GAA Football

State of the nation - has the top four become the top six?

In the second part of a two-part feature, Cahair O'Kane assesses how the top 16 teams in the country are shaping up ahead of another summer of Championship football

The league form of Monaghan and Galway has impressed.

1. Dublin

HAVING drawn three times last year, this was actually a better league campaign on the whole for the Dubs despite only taking one point from their final two games.

Brian Howard has slotted in well but their resources have been slightly stretched and while they still have injury worries, the likes of James McCarthy should be ready to go again by the time the Super 8s come around. Much of the chat around them continues to centre on whether Diarmuid Connolly will play this summer, with the answer becoming increasingly likely to be no.

Their league final performance was under-appreciated as they saw off everything a buoyant Galway had to throw at them, and they did it with 14 men for the last quarter. Nothing to unduly trouble them in Leinster, as per usual, and there are still only a small handful of teams with any chance of beating them.

Leinster SFC: Offaly / Wicklow v Dublin, May 26/27

Best provincial hope: Leinster champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland champions

Worst they’ll do: All-Ireland semi-final

Key man: Brian Fenton

2. Mayo

IF it’s not now then it may well be never. By the time this year’s All-Ireland final comes around, 12 of last year’s starting team will be 28 or older.

But there is still a very good chance that this could be the year. Their spring team has been practically unrecognisable at times and yet they survived in the top flight. Mayo got most of what they would have wanted from the league, with the exception of unearthing as many new players as Stephen Rochford might have hoped.

That is a long-term concern, while the loss of Lee Keegan to injury is a hammer blow but equally, a lot of their senior players will be coming at the championship fresh, gunning for a Galway side that has air in its tyres. Only a fool would discount them.

Connacht SFC: Galway v Mayo, May 13

Best provincial hope: Connacht champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland champions

Worst they’ll do: Super 8s

Key man: Kevin McLoughlin

3. Tyrone

IT wasn’t so much that the wheels came off against Dublin as it was a realisation that there is road left for this Red Hand team to travel. Most of the re-evaluation was in terms of their offensive play, which has taken another step forward this year.

Lee Brennan has added a spark to their attack and they have been looking to kick more, but they kicked plenty in the league and even Ulster last year too before going abandoning the idea against the Dubs. Monaghan will provide some test in Omagh, particularly if Colm Cavanagh is not fit, but they have enough to go through either door and still challenge for an All-Ireland.

Ulster SFC: Tyrone v Monaghan, May 20

Best provincial hope: Ulster champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland finalists

Worst they’ll do: Super 8s

Key man: Niall Sludden

4. Kerry

THE crisis calls seemed exceptionally premature when they were well beaten by Dublin in the second half of their mid-season league encounter.

Their attack had no experience beyond Paul Geaney and physically, despite their best efforts, their young guns simply aren’t at the level of a Dublin yet in that respect.

But they weren’t afraid to mix it and they were never in any danger of going down. They, like Mayo, will parachute a legion of experienced players back in and with a Munster final place all but guaranteed, expect that freshness to manifest itself later in the year.

They still have defensive issues and ultimately that could be what stands between them and the big one.

Munster SFC: Clare/Limerick v Kerry, June 2

Best provincial hope: Munster champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland champions

Worst they’ll do: All-Ireland semi-final

Key man: Paul Geaney

5. Monaghan

GALWAY took all the attention and the headlines and the plaudits away. Malachy O’Rourke won’t have cared, indeed he’ll have been happy to fly under the radar, but of all the teams at the top end, even above Galway or Dublin, surely Monaghan must be the happiest of all. Beating Tyrone, Kerry and Dublin in one season would ordinarily be a magnificent achievement, but its magnitude deepens further when you consider how they’ve given opportunities to so many players.

More than a stronger 15, they look like a stronger 26, and they’ve done it will also reimagining their style of play, integrating the idea of playing with three inside forwards at times. Could be a big summer ahead.

