kingdom coming Pat Spillane's verdict on who is emerging as favourites for All-Ireland glory
A friend rang me last week to discuss Kerry’s performance against Monaghan.
He was worried that a big showing in February wouldn’t cut the mustard in September.
I reminded him that the championship will be well done and dusted by then!
The reason I’m telling this story is because most people don’t realise the impact a July All-Ireland football final is already having.
The inter-county football schedule is the GAA’s version of speed dating.
There are five postponed games being played this weekend. Then we have four consecutive weekends of action, culminating in the divisional league finals on the first weekend in April.
Following a two-week break, the provincial championships will then be completed over the next five weekends.
So the majority of counties are now fielding as close to full-strength teams as they can.
The players are fitter than they would normally be in February or early March and, when weather conditions have permitted, we have witnessed some quality football.
Trust me, my friend, players and managers are already thinking about the 2022 championship.
So, after four rounds of the league this is an appropriate time to compile a top-ten list.
I’ve deliberately concentrated on Division 1 teams, because ultimately the All-Ireland winners in July will come from the top flight.
Unbeaten in 12 League games, Kerry are on course for a third league title on the spin.
David Clifford and Sean O’Shea are on top of their game, while Diarmuid O’Connor is turning into the kind of midfielder Kerry folk always thought he would become.
What’s different about Kerry under Jack O’Connor this year is their work-rate off the ball, their tackling, the turnovers and the swarm defence.
Players are not taking the ball into contact; instead they’re kicking it more frequently.
Their deployment of a two-man, full-forward line, while using Tadhg Morley as a sweeper, is working well, and they haven’t conceded a goal from open play this year.
But the Kingdom have also been closer to full strength than any of their rivals so far in the league.
They are still searching for the perfect midfield pairing and are probably over dependent on Clifford and O’Shea.
There is also a concern about their time-table.
Unlike, most of their rivals for Sam, Kerry have the prospect of down time this season.
If Kerry keep winning matches, they have a five-week break from a probable appearance in the Allianz League final until the Munster semi-final against Cork.
Then there’s a three-week break to the Munster final – followed by a four-week break to the All-Ireland quarter-final.
Remember, they didn’t handle the unscheduled long break last year between the provincial final and their ill-fated clash against Tyrone very well.
VERDICT: All looks rosy; but we still have nightmares about what happened in the sequel to Kerry’s 16-point demolition of Tyrone last June in the league semi-final.
Like Kerry they are unbeaten – but the big difference is that James Horan has used the League to blood newcomers – and, arguably, they now have more impact substitutes than any of their rivals.
There are other positive signs as well.
Ryan O’Donoghue is developing into a top-class forward; Diarmuid O’Connor looks rejuvenated; Oisín Mullin has opted to stay at home, Cillian O’Connor is on the way back after injury and Aidan O’Shea’s game-management skills when he comes off the bench have added a new dimension to their play.
My worry for them is that with Tommy Conroy out for the season, they are still short of top-class forwards.
VERDICT: They have successfully bounced back after producing their worst ever All-Ireland final performance.
Joint third on five points, Armagh have had a more than decent league to date.
They have talented forwards, play an attractive game, their replacement bench is now stronger than before, and their much-maligned defence has improved.
The positioning of Jarly Óg Burns at wing-back has added an extra dimension to their game, and Rian O’Neill is now among the top forwards in the game.
On the negative side, their inability to close out the game against Mayo last Sunday, even though they had wind advantage, was concerning.
VERDICT: We will know much more about their potential after they play Donegal in both their final League game (in Letterkenny) and their Ulster quarter-final Championship tie (in Ballybofey) on April 24.
One has to admire their mental fortitude. After an appalling performance against Kerry, they showed great resolve to come back and beat the All-Ireland champions last weekend, without both Michael Murphy and Michael Langan.
They upped the work rate and the players on the field showed great leadership.
Colm O’Donnell and Shane O’Donnell were excellent, while Oisín Gallen is back from injury.
They’re a different team when they play in Ballybofey.
VERDICT: Will keep their place in the top flight, and are capable of winning an Ulster title. However, I don’t believe they are any nearer breaking the glass ceiling and becoming a top four side.
