GAA Football

State of the nation - the bottom half

Cahair O'Kane runs his eye over the bottom half of the 33 teams involved in the All-Ireland SFC...

Down had a good summer in 2017 but after a poor league, it's hard to know where they stand. Picture by Philip Walsh

17. Down
LAST year marked their unpredictability, a rickety league campaign saved on the last day and leading to a championship run that took them into an Ulster final past Armagh and Monaghan. Yet they haven’t built and ended up getting relegated this time around, with a good start quickly unravelling. Their teamsheet is graced with plenty of talent but they lack the cohesion that would see them consistently produce. They’ll need to be a bit more unpredictable in their method this summer because, while Connaire Harrison will remain a big threat, everyone will know about it now.
Ulster SFC: Down v Antrim, May 26
Best provincial hope: Ulster semi-final
Best national hope: Round four qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round two qualifier
Key man: Connaire Harrison
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18. Westmeath
COLIN Kelly stepped off one promotion train and looked to have boarded another during the early weeks of the league campaign, but their hopes were brought to a sudden halt by Longford. Still, while they’ve bounced up and down the leagues for a decade and more now, it’s only in the last few years that this team has brought some consistency to their championship challenge. In John Heslin and Kieran Martin they have two fantastic footballers, and presuming they get past Laois or Wexford, there is enough around the fringes that they wouldn’t fear Kildare. A third Leinster final in four years is not beyond them, but winning it remains so.
Leinster SFC: Laois/Wexford v Westmeath, May 26/27
Best provincial hope: Leinster final
Best national hope: Super 8s
Worst they’ll do: Round two qualifier
Key man: John Heslin
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19. Longford
PERHAPS it’s just a mindset in Longford. They’ve admitted several times in recent years that their championship doesn’t begin until they get knocked out of Leinster, such is Dublin’s dominance, and yet they retain a frightening ability to gazump in the back door. Didn’t cause any shocks last year but were far from disgraced in Ballybofey. Only denied promotion by Seamus Quigley’s last kick and yet there is a school that would argue they were the best team in Division Three this year. Have every chance of beating Meath but, like the rest of the province, no chance of beating the Dubs. Don’t rule out another scalp this term.
Leinster SFC: Longford v Meath, May 26/27
Best provincial hope: Leinster semi-final
Best national hope: Round three qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Michael Quinn
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20. Sligo
FOR a while they looked safe and then for a while they looked gone, but ultimately Sligo will have taken great heart from fronting up when their place in Division Three was on the line. Their final day home win over Derry kept them up at the expense of the Ulster side and gave a fillip to their new boss, Tyrone native Cathal Corey. They drip-fed their more experienced players back in over the course of the league, although heading into summer without Mark Breheny and David Kelly will test them.
Connacht SFC: London v Sligo, May 6
Best provincial hope: Connacht semi-final
Best national hope: Round three qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Adrian Marren
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21. Laois
PROVED too strong for Division Four, their attack able to do as it pleased as they climbed back out of the bottom tier with very little fuss. Always looked the better side in the divisional final against a more defensive Carlow, and that was even without the country’s top scorer Gary Walsh, whose Twitter excursions seem to have been punished and forgiven by management, and who will be one to watch in summer. Their confidence could carry them down the track on the weaker side of the Leinster draw but they’re still not close to a challenge on that front.
Leinster SFC: Laois v Wexford, May 12
Best provincial hope: Leinster semi-final
Best national hope: Round three qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Gary Walsh
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22. Derry
THEIR league standing took a humbling downgrade in the spring as they were relegated to the bottom tier for the first time in generations, but some would argue that isn’t a true reading of their abilities. Damian McErlain has gone for youth, youth and more youth, and it’s been a tough learning curve. The re-integration of the Slaughtneil contingent will strengthen them defensively, and their attack has been going fairly well with little credit. They’ll be big underdogs for their Ulster opener but their championship displays of recent years have been an improvement.
Ulster SFC: Donegal/Cavan v Derry, May 27
Best provincial hope: Ulster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round four qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Brendan Rogers
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23. Carlow
THE rise continues. Next year will be their first time out of the bottom division since 1985 after they built on the momentum created by last summer’s exposure. They were exposed to the TV cameras, to the class of Dublin and Monaghan, and their battling efforts contributed to a new-found level of confidence that sent them up alongside Laois, having won the crucial game away from home against Antrim. Were beaten in the Croke Park decider and showed signs of still needing to find the right balance between defence and attack, but they’ll head for May buoyant once more.
Leinster SFC: Louth v Carlow, May 13
Best provincial hope: Leinster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round three qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Paul Broderick
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24. Louth
“IF we lose any more players, we’ll be down to the floorboards.” That was Pete McGrath’s assessment after watching his side fall to seven successive defeats in Division Two, the last of them to Meath on a day where he was only able to name five subs. Lost a huge chunk of the panel that had taken them up under Colin Kelly, and their struggles have left them devoid of confidence as they prepare to face the rising Carlow tide in their tricky Leinster opener. Will do well to avoid a first hurdle fall.
