OpinionPat Spillane

All-Ireland champions will come from top division

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Making Hayes: Tyrone's Ryan McKenna tackles John Hayes of Cork
Making Hayes: Tyrone's Ryan McKenna tackles John Hayes of Cork

TODAY’s break from action in Division 1 of the Allianz League gives us an ideal opportunity to review how the campaign has gone so far.

Has the action given any pointers to likely trends in the All-Ireland?
 
For one of the few times in my life I have to agree with the comment made by Mickey Harte a few years ago, when he said that no team outside of Division 1 will win the All-Ireland. So this review is solely concerned with Division 1 teams.
 
It has been an interesting campaign, full of twists and turns. Apart from Derry, who face relegation, the other seven teams are still in the hunt for semi-final slots. This review, though, carries a health warning: league performances can be misleading!
 
We have no idea what’s happening behind closed doors in each camp. Teams may be undertaking heavy training, they could be tweaking their playing system or experimenting with new tactics and all the teams are introducing fresh faces − the majority of whom won’t see action in the championship.
 
Only Cork and Derry have been consistent: Derry have been consistently poor whereas Cork has been consistently good.
 
Inconsistency has been the hallmark of the other six teams’ performances. Mayo, for example, looked highly motivated and defensively well organised against Kerry, but were listless, naive and off the pace at home against Dublin last weekend.
 
The bottom line is that there is no rationale for some of the performances we have witnessed − but then it is only the league. So let’s look at how the eight Division 1 teams have fared so far in 2015...

Cork

So far they are been the most impressive team in the Division and deserve to be top of the table. Their performances have been all more remarkable given that they lost Aidan Walsh, Damian Cahalane and Alan Cadogan to the hurlers before the season started. 

They are the top scorers in the division with 7-71 and the in-depth strength of the squad is underlined by the fact that Paul Kerrigan, Donncha O’Connor, Daniel Goulding and John Hayes came off the bench last Sunday.

Tactically they’re more astute now – they have perfected the blanket defence/counterattacking style, though they have the capacity to vary their approach. Against Kerry, for example, they were far more offensive and it paid off.

The other key factor in their revival has been the recruitment of ex-Kerry trainer Pat Flanagan as their new strength and conditioning coach. Arguably he is the best in the business. 

On the negative side I’m not convinced that they have found a settled midfield pairing – the loss of Aidan Walsh is incalculable. 

Verdict: We have been here before with Cork.  Last year they were fantastic in the League but flopped in the semi-final and never recovered.  And there is the little matter of a likely trip to Killarney for the Munster final.

Mayo

It’s something of a surprise that they occupy second place given how poor they were in Castlebar against both Tyrone and Dublin. Methinks they could be in a false position; their three wins came against an understrength and ill prepared Kerry; Monaghan played against them with 13 men and Derry have struggled all season.

On a positive note there are signs that youngsters Patrick Durcan and Stephen Coen might make the grade while the experimenting of playing Aidan O’Shea at full forward is worth persisting with. It is very difficult to explain away last weekend’s woeful effort against Dublin. In front of a massive home ground they were particularly listless. 

Tactically they were naive; going toe to toe with Dublin was pure Kamikaze.  They look like a team stuck between two stools: should they stick with their running game or kick the ball.

Cillian O’Connor remains their only class forward and despite being very experienced their senior players are not showing sufficient leadership.

Verdict: It could be a case that everything will be right on the night come the championship but were I a Mayo fan I would be getting a little jittery.

Monaghan

When it comes to setting up defensively against a team who have a similar set-up they are superb. They restricted Donegal, for example, to just five scores. Their problems are at the other end of the field.  Their tally of 2-64 is the second lowest in the division. They are almost completely reliant on Conor McManus, their only class forward.  

It was intuitive to note that against a poor Derry side only one other forward apart from McManus managed to score.  They lack pace in too many areas and they struggle against the attack minded teams such as Dublin and Kerry.

Verdict: They need a plan B if but they don’t have the personnel to carry it out.

Kerry

They say a week is a long time in politics it is even longer in football.  Had I written this article after Kerry’s woeful performance Cork I would have been quite downbeat. However, after watching them produce an impressive display against Donegal I have a different outcome on their future.

What is pleasing is the emergence of young players such as Mark Griffin, Jonathan Lyne, Pa Kilkenny, Jack Sherwood and Alan Fitzgerald who are staking their claim for first team action while others such as Johnny Buckley, Barry John Keane and Stephen O’Brien are becoming more influential.

The key is their centre field pairing which is the best in the business with David Moran maturing into arguable the top midfielder in the country. On the negative front one cannot discount the two bad defeats particularly the most recent one against Cork. Defensively they have struggled – their concession of 8-52 means that statistically they have the worst defence In Division 1.  The return of Kieran Donaghy means they are a bit one dimensional and the better teams will cuss this out.

Verdict:  Eamon Fitzmaurice can only pick 15 and a lot of the big guns won’t be back until after the League. Getting his best 15 on the field and getting a game plan for them could be his biggest headache. .

Dublin

Now that they are back to close to full strength they are a different animal. Defensively they are a lot tighter this season; the half backs are staying in place and their half forwards and midfielders are retreating. Has it it worked? Most definitely!  

They have the best defensive record in the division conceding 1-63. Better still a batch of guys such as Emmet O Conghaile,  John Small, Dean Rock and in particular Tomas Brady - who has been a revelation this spring – are pressing the established players.

Again like last year Jim Gavin doesn’t know for sure what his best 15 are. The jury is still out on midfield – they got an awful pasting in this sector in Killarney and we know from their feeble effort against Tyrone that they struggle to cope when faced with a blanket defence.

Verdict: Jim Gavin has a similar problem to Eamon Fitzmaurice; getting a settled 15 and honing a game plan based on that selection.

Donegal

They possess one of the most experienced squads in the game. Rory Gallagher is following a similar template to this predecessor and Paddy McBrearty is blossoming into one of the best forwards in the game.  But the fact that they conceded 2-13 against Kerry suggests that their blanket defence is struggling.

There are several reasons for this: there is a definite lack of pace in the sector; they’re not as proficient at retreating back as they once were after losing possession and they’re vulnerable when run at.

Kerry gave a master class in diagonal kicking which exposed the blanket. Midfield is off the pace; they struggle when teams set-up as defensive as themselves and they still haven’t a clue as to how best to utilise their best player Michael Murphy.

Verdict: Their game plan needs to be tweaked as it has been cussed and they need fresh legs.

Tyrone

They showed admirable spirit to come from behind to force a draw against Derry and the use of the blanket defence was very effective when beating Mayo and drawing with Dublin, Darren McCurry continues to show his class while Padraig McNulty has been an interesting addition to midfield.

Their problems are at the other end of the field. Together with Derry they have the worst scoring record (3-53) and are averaging 12 points a game. Against Cork last Sunday they failed to score from play in the second half. The forwards are light are too often they become isolated.  Sean Cavanagh is needed both at full forward and centre field though I believe he’s at his best when running at defences.  

Verdict: When you see Mickey Harte declining to do post match interviews it is a sure sign that he is under pressure. He is in Last Chance Saloon territory and this pressure transits itself to the players,.

Derry

They are still seeking their first victory – which says it all. Clutching at straws the Slaughtneil players have been absence while Mark Lynch missed a game and a half through suspicion. But the real problems are up front where they have averaged just 12 points a game.  

They bear all the hallmarks of a team showing suffering from post- traumatic stress still haven’t recovered from the hammering they received from Dublin in the League final last year.

Verdict: Difficult times ahead for Brian McIvor and the performance of Slaughtneil in the club final would have done nothing to allay his fears.