about the wacky schedule in GAA that sees Kerry dormant for six weeks and then playing twice in a week, but traditionalists insist upon the provincial championships.

Here’s an idea, play the provincial championships in March and let each county decide how seriously they want to take it. Play it in a month, because there is no sense to having six weeks between games. Then for the All-Ireland series, start from scratch and divide your counties into four groups, with the top four from each of those making a last 16 knockout for the Sam Maguire. Those left play in a shield or a ‘B’ All-Ireland.

There is a clear schedule that teams, fans and club sides know way in advance up until the last 16. You will reap what you sow and emerging counties get seven games against teams of different levels. Luck of the draw is not as much of a factor and teams will improve incrementally as they play more games.

To add a little weight to the provincial championships, perhaps the winners could be guaranteed a top-seed position in each of the four groups. It’s like how UEFA are finally going to grant a Champions League spot to the Europa League winners — it’s all about the incentives.

At least Ulster provided one game to make you forget the horror of what was happening in the Munster and Leinster abattoirs. Goals so often win games and two in seven minutes for Donal O’Hare and Mark Poland — who both assisted for each other — settled it, as did the inspiration of midfielder Kevin McKernan’s 0-4.

Down targeted Derry full-forward Eoin Bradley and the Oak Leafers targeted working a way around it. The Mourne Men had the spine of their defence — full-back Brendan McArdle and centre-back Peter Turley — double-jobbing on Bradley but the accurate crossfield balls at least put him in possession during the first half. Yes, he wasn’t always able to find a way past them and was bumped out of play on one occasion, but it kept Down guessing.

Bradley got into the game more and more, slung over a few lovely scores, and fed Mark Lynch for a goal on 31 minutes. The ball was worked up to the dangerous full-forward, he turned away from both markers and sent his centre-back through. On one of the rare occasions when Bradley was allowed contest a 50-50 ball in the penalty area with McArdle, he bumped the full-back out of his way and had a clear shot on goal, which he should have made sure with as it was turned around the post.

Had Bradley scored a goal at that point, it might have broken Down. Instead, the Mourne Men recovered and shackled Derry’s talisman. A thrilling argument in Celtic Park, but there wasn’t enough of those this weekend.

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