State of the Nation: The top 12
Andy Watters completes his rundown of football's 32 county sides. No prizes for guessing who's number one...
FIVE in-a-row and counting. The Dubs remain number one, top of the heap, kings of the Hill and the team to beat.
They are so far ahead of most counties that a 10-point loss to the Dubs has now become almost a badge of honour for some of their former rivals.
Jim Gavin’s men were beaten three times in the League but remained invincible in the Championship and it was a relief that Kerry pushed them so hard in the All-Ireland final.
Dublin were beginning to pull away when Jonny Cooper was sent off for a foul on David Clifford. That levelled things up and with five minutes left Kerry looked like winning but they lost their nerve just slightly and Dublin drew level and even missed a chance to win the game.
The replay was level at half-time but the Dubs proved once again that they are almost impossible to shut down. Jack McCaffrey had scored 1-3 in the drawn game from wing back but barely featured in attack in the replay and was taken off injured at the break but Eoin Murchan’s goal seconds after the restart put Dublin on the road to a by six-point win.
The prospect of retirements gives hope to some optimists and the likes of Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh MacAuley and Rory O’Carroll may have thinking to do over the winter but Dublin are going nowhere.
A FORCE to be reckoned with again. Kerry made massive strides in 2019 and they should continue to improve as a talented and successful group of underage players makes their way to the senior scene.
In the likes of David Clifford, Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney and Stephen O’Brien, Kerry have as good an attacking unit as there is in the country while their cohesion and conditioning and the performance of their much-maligned defence in the All-Ireland double-header against Kerry should give Kingdom fans real cause for optimism for the future.
With the thoughtful Peter Keane installed as successor to Eamonn Fitzmaurice, the Kingdom’s only defeat in their run to the Division One final was against Galway in Tralee. They topped the table and took on Mayo in an entertaining final, but lost the grip on the game in the second half and came out on the wrong end of a 3-11 to 2-10 scoreline.
Losing the decider after such a good campaign was a setback but Kerry maintained their stranglehold on the Munster Championship with their seventh title on-the-trot despite a Cork rally in the final.
The Super 8s saw them grouped with Mayo, Donegal and Meath. After beating the Westerners they locked horns with Donegal in one of the games of the season. It finished in a draw and Kerry went on to see off Meath to progress to a semi-final with Tyrone.
The Red Hands were in control of the first half but they did not twist the knife and Stephen O’Brien’s goal saw Kerry progress what turned out to be a classic final.
Dublin were aiming to do what the great Kerry team could not in 1982 – win five in-a-row. Five minutes from time in the final it seemed Kerry would win it but Dublin would not be beaten. It ended in a draw and the Dubs won the replay.
So four finals played, two lost, one drawn and Munster won. Disappointment for a young group but the key is to keep them together and if Kerry can do that they are the best bet to break Dublin’s choke-hold on the Sam Maguire. Not next year though.
A THIRD All-Ireland semi-final in-a-row for Mickey Harte’s men represents a commendable achievement for the Red Hands.
In the League, Tyrone recovered from a sluggish start to win their last four games (including against Dublin at Croke Park) and finished third in the table.
There was a noticeable change of tactics with a kicking strategy to full-forward pair Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly to complement the running game that had taken Tyrone to the 2018 All-Ireland final.
Tyrone did not look the finished article in Ulster. They survived a scare from Derry and were then opened up and well beaten by Donegal at the semi-final stage.
Mickey Harte’s men were too good for whoever they ran into in the Qualifiers and Longford, Kildare and Cavan were beaten as Tyrone secured a spot in the Super 8s. They began that phase by beating Roscommon at Hyde Park and then came from behind to beat a resurgent Cork side and book their spot in the last four.
A ‘dead rubber’ third round game against Dublin amounted to a phoney war in Omagh with both sides playing second string teams and when the serious business of a semi-final with Kerry resumed Tyrone played with poise and precision in the first half. They had the Kingdom in deep trouble but lacked the ruthlessness to land the knockout blow and left themselves open to a Kerry comeback.
It came in the second period and Stephen O’Brien’s goal meant Tyrone bowed out after a three-point defeat.
Finishing third in the League and taking an All-Ireland semi-final spot is a good season. Tyrone fans want to see progress but could another manager do more with the group of players available? Probably not.
The double exit of Peter Donnelly and Stephen O’Neill from the backroom team were a blow but Kevin Madden has been drafted in for next season.
OLD dogs for the hard road which was also long and winding this year. It came to an end at the All-Ireland semi-final stage and the westerners got there despite having to play Down (in Newry), Armagh, Galway (in Limerick), Kerry (in Killarney) and Meath (in Dublin) over five consecutive weekends; a grossly unfair schedule for amateur players.
