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Danny Hughes picks his Allianz Football League 'Halfway Heroes'

Conor McManus has made an impact in the first half of the League despite limited gametime, while Down's Darren O'Hagan has continued on his upward curve and established himself as one of the best defenders in Ulster Picture by Seamus Loughran

PUTTING together a starting 15 for any team can be difficult.

After the cancellations of games and the general lack of activity given the weather, I suspect this will not be the first time we will have a fixtures congestion.

I fear this will be an annual occurrence. God knows we cannot even guarantee decent weather for the Championship so compacting seven League games and a final into seven to eight weeks commencing in January will inevitably lead to potential congestion problems.

Despite this, the focus is on the players and, at the halfway point, it will be interesting to see if my best 15 could possibly be the same after the League finishes or, even better, similar to an Irish News Ulster Allstar selection later in the year.

1: Rory Beggan (Monaghan)

NOT just based on Monaghan’s win against Tyrone, Beggan has almost single-handedly secured Monaghan’s status in Division One once again.

Wins against Kerry and Tyrone further cemented him as a key cog in the Monaghan machine and his vision from frees, and indeed play, make him among the best in the country currently. Keeping a clean sheet between the sticks has also played its part in my selection. He can thank his full-back line too.

2: Darren O’Hagan (Down)

O'HAGAN started this year with an injury and, combined with exhaustion (because of his honeymoon travels), had a slow start to the year.

However, against Cork and in the subsequent win against Roscommon and defeat to Clare, he stood head and shoulders above all other Down players. He is consistently excellent and rarely has a poor game. He displays all the attributes of a Down footballer in terms of confidence, tenacity, aggression and ability.

3: Conor Boyle (Monaghan)

IF Rory Beggan was my pick for goalkeeper, he can thank his full-back, with Conor Boyle having been assigned to a significant number of the star forwards on the opposition teams.

Boyle has performed admirably against Kerry’s Paul Geaney and Mayo’s Cillian O’Connor and co. Decisive tests lie ahead, particularly in the capital. Dublin could make or break any man’s season, even at this early stage.

4: Eoghan Ban Gallagher (Donegal)

THEY may not have picked up many points, but Donegal are emerging as real contenders for the Ulster final in 2018. He has pedigree with his father having represented Donegal with distinction at county level.

It is a real factor in all walks of life to have pedigree and Gallagher, with U21 success behind him, can have no fears at senior level. He has performed very well against marquee names to date and, if his progression continues, Paddy McGrath could well have a young rival for the shirt.

5: Karl O’Connell (Monaghan)

REVERTS between midfield and half-forward depending on the opposition, however, he is most comfortable at right or left half-back.

He has excellent pace, ball skills and now has the experience at inter-county level to go with it.

Has become a real leader in Monaghan and his consistency of performance is a real positive going into the Championship.

6: Ciaran Brady (Cavan)

Playing for Cavan cannot be easy sometimes. They can be infuriatingly inconsistent and pull results from nowhere. Just when you think, right, they could kick on here, Cavan somehow wilt.

Brady has been exceptional in 2018 so far and is driving the team forward. As a result, it is Cavan who are now on top of the second division.

Mattie McGleenan is a shrewd manager and will be expecting a much better Ulster Championship campaign from Cavan in 2018. If Brady continues in his current form, I see no reason why Cavan cannot continue in the current vein, secure promotion and improve on last year’s Championship.

7: Drew Wylie (Monaghan)

WYLIE is playing further out the field this year and it seems to have and a positive effect. Endured a difficult 2017 in the Championship with poor enough showings against Down and Dublin in Croke Park.

He has been a brilliant servant to Monaghan and has been Monaghan’s best and most consistent defender down the years. Looks to have rediscovered form and he will hope that this continues into the Championship. A warrior who has the experience to bounce back from bad days. He hasn’t suffered any yet.

8: Mattie Donnelly (Tyrone)

Well, what can I say about Tyrone’s best player that I haven’t said already? The score against Kildare was an obvious high point and broke the losing streak; however, he has consistently been able to step up in quality year on year no matter who the opposition has been.

It is a measure of any player to be able to confidently say that he would get into any team in the country. Should Donnelly stay injury-free, Tyrone, can remain confident that an Anglo-Celt Cup will not be far away.

9: Colm Cavanagh (Tyrone)

Although the system is greater than any one Tyrone player, Cavanagh does exactly what it says on the tin.

Continues to heavily influence Tyrone’s winning of primary possession and tackles furiously.

He is not a scoring midfielder and never has been. And despite Tyrone’s poor run of form, he continues to be one of Tyrone’s most influential midfielders.

To ensure that they can retain Division One status and retain the Anglo-Celt, Cavanagh will have to have another outstanding year. Such is his influence, should Cavanagh have an off-day, Tyrone will be in real trouble.

10: Dara McVeety (Cavan)

THE man to watch for Cavan, he is scoring freely and has been instrumental in Cavan assuming pole position in Division Two. The League is a great test of his character and ability to make the step up to the performances required for the Championship.

11: Odhran Mac Niallais (Donegal)

SOME outstanding performances and four games in, has showed us all, including the Donegal supporters just what they were missing last year.

He is one of the most talented players in the country right now and is assuming a bit more of a leadership quality perhaps lacking in previous campaigns.

A year away has certainly had a positive effect based on matches so far and should he continue his form, I would certainly see him as influential as Michael Murphy. He was unplayable against Kerry in Killarney.

12: Ryan McHugh (Donegal)

McHUGH is a just a classy footballer, full stop. He covers huge swathes of ground in any match and, combined with important scores, his consistency in League football is simply brilliant.

Having experienced similar punishment over the years, not many football supporters out there appreciate the physicality one has to endure and McHugh has certainly never shirked in this department. A class act.

13: Paddy McBrearty (Donegal)

One of the best corner-forwards in the country right now, never mind Ulster. Donegal are a lot more positive going forward and, while this may not have always ended up in League points, this has enabled Paddy to thrive.

Against Dublin and Kerry, McBrearty was brilliant and this bodes well for Donegal in relieving the pressure off Murphy’s shoulders.

14: Conor McManus (Monaghan)

MONAGHAN are truly blessed to have McManus in the full-forward line.

He has been one of the best forwards in Ireland in the last five years consistently. One year older, one year wiser and nothing has diminished.

Continues to haunt defenders all around him. May lack the medals to show for his ability, however, lacks none of the recognition as one of the best around.

15: Ethan Rafferty (Armagh)

RAFFERTY is beginning to look like the footballer Armagh fans have talked about for so long.

He has helped in allowing the Orchardmen to cement their position as leaders in Division Three with important scores at vital times.

Rafferty has matured in terms of decision-making and is becoming much more accurate as a result. He will be looking forward to the Championship based on his initial contributions in 2018.

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