Posted by Shane Stapleton

Monaghan have shaken the GAA landscape with their thrilling win over Donegal, while we have new leaders at the top

2013 Donegal MonaghanMonaghan’s Ulster title win over Donegal has put the cat among the pigeons, and they now join Mayo, Kerry and Dublin as provincial winners. Let’s look at the latest order of power —based on form, expectations and quality.

1. Mayo (+2)
Mayo have won their three provincial clashes against Galway, Roscommon and London by a total of 45 points, averaging out at margins of 15 points per game. That means we know very little about them right now other than they are able to punish poor teams and the pity for them is that they possibly go into the All-Ireland quarter-finals unprepared for a team hardened by the qualifiers. Or so you would think — the thing with James Horan is that this team has almost always delivered in Croke Park in recent seasons — ask Cork, Kerry and Dublin. Will they again? Andy Moran needs more time to get back to his old self, but the question is whether Mayo will be alive whenever that happens. If he and they do stay going, and Cillian O’Connor continues his impressive return, it will take a serious team to stop them. With that prospect in mind, we’re going to put them on top of the pile… for now. Dublin, Donegal, Cork and Kerry have all won Sam in the last four seasons, so none of the very best sides have more to fight for. Our main doubts surround not knowing where they truly are because no one has yet challenged them. All of the top teams have question marks though.

2. Donegal (-1)
Donegal have not fired on all cylinders this year, we knew that. The question was whether they would play themselves into form, or whether the Monaghan defeat will now be the kick in the backside that they needed to identify why they weren’t on song. Either way, Jim McGuinness’ side were lacking in intensity in each of their games up to now and they came up against a Monaghan side fuelled by just that. You would expect them to beat Laois and that might be the perfect game to allow this side regroup and relocate that gusto of 2012. Still a huge threat but their rivals now know it’s possible to quieten this full-forward line. Yet it’s not every day that Karl Lacey will be so lacking in his usual verve, that Mark McHugh will go off as early, and that they will meet an on-form sharpshooter such as Kieran Hughes. During the league and right before last year’s Ulster final, their backs had accrued 1-14; that figure had dropped to 0-1 this year before Sunday’s loss to Monaghan. That is telling.

3. Dublin (-1)
We’ll address the doubting Thomases in a moment but first let’s look at the good of Dublin. Twice now they’ve absorbed early scores against their Leinster rivals to win well. Kildare went 1-2 to zilch ahead but could add very little after as the Dubs walked it; Meath went 0-2 to zip in front but lost by seven. The difference was that the Royals didn’t collapse after Paul Flynn found the net and, had they taken more of their chances, Mick O’Dowd’s side might have come even closer. Still, Dublin never looked to be in top gear and always seemed capable of pulling away. Their detractors will say their game plan will be exploited by the best sides but Dublin will also play with more intensity on those days. 

4. Kerry (-)
Kerry were sublime in the Munster final and the pace at which they attacked was lovely to watch. They won’t get that time or space against Mayo, Dublin or Donegal and they don’t have as many pacy threats in the team, so an All-Ireland is still a tall order. What better county to prove us wrong though. Won’t have been happy with a mini-collapse during the second half against Cork but they will feel there is more to come. After the early struggles in the league, Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s debut season is bubbling along nicely.

5. Cork (-)
We would sooner judge Cork when Paddy Kelly and Ciaran Sheehan are fit to start, and when Eoin Cadogan is right. All three add a real drive to the team and people spoke of how lateral the Rebels were — well, Kelly and Sheehan would add that directness. You need players running at defences and it was unusual to see another man who does just that, Paul Kerrigan, so peripheral. For Cork to recover and win an All-Ireland, they need to have more than just Aidan Walsh penetrating from deep. They also looked very open in defence and Kerry aren’t the only side who will expose that.

6. Monaghan (+6)
Malachy O’Rourke’s side were determined to go through the front door with the ball every time and their direct running made it feel as if the teams had simply swapped shirts before throw-in. Monaghan looked like a Donegal identikit for long spells and credit to them for holding on once the All-Ireland champions piled on the pressure in the latter stages. They had some heroic displays from back to front — Vinny Corey, Dessie Mone, Darren Hughes and Co — as Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty were subdued, while Kieran Hughes scored some beauties under pressure to win the day. Busted the theory that the top four/five sides could not be beaten by anyone below them.

7. Tyrone (-1)
Do you credit Tyrone for staying the course against a strong footballing county in its own backyard or indict them for a mini-collapse in the second half? Well firstly, let’s remember that all six provincial titles in both codes this year have been won in the home stadium of the victors, so it’s not always easy to travel in comfort. To that end, you have to give them their dues. But they were far from convincing and the recent narrow qualifier win over Roscommon was maybe a portent of things to come. Centre-back Peter Harte is one of their silkiest players and it might yet be to the detriment of their team that he is not in the forwards. After all, it’s easier to find defenders than finishers. They are the only team to have ever won the All-Ireland after entering the qualifiers in Round One (2008), but it seems unlikely given the quality heading for the last eight.