Leinster SFC: Louth v Carlow, May 13
Best provincial hope: Leinster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Ryan Burns
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25. Offaly
MANAGED to keep their heads somehow above water in Division Three, having looked like certainties for relegation in the early weeks. To their credit they improved and took five points from the last six to leapfrog both Wexford and Derry. You can’t help but feel for the winners of their game with Wicklow given the huge gulf in class between them and their next opponents-in-waiting, Dublin. Could also be without their manager Stephen Wallace along the line as he faces an eight-week ban for an altercation in a club game.
Leinster SFC: Offaly v Wicklow, May 13
Best provincial hope: Leinster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Nigel Dunne
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26. Wexford
THINGS looked up briefly at the start of last year when they got out of Division Four comfortably, but they have dropped straight back down after another disappointing campaign. It was no great surprise though, with new manager Paul McLoughlin losing over half of the team that started their 3-23 to 1-11 qualifier loss to Monaghan last summer. They are building from the ground up again, but it will be a slow process.
Leinster SFC: Laois v Wexford, May 12
Best provincial hope: Leinster semi-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Ben Brosnan
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27. Antrim
LENNY Harbinson’s first league campaign was undone by an unexpected draw at home to Wicklow that left them paddling furiously to try and keep up with Laois and Carlow. When they met the latter they were second best, but there is enough about them that suggests they are capable of putting it up to Down in their provincial opener. The defensive solidity is unquestioned at this stage but they’ve struggled for a consistent midfield, and haven’t got enough out of a forward line that contains some real talent.
Ulster SFC: Down v Antrim, May 26
Best provincial hope: Ulster semi-final
Best national hope: Round three qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Ryan Murray
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28. London
CIARAN Deely’s men took a significant step forward during this year’s league, just missing out on their best ever finish. They were never in contention to go up but they achieved a level of consistency in terms of their performance that will give rise to hopes of a decent summer. Says it all that they ran Laois closest of the lot. There’s unlikely to be any Connacht final given the side of the draw they’re on, but Sligo will not be relishing their trip to Ruislip one bit.
Connacht SFC: London v Sligo, May 6
Best provincial hope: Connacht semi-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Liam Gavaghan
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29. Leitrim
THEIR two wins came at the expense of Limerick and Wicklow, and both of them were borne of the sharpness of Keith Beirne in their forward division. Playing only five games won’t have helped their match sharpness and with New York threatening evermore to take a scalp, they will be extremely wary of their trip Stateside. Emlyn Mulligan’s return is a fair boost also.
Connacht SFC: New York v Leitrim, May 6
Best provincial hope: Connacht semi-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Keith Beirne
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30. Limerick
MANAGED to maintain a level of competitiveness in all but one of their games, namely the 2-18 to 1-9 defeat by Leitrim. When you’ve only ever won one provincial minor (1956) and one provincial under-21 title (2000), and haven’t seen a final in either code since 2001, and you’re in against heartlands of rugby and hurling, it’s hard to forge any other path. Billy Lee used 32 different players in the league but they will be unfancied against Clare.
Munster SFC: Clare v Limerick, May 19
Best provincial hope: Munster semi-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Jamie Lee
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31. Waterford
THEIR flirtation with the limelight in the early part of the year has all been their manager’s doing, first picking up an eight-week ban and then angrily reacting to the GAA’s decision to cancel the games that were missed because of the bad weather. Came within a whisker of upsetting Cork last year but face an arguably more difficult task against Tipperary this time.
Munster SFC: Tipperary v Waterford, May 19
Best provincial hope: Munster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: Tommy Prendergast
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32. Wicklow
JOHN Evans has been unable to weave any magic on the Garden men so far, finishing bottom of the whole pile without a win to their name. They had enough steel in their bones to dig in and wreck Antrim’s promotion hopes by salvaging a gritty draw in Corrigan Park. Seanie Furlong remains a key cog at full-forward but there are doubts over whether he will be around for the summer. Will do well to get a win in summer.
Leinster SFC: Offaly v Wicklow, May 13
Best provincial hope: Leinster quarter-final
Best national hope: Round two qualifier
Worst they’ll do: Round one qualifier
Key man: James Stafford
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33. New York
THE great unknowns, the country will get its first idea of what they’ll have when they play All-Ireland club champions Corofin in a challenge game on April 26. What we do know is that Jamie Clarke will be on hand to torment the Leitrim defence a few weeks later. Wexford’s Kevin O’Grady is another who could be added after a recent transfer, though Ross Wherity has returned to Donegal. They have edged oh-so-close to that elusive first ever win in recent years and there is a sense that this could well be their best chance of all.
Connacht SFC: New York v Leitrim, May 6
Best provincial hope: Connacht semi-final
Best national hope: N/A
Worst they’ll do: Connacht quarter-final
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* See Monday's Irish News for the rundown on the top 16 - no surprises who's number one, but has the group around them gotten bigger and closer?

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