Posted by Shane Stapleton

The football season is heading for primetime now as the four provincial champions get set to tackle the four back-door specialists — let’s see how we view the current order of power

7 July 2013 Jim McGuinnessThe football season is heading for primetime now as the four provincial champions get set to tackle the four back-door specialists — let’s see how we view the current order of power.

1. Mayo (unchanged from last week)
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, avenging defeat to Donegal? Andy Moran has to get back to his old self, Alan Dillon needs to hit top form, while Cillian O’Connor must continue his impressive return. If that happens, it will take a serious effort from a flagging Donegal. 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. 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. Cork have more questions about them so we fancy the Dubs to come through.

3. Donegal (-1)
They’re struggling right now and for a variety of reasons. Mark McHugh’s absence means Donegal lack a good counterattacker and protection for the McGees, while Karl Lacey’s fitness issues mean they are without another key man to drive out at pace. All of which explains why Michael Murphy and Co are getting slow ball in, are being swamped by manmarkers, and are being made to look human. A la Dublin 2012, the All-Ireland champions have been chasing their tails all year and Donegal have never quite caught up after a slow start. Their bench is looking more shallow with each passing game and all the indicators point to a Mayo win this weekend. Last year, Donegal averaged 17.4 points per game over seven ties, this year their four games have returned a mean scoreline of 11.5 points. Their defence has improved from conceding 12.1 to just 0-10 per game but we see Mayo exploiting their current flaws.

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. Cavan are very beatable.

5. Cork (-)
Yes, the result washes away most of the stains but Cork showed some glaring deficiencies against a Galway team that has been so shoddy at times this year. Their team selection, for one, means that they deprive themselves of their best and paciest ballcarriers in their most prominent positions. Paddy Kelly and Paul Kerrigan will need to start the semi-final, Ciaran Sheehan needs to be in the half-forwards and one of James Loughrey, Michael Shields or even Eoin Cadogan needs to replace Graham Canty at six. Otherwise, Dublin will just blitz through a defence that is not kept cosy and tight by a big, warm blanket. Besides, Loughrey also showed against Kerry that he can drive out with the ball from the back. Once Conor Counihan’s substitutions brought most of these players into their right positions, with the exception of substituted Loughrey, Galway were burned off — with the Rebels blitzing through at pace in the final minutes. They must learn from victory.

6. Monaghan (-)
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. Will feel they can take Tyrone, though the Red Hands have the Croke Park nous.

7. Tyrone (-)
When the form of so many teammates was temporarily flagging, the permanent class of Sean Cavanagh dragged Tyrone over Meath. Perhaps this will be a déjà vu of 2008 when the Red Hand county became the only ever team to win the All-Ireland after entering the qualifiers in the first round, and perhaps Cavanagh will again be declared Footballer of the Year. As former star player Owen Mulligan tweeted during the game: “Sean Cav only Tyrone man on the pitch.” That was something of an exaggeration but it points out how influential he was — with Meath initially keeping him on his left foot but failing thereafter. Darren McCurry was another to stand up, Aidan Cassidy made a difference from the bench, while Colm Canavagh rose for some great catches when the pressure was on. There are worries in the sense that attack-minded centre-half Peter Harte leaves the back door unlocked, and it was down this route that Eamonn Wallace raided for an early goal. The best sides will charge down there too.

8. Meath (-)
You’d have to put this Tyrone defeat down to inexperience. Meath had their chances but they kept kicking them away – either through panicky shooting or by other lapses. Eamonn Wallace was at times electric but missed some great chances, and the fact that he was the only Meath man to score from play in the second half tells a story. In the first half, experienced defender Mickey Burke three times gifted scores to Tyrone for stupid fouls. Two that were kicked over directly and another when he coughed up possession in the opposition half, with the Red Hands quickly turning that into a point. It was needless and these sorts of moments meant the Royals could never push clear. Joe Sheridan was a decent kickout option but offered little from play, while Brian Farrell came in and could not quite get to the pitch of it. Mick O’Dowd is building something good here but it will take plenty more time. A good season.

9. Cavan (+1)
This game wasn’t about singing and dancing, it was about walking forward. Cavan were in a no-win scenario against London and were so clearly the better team, yet they got a little cocky and sloppy after going five points up in the first half. Credit to London for actually going a point ahead before half-time but they just hadn’t the firepower to convert second-half chances. The Breffni County ultimately won by nine but were no more than four points superior in terms of performance. An edgy showing but it was their first game in Croke Park, and first clash against a non-Ulster team in six championship games this year. Job done — though Kerry will represent a massive step up.

10. Laois (-1)
Much like with Kieran McGeeney in Kildare, people were keen to point out how Justin McNulty had a fine qualifier record. Against Donegal, he was looking for an eighth successive back-door success in two seasons but, like McGeeney against Tyrone, that all comes crashing down once you finally meet a big dog. It’s a fallacy based on beating mid-level sides, which they usually meet there. Had Kildare or Laois beaten the likes of a Cork, Kerry or a Tyrone in these qualifier runs, you’d say fair enough. For the O’Moore County, they were in prime position to dethrone the All-Ireland champions after the six-day turnaround from the Ulster final – and it didn’t happen. A tough draw but that would have truly defined a great qualifier record.

11. Derry (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
Galway were gallant in defeat to Cork but ultimately they just don’t have the player power right now. Paul Conroy is contributing well at midfield but he’s just too classy to not have in close to goals. But that’s the issue for a Tribe team that is lacking across the pitch. We would suggest that Cork’s poor selections and tactics were the reason that Galway were in the game, and that the likes of Dublin would have given them an unmerciful beating as Mayo had. They’ve recovered well from that loss in Connacht to get back this far but scraping past poor Tipp and Waterford sides before exposing a naïve Armagh challenge doesn’t fix everything.

15. Armagh (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
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 (-)
Gave their all against Cavan but it just wasn’t enough. It’s been quite a season for London but the truth is that much of it was down to the luck of the draw. They did exceptionally well to beat Sligo in Ruislip (which is soon to be modernised) and scrimped past fellow Division 4 side Leitrim — depleted because of disciplinary measures and an injury to star man Emlyn Mulligan — before being trod on by Mayo. Cavan may have won by nine points but that was most complimentary to Terry Hyland’s side. Paul Coggins has been doing a great job and, once the London board review that, he’ll surely be given an extension.

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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