8. Meath (-1)
And so it seems, the bitterest of rivals do indeed bring out your best. Mick O’Dowd has taken a team from a Division 3 preparation to within a few scores of one of the elite teams in the sport. Stephen Bray set the tone early with two points and even after the Dubs hit back, the Royals didn’t fade. Had they shown more accuracy, a shock might have been on. A meeting with Tyrone in the qualifiers was a tough break but you’d suspect that they won’t go down easily under O’Dowd.

9. Laois (+1)
Did well to come back from a five-point first-half deficit to beat Wexford at Wexford Park but a slow start will surely be punished far more severely by Donegal this weekend. It must feel a little bit like history repeating for Justin McNulty’s side: a poor, early Leinster loss followed by a run in the qualifiers before meeting the All-Ireland champions. Last year, it was a loss to Longford in the province before pushing Dublin close in the quarters; this time Louth hammered them in Portlaoise before eventually making a Round Four qualifier with Donegal. A tough break again for McNulty but they come in on the back of some good wins. Still, it would be a massive shock were they to progress.

10. Cavan (+3)
What a year it’s proving to be for Cavan, and it’s unusual how local they’ve kept their entire championship season. All five of their games so far between Ulster (three) and the qualifiers (two) have been against teams from their own province and next up is a side based outside the island: London. The Breffni men came back from a poor start against Derry to hold out in extra time, where they showed a little bit of cuteness to deny the Oak Leafers possession once in front. It’s been a great journey for Terry Hyland’s men… and the metre is still running.

11. Derry (-3)
Derry had the win in their hands against Cavan but let a last-minute lead slip before the Breffni Boys held out in extra time. Not only that, but the Oak Leaf County had established a 0-3 to 0-0 lead early on and, as we saw with Monaghan against Donegal, a fast start is often half the battle. Eoin Bradley should have had a penalty early on and that was costly. PJ McCloskey’s absence through injury and the clearly unfit Patsy Bradley meant Derry’s midfield was not what it should be — more key factors here. A disappointing end to what has been a season of some improvement.

12. Kildare (-3)
Is it the case that Kieran McGeeney has taken this team as far as he can, or that no one else could have done what he could anyway? That he has brought through so much youth this year suggests that he is ready to persevere and you would imagine that many of the locals would be happy for him to do so, given the state the team was in before his arrival. He cannot create goal machines but the problem is that Kildare look more shot-shy than is needed, and rarely turn teams’ defences with pace. In an overall sense, they seem to be just too average in too many sectors to beat the best, which Tyrone are not anymore. That Johnny Doyle remains their most crucial attacker is as much a compliment of the Allenwood man as it is an indictment of what the county had produced in the newer generations. They need to find pace and directness, and fast.

13. Down (-2)
The opening-day win over Derry was exceptional and they gave Donegal a good game after that but their season is over. Derry avenged that Ulster loss and did so with progressive ease as the clock wore down. The Mourne Men were stung by the loss of Benny Coulter but to score just 1-5 was poor, and two late red cards exhibited their frustration at managing just a single placed-ball score in the second half.

14. Galway (+5)
Survived a second-half comeback from Armagh to make it through another qualifier and perhaps this is going to be one of those comeback stories after a huge provincial loss to Mayo earlier in the season. You suspect they won’t have the quality for Cork but now it at least feels like they will make a game of it. Were the highest-priced team to win in Round Three of the qualifiers, which shows how unfancied they have been. Cork v Galway in Croke Park – sounds tasty.

15. Armagh (-1)
Paul Grimley came in for huge criticism from Joe Brolly as his side allowed Cavan exploit their man-to-man tactics. It was always going to be an uphill battle to save their season but the destructions of Wicklow and Leitrim suggested they could make the All-Ireland series. But as soon as Jamie Clarke was kept under wraps by Galway, it was all she wrote. That is pretty much the key to beating the Orchard County, and Grimley has to find ways of varying their attack for next year.

16. Wexford (-1)
Their season is over after defeat to Laois and two goals in the first half should have been enough to push them on, as the Models went five points in front before the break. Sixteen wides to two tells you why the Model County are out — and missing chances has ever been their issue. A far better team than their season’s results suggest.

17. Louth (-1)
It was been an up and down season for Louth. It started with an impressive 10-point win in Laois but when Drogheda hosted its first home championship game since 1998, the heaving local crowd were unable to halt the Wexford charge in Leinster. They were clearly the better side against Antrim for long spells but made hard work of it in the end, despite winning by six. Didn’t quite have the legs for Kildare in Newbridge. Seem to be on an upward curve.

18. Longford (-1)
There is so little to separate Longford from Wexford and perhaps referee Padraig O’Sullivan’s decision to not award a free to Paul Barden, favouring an advantage, has on its own cost Glenn Ryan’s side their season. There was a regrettable melee at the end of normal time and that mars both side’s championship but these two teams — who have played so often in recent times — always provide entertainment. Punished for leaking goals.