Ulster SFC: Tyrone v Monaghan, May 20

Best provincial hope: Ulster champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland finalists

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifiers

Key man: Conor McManus

6. Galway

IT’S a decade-and-a-half since the Tribe were a serious contender on the football field but after last year’s hurling success, hopes are growing of a similar fairytale for Kevin Walsh’s side.

But those hopes are very premature. They are on solid ground after a great league campaign and they will provide an ample test for any of the top eight in championship football, but it’s how many of them they would beat is the question.

Their counter-attacking gameplan is a foundation that they can build on over seasons ahead but it’s hard to see it winning an All-Ireland. Winning Connacht is very realistic but history tells us that those who get such a big start tend not to back it up with a big finish.

Connacht SFC: Galway v Mayo, May 13

Best provincial hope: Connacht champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland semi-finalists

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifiers

Key man: Damien Comer

7. Roscommon

THE Roscommon attack is exceptionally fluid and dangerous. Between the playmaking Murtagh brothers Ciaran and Diarmuid, the lethal left foot of Donie Smith, the power of Ciaran Lennon and the elusiveness of Conor Devaney, as well as returns for Cathal Cregg and Ian Kilbride, they are a heavy scoring team.

When it goes right, it can go very right as they showed in the Connacht final and the drawn Mayo game last year. But when it goes wrong, as it did in the replay, then they will be in bother. Their style leaves their defence exposed and that will be their downfall, but they are very capable of a serious scalp.

Connacht SFC: Leitrim/New York v Roscommon

Best provincial hope: Connacht champions

Best national hope: All-Ireland semi-finalists

Worst they’ll do: Super 8s

Key man: Diarmuid Murtagh

8. Donegal

ANY new manager will have a bedding-in period but given what Declan Bonner has been trying to achieve in his first six months, his has been tougher than most. Trying to bring Donegal out of their defensive shell has left him in a halfway house, admitting that they’ve at times been too open.

That’s led to them resorting back to their old ways during games and as it stands, nobody’s quite sure what their identity will be come summer. Some of their youngsters have stood up and done well, while Odhran Mac Niallais’ return has been a plus. If Patrick McBrearty carries his form on and Michael Murphy shakes off the rust, there’s possibly an Ulster title in them.

Ulster SFC: Donegal v Cavan, May 13

Best provincial hope: Ulster champions

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifiers

Key man: Michael Murphy

9. Kildare

KILDARE left Croke Park last July having hit a record score against Dublin for a Leinster final and been the first side in a while to be close to competitive, but all that optimism has been washed away by the tide that hit them in Division One. Cian O’Neill’s side were competitive but went down with seven straight defeats, and by his own admission feeling very low on confidence.

There is a provincial final place sitting waiting again but Westmeath will fancy it too. Ben McCormack opting off the panel is a blow to their attacking options but they are a pacy side that will cause problems. And given that they avoid Dublin until the provincial final, a Super 8s place is far from beyond them.

Leinster SFC: Louth/Carlow v Kildare, May 26/27

Best provincial hope: Leinster final

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifier

Key man: Kevin Feely

10. Cavan

AFTER securing promotion back to Division One, Mattie McGleenan apologised for not having got the best out of his players in year one. The truth was in the middle, with their deep-rooted defensive mentality taking longer to untangle than might have been expected.

But they have come out of their shells this spring and have not only been scoring well, but have shown the ability to come from behind and win a game, as they did so impressively against Tipperary. The road would open up in front of them if they could find a way to win in Ballybofey. A last eight place is not beyond them.

Ulster SFC: Donegal v Cavan, May 13

Best provincial hope: Ulster champions

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifier

Key man: Dara McVeety

11. Tipperary

THEY were never going to jump down off the season they had in 2016 and start reaching All-Ireland semi-finals every year, but their progress has been gradual and continued ever since. The second album last summer was always going to test them and after winning promotion, they were a bit flatter come championship, particularly against Cork.

