Ulster counties central to big weekend in Allianz Football League
AS we have come to expect, the Allianz Football League has thrown up plenty of great fixtures. Compared to the early rounds of the Championship, we are somewhat spoiled with intriguing and hard-to-call fixtures.
This weekend we have another key round of fixtures where, particularly for Ulster sides, there is a bit more than just two League points at stake.
Many relegation/promotion battles will take decisive turns this weekend across the four divisions, with Ulster teams to the fore in the narrative.
Division One, with Dublin being, well, Dublin. is something of a foregone conclusion, but the relegation battle has a way to go yet.
The Red Hands’ good win over Donegal showed that the early-season tinkering is starting to pay off.
In saying that, with how Donegal set up, Tyrone got to play their full counter-attacking game and once again Donegal couldn’t live with it.
Mayo this weekend are unlikely to play into Tyrone’s hands, but it is the ideal time for such a test for Mickey Harte’s side and gives them a great chance to exit the relegation battle with a round in hand.
Monaghan’s loss to Galway effectively removes them from the League final permutations unless Dublin lose two matches in-a-row.
Given that there is more chance of my neighbour’s donkey winning a race at Cheltenham, it seems safe to assume it will be a Galway v Dublin final.
While I imagine there is minimal disappointment in the Farney camp at avoiding a League final meeting with Dublin, I don’t expect them to roll over against Donegal as that would risk losing a lot of their good early-season momentum.
Declan Bonner’s outfit are on the very edge of relegation and whilst the Tir Chonaill boss has said it wouldn’t be the end of the world, it still is far from ideal for any team with serious aspirations either this year or next.
Without Patrick McBrearty and with Michael Murphy still to find his usual form, they looked limited up front against Tyrone, while at the back they were completely opened up on too many occasions to brush under the carpet.
This weekend is a decent chance for Donegal to regain some of their early-season momentum and give them a fighting chance of survival to take into their final game away to Mayo.
The other divisions are where the tastiest action is.
IN Division Two, Cavan’s early-season form is in for its biggest test. Their five wins on the trot in is the source of much optimism – but the caveat is that those wins have come against the poorest teams in the division.
Their final two games against Roscommon and Tipperary, the other two teams at the top of the second tier, will be a more accurate barometer of progress.
All three teams have made serious progress in the middle batch of games and this is a great mini-test as to where all three are situated. A win on either weekend will see Cavan return to Division One. A clean sweep isn’t outside their capability, but home advantage in their final game against Tipp looks like the more likely bet than this weekend’s trip to Dr Hyde Park.
At the other end, it is time to see if Down can repeat their escape act from last year, where they clinched their survival in
injury-time of the last game against Cork and effectively turned their season around in the process.
Tipperary are in excellent form, scoring 2-17 and 2-15 in their last two clashes and they will provide a tough test.
Being in Newry doesn’t appear to offer much comfort either given Down’s recent home form.
The Mournemen, though, are anything but predictable, so nothing would surprise me – but I imagine it will come down to a winner-takes-all clash away to Meath in their last game for Down to pull off another Houdini act.
IN Division Three, Westmeath’s last-gasp win at home to Fermanagh last week appears highly significant.
So much so that a win this weekend against upcoming Ulster Championship opponents Armagh, would still leave promotion out of Fermanagh’s own hands. Indeed, with final games against an in-form Westmeath team and Longford away, I think despite Fermanagh’s encouraging form they will fail to secure promotion. In saying that, if performances remain decent, Messrs. Gallagher and McMenamin will still be well pleased with Fermanagh’s early-season work.
Armagh, meanwhile, have shown a ruthlessness and consistency which they were lacking last year, making short work of their Division Three stablemates to date.
Their ability to get over an improved Derry last week, despite losing a number of key players, was notable.
Speaking to one Armagh man this week, he simply said they are really playing for the jersey now. That apparently basic – yet often absent – commodity augurs well for Kieran McGeeney’s side and I expect them to complete their promotion bid this weekend.
Elsewhere, it’s fair to say Damian McErlain and Derry have had a tough opening to the year.
A thin and inexperienced squad has struggled in Division Three, but in losing to Armagh they probably at times produced their best football of the year to date. Wexford, rock bottom of the table, comes at a perfect time for them and I expect with more men returning, including members of the Slaughtneil contingent, that they will get the win here. With Sligo in the final game, the potential of finishing the League with six points and back-to-back wins is very much there.
Given where they seemed to be a few weeks back, this would be a huge turnaround and create a much more positive environment to bring into their Championship preparations.
IN Division Four, Antrim have been producing solid displays as the new management and panel settle in.
They still have promotion in their own hands, but face a difficult run-in against table-toppers Carlow and an away trip to Limerick. The home game this weekend is crucial.
Carlow are a well-drilled outfit under trainer Stephen Poacher and their defensive system in a tight Corrigan Park will be very difficult to break down.
To stand any chance of promotion, though, Antrim will have to find a way through to then bring things to that final game in Limerick.
All in all, plenty of interest throughout the divisions.
Already there are signs that the teams in bother earlier in the season could finish on highs and teams that were going well early doors could yet fall short. Survival and momentum are key, one for next year and one for this year.
Both are up for grabs for all in these final games.