19. Roscommon (-1)
Started well against Mayo in the Connacht final but were beaten with more ease than expected. Donie Shine is one of the best forwards around and the fact that he couldn’t start this game was a massive blow, with the game was over by the time he was introduced. Will rue not taking some of the goalscoring chances against Tyrone as a shock win was on.

20. Fermanagh (-)
A bitterly disappointing end to the season and the pained look on the face of Peter Canavan after a second championship loss to Cavan in 2013 told the story. The game ended with three reds and 12 yellows, and the Tyrone legend refused to comment on the officials for fear of getting into trouble. The qualifier clash with the Breffni men seemed to become a game of score-settling after so many recent clashes — and it eventually ruined what was already a drab enough affair. So a poor end to the season but they did beat Westmeath on their journey, who will be a Division 1 team next year.

21. Sligo (-)
Eamonn O’Hara gave both barrels to manager Kevin Walsh on the Sunday Game after the loss in London and, grinding axes or not, it put the boss in the spotlight. It’s hard to say if Walsh would have stayed on had that furore not happened but he has decided five years is enough after the tame defeat to Derry — in the same year when they barely preserved their Division 3 status.

22. Limerick (+1)
Have been very competitive with Munster’s big two in the majority of their clashes in recent seasons but were destroyed by Cork this time. Two late cards against Longford in an 11-point defeat highlight what a shocking day at the office they had in the qualifiers. A poor championship.

23. Westmeath (+1)
It had been a year of huge improvement for the Lake County as they earned an unexpected promotion to Division One and followed it up with a convincing Leinster SFC win over Carlow. Few people expected them to beat Dublin at Croke Park and the scale of their defeat probably put to bed any questions of the Lake County beating Jim Gavin's side if they had them down in Cusack Park. Have slid down this table sharply, and you might argue they are better than some of those ahead in the packing order, but their results have been disastrous. Hammered by Dublin and beaten by a Division 3 team. Will climb the rankings quickly next year, we feel.

24. Tipperary (+1)
Quite a come-down from last year’s fine qualifier run as Galway proved the better side in Round One. Taken apart by a Kerry side that was still in league mode during the Munster championship.

25. Antrim (+1)
For a county with a bigger pick of players than any other of the Ulster counties, Antrim really do underperform. They were incredibly poor against Monaghan and to score 0-6 over 70 minutes was pathetic, particularly with the Farney County down a man for much of the second half. Tried to hang on against Louth but never looked a likely winner.

26. Offaly (+1)
You have to feel for Offaly. Manager Emmet McDonnell seems to be doing a good job but, as a Division 4 side, they were hugely unfortunate to be twice drawn with top-tier opposition. Kildare struggled to shake off the Faithful County but the biggest shark in the Round One qualifiers water, Tyrone, simply dismantled them on their own patch.

27. London (-5)
The worst team in the entire league and wins over Sligo and Leitrim — after a replay — only ever gave them a snowball’s chances in hell of beating Mayo. The Exiles gave it their all but it was never going to be nearly enough. Paul Coggins has worked wonders in his time as London manager and one of his biggest tasks will be to rouse his team for the meeting with Cavan. They were turned over too easily and it cost them score after score. On another day, they could have been beaten by far more. Great to see them on the Croke Park triple header.

28. Leitrim (-)
Armagh’s eight-goal destruction of Leitrim tells you all you need to know about how well prepared London are for a Connacht final with Mayo. Leitrim were annihilated at home by the Orange County and, after promising so much, it’s turned out to be a terrible season. The breach of discipline by four key players certainly didn’t help the cause.

29. Wicklow (-)
Harry Murphy’s side didn’t win a single game in Division 3 of the league this year so to beat Longford 1-15 to 0-16 in the Leinster SFC was quite a feat — it being their first championship win since 2010. Didn’t have the staying power against Meath and were put to the sword by Armagh.

30. Clare (-)
Clare were beaten well by Cork but showed a little fight that day. It did the footballers of the Banner County no favours that a good portion of the crowd filed out after the home side won the hurling half of this double header against Laois in Ennis. The O’Moore County won the football with the same ease as Clare’s hurlers won the small ball. It was an unfitting send-off for Mick O’Dwyer, who of course may yet wash up some place else.

31. Waterford (-)
Niall Carew's men suffered a horrendous beating by Kerry last weekend and it's a failing of the championship structure that such weak teams continue to be loaded into the abbatoir. Ran Galway closer than expected.

32. Carlow (-)
Second worst team in the entire four Divisions of the league and were beaten soundly by Westmeath in their Leinster opener. Had a great start against Laois but we soundly beaten in the end.

33. New York (-)
Hammered out of their own gates at Gaelic Park by Leitrim so their season is already over. 

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