They just missed out on another jump, which would have taken them into the top flight for the first time ever, but they learnt more than they lost out of that league campaign. When they go at teams, their pacy middle third can be a real torment. This is a good chance to nail down their standing ahead of Cork in the Munster pecking order.

Munster SFC: Tipperary v Waterford, May 19

Best provincial hope: Munster final

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round four qualifier

Key man: Michael Quinlivan

12. Armagh

KIERAN McGeeney was a man under pressure last year when his side lost to Down in Ulster, bringing a sharp focus back on their poor championship record to that point. But they have grown so much since then. Their qualifier run was one of the highlights of the summer as they beat Tipperary and Kildare, but the Tyrone defeat was a cruel reality check.

They were hit hard over the winter but have escaped Division Three with comfort and have bled a handful of new faces. It is a significant step forward and with their attacking talents, not least the excellent Andy Murnin, they are capable of embarking on a similar run. But they are on the hard side of the Ulster draw so there won’t be any further silverware.

Ulster SFC: Fermanagh v Armagh, May 19

Best provincial hope: Ulster semi-final

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round three qualifier

Key man: Andy Murnin

13. Clare

TIPPERARY’S rise has gained more prominence but over the last three years, Clare have been not far off their equal. The Banner have simply been unfortunate that, since they started on the upward curve in 2016, they’ve been on Kerry’s side of the provincial draw.

That’s the same this year and it still seems unlikely that they would push the Kingdom to any less than a half-dozen points at best. The likelihood is that they’ll drop into round two of the qualifiers and their progress will be harder earned.

A bit shy of competing with the top bracket yet but as they showed against Mayo in the first half last year, there is enough about them to be hopeful of sneaking into the top 8.

Munster SFC: Clare v Limerick, May 19

Best provincial hope: Munster semi-final

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round three qualifier

Key man: Gary Brennan

14. Cork

THEY were much closer to dropping another rung on the ladder than they were to hopping back into the top flight, but there were the mitigating factors of the Nemo Rangers contingent being absent, as well as injuries to key players like Aidan Walsh and Sean Powter. New boss Ronan McCarthy ended the league campaign happy that they were “in a good place”, and feeling like they had begun to click towards the tail end, giving Roscommon a scare on the final day.

But that perhaps says it all about where they are at – happy to give Roscommon a game. Colm O’Neill remains a class act in attack.

Ulster SFC: Tipperary/Waterford v Cork, June 2

Best provincial hope: Munster final

Best national hope: Super 8s

Worst they’ll do: Round three qualifier

Key man: Colm O’Neill

15. Fermanagh

RORY Gallagher has put a bit of bite back into his countymen after an insipid 2017, resulting in a hard-earned promotion back to Division Two.

They are not as defensively solid as they would like to be and they aren’t as fluid in attack either, yet they continue to be competitive and get results against the teams around them, taking a draw off Armagh and beating Longford in their quest to go up. The return of a leaner Seamus Quigley has helped them and they will be a lot more competitive this summer than last, but the constricted nature of their gameplan will put a low enough ceiling on their potential.

Ulster SFC: Fermanagh v Armagh, May 19

Best provincial hope: Ulster semi-final

Best national hope: Round four qualifier

Worst they’ll do: Round two qualifier

Key man: Seamus Quigley

16. Meath

AS they showed against Down, Meath still have the pace and guile in their attack to cut loose on the good days. Eamon Wallace, Graham Reilly, Cillian O’Sullivan, Donal Lenihan – they could cut you a new one if you let them.

Trouble for the Royals is that there just aren’t enough of those days any more. So downtrodden they’ve become that you find it hard to imagine them among the Super 8s. On a good day Longford might catch them but they won’t go past Dublin in the semi-final for sure, and that leaves them at the behest of the draw. They pushed Donegal to the wire last year and on a dry sod, they’d ask questions.

Leinster SFC: Longford v Meath, May 26/27

Best provincial hope: Leinster semi-final

Best national hope: Round four qualifier

Worst they’ll do: Round two qualifier

Key man: Graham Reilly

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