The key thing is that they laid down a marker last Sunday and beat Dublin.
Even if the Lilies end up being relegated, the league will have been a success because after two decades of failure they finally beat Dublin.
Physically, they are a powerful side, but they are also athletic and when they go direct their two-man full-forward line of Daniel Flynn and Jimmy Hyland is capable of doing serious damage.
Players who featured on the 2018 All-Ireland Under-20 winning side like Hyland, Tony Archbold, Anthony Masterson, Paddy Woodgate and Darragh Ryan are now making an impact at senior level and Kevin Feely is back.
VERDICT: By the time the championship comes around the edge they have in fitness will be gone and none of their key gampionship games will be played in Newbridge, where Kildare play their best football.
They were the last county back training and I’m not sure how serious ly they are taking the league.
Darragh Canavan is making a strong bid for a regular first-team slot – and once he improves, his scoring rate he will pose a serious threat.
But their second-half performance against Donegal was most un-Tyrone like.
Their game management and shot selection left much to be desired.
Losing can become a habit, too – and their last three games are against Dublin (h), Mayo (h) and Kerry (a).
It would ironic if Kerry was the county to send them down to Division 2.
VERDICT: I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.
Lost to Mayo and Kerry but drew with Tyrone and Armagh.
They should have beaten the All-Ireland champions.
They were at their warrior best against the Orchard County, when they survived despite playing for 40 minutes with 14 men, and ten minutes with 13 players.
Though they excel at keeping possession, it is also Monaghan’s Achilles heel.
It has become possession for possession’s sake, as we saw in last year’s Ulster final and again in the recent tie against Armagh.
They lack penetration and are not getting their best shooters on the ball often enough.
Many of Monaghan’s key players have a lot of football miles in their legs and their second-half performance against Kerry was woeful.
Goalkeeper Rory Beggan (below) needs to forget about wanting to be a 15th outfield player.
It was only a matter of time until a cuter team who can kick the ball long find him out.
VERDICT: Monaghan are the GAA’s version of Aston Villa. They are competitive in Division 1 but will not make it to the next level.
Had they not butchered three straightforward goal chances against Kildare, there would be a different narrative about Dublin this week.
I’m not going to write them off, because I believe form is temporary and class is permanent.
Furthermore, big-match players James McCarthy, Con O’Callaghan, Cormac Costello and Eoin Murchan have still to return – and I can’t imagine Niall Scully, Dean Rock or even Brian Fenton being as ineffective in the Leinster Championship. Lee Gannon is a decent find and Sean Bugler is getting better.
But there is no evidence that the so-called third wave of talent is out there, even if we know Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne and James Doran are also out injured.
Like we wrote earlier, losing becomes a habit and opponents now sense opportunity when they face Dublin. The biggest issues is their game plan: their kick-out strategy has gone awry; their full-back line is being continually exposed; their transition is too slow and their forwards are not showing for the ball.
Their statistics are damning; they are the only team in the competition without a league point and only Carlow, Down, Cork and Offaly have a worse scoring difference.
VERDICT: They can still avoid relegation, but I can’t see the Dubs winning an All-Ireland this season.
Rory Gallagher’s side are not just the most improved team in the league, they are the most impressive – even if they are operating in Division 2. They have the best scoring difference (+37) and the lowest concession rate (30 points).
VERDICT: The big test will come in the Ulster quarter-final, where they are likely to face Tyrone.
10 (JOINT) GALWAY AND ROSCOMMON
Until they meet in Round 7 of the league, I will wait to separate this pair.
Shane Walsh is flying for Galway, scoring 2-7 against Cork, while Sean Kelly is developing into a top-class footballer. I have two reservations; Galway still have to play the two best teams in the division – Derry and Roscommon – and they conceded a whopping 2-17 against a Cork side which didn’t feature its best forward, Brian Hurley, last weekend.
Once again Roscommon have found their level in this division. They are unbeaten but have still to face Derry and Galway. They will have one eye on the championship because, having avoided Galway and Mayo on their side of the draw, the Rossies are on course for a place in the Connacht final.
VERDICT: Their March 27 tie in Hyde Park is likely to be a promotion shoot-out.
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