To their credit, Mayo (who’d been knocked out of Connacht by Roscommon) won all bar the Super 8 trip to the Kingdom so beating Donegal (in Castlebar after a weekend off) was enough to send James Horan’s men through to the All-Ireland semi-finals.
Their performance in the first half of that game was up there with the best of 2019 and they led Dublin at the interval. Unfortunately for the long-suffering Mayo fans who once again followed their county in huge numbers, that was as good as it got and the arduous schedule seemed to take its toll as Mayo collapsed as Dublin ran riot in the second half.
Mayo also lost in the League against the same opposition but despite that they rallied and ended a 10-final losing streak (seven All-Ireland finals and three League deciders) by beating Kerry to take the NFL title.
Injuries to Matthew Ruane, Seamus O’Shea and the O’Connor brothers, Cillian and Diarmuid, among others undermined Mayo’s Championship season. Talismanic forward Andy Moran retired at the end of it without the Celtic Cross he deserved the emergence of talents including James Carr gives hope for the future.
INJURY denied them the services of flying wing-back Eoghan Ban Gallagher as they were gearing up for the crucial Kerry clash in the second round of the Super8s. Even without him, Donegal drew a ‘Game of the Season’ contender but the Killybegs clubman was certainly missed in Castlebar a fortnight later when the off-the-boil Ulster champions bowed out against a Mayo side that took the remaining semi-final spot.
That was a disappointing note to end a season that delivered the Ulster title and the Division Two crown. Rewind to February and Donegal’s League prospects had looked good until a mid-campaign blip saw they fall off the pace. They recovered to beat Armagh, Fermanagh and Kildare to take second spot and then Meath in the Division Two final.
That was excellent preparation for the Anglo-Celt race and the Tir Chonaill outfit were a class above every other side they met in Ulster.
With Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Shaun Patton and Jamie Brennan outstanding, Donegal beat Fermanagh, Tyrone and Cavan to retain their trophy and move smoothly to the Super 8s.
Gallagher’s injury undermined their efforts but with him fit again next season and Odhran MacNaillais back in the fold, Donegal can go a step further.
AN up and down season for the Rossies. They started with a down – relegation from Division One after only one win (against Monaghan) but they recovered with an up – winning the Connacht Championship and taking out their main rivals in the process.
Anthony Cunningham’s men began with a commanding win over Leitrim, reached the final after coming out on the right side of a nip-and-tuck encounter with Mayo and then came from behind to shock Galway in the decider.
The emergence of Conor Cox added a real cutting edge to their attack and the former Kerry player registered 14 points in the Super 8s. Roscommon went one better than 2018 by beating Cork, again with a second half comeback. Brian Stack landing two goals in a 4-9 to 3-9 win.
AFTER several near misses, Meath finally forced promotion to Division One under Andy McEntee and they will need to stay there to develop into genuine silverware contenders.
The Royal County finished top of Division Two (losing just once) and although Donegal won the divisional final, McEntee’s men turned their attention to the Leinster Championship with confidence and lived up to their number two rating by beating Offaly, Carlow and Laois to make the final.
Of course they met Dublin in the decider and managed a paltry 0-4 as the Dubs strolled home at their Croke Park home.
Bouncing back to beat Clare in the Qualifiers and reach the Super 8 phase was an important result and although Meath failed to get close to Donegal, Mayo or Kerry, they should return next year better for the experience.
THE Tribesmen were unable to recapture the form that had taken them to the All-Ireland semi-finals the previous season. Assistant-manager Paddy Tally had not been involved in 2019 after taking over at Down and manager Kevin Walsh walked away in the wake of the Qualifier loss to Mayo.
The season began with a win over Cavan and Galway (League finalists the previous season) settled for a place in md-table after losses to Dublin, Tyrone and Kerry.
In Connacht, there were facile wins over London and then Sligo before the Tribesmen lined out against Roscommon, managed by former Galway player and manager Anthony Cunningham, in the final. In a repeat of the 2018 decider it was the Rossies who got over the line this time with Diarmuid Murtagh bagging the crucial goal.
There were familiar faces in the Qualifiers too – arch enemies Mayo – and James Carr’s early goals meant Galway bowed out short of their Super 8 target.
THE season ended with a lacklustre performance against Donegal in a Round Four Qualifier but Cavan will have learned a lot in 2019.
Mickey Graham’s first year as manager of his native county began with defeat to Galway in the League and although they weren’t far away in several games, Cavan were relegated to Division Two.
However, they rallied to make it to their first Ulster final in 18 years. Monaghan were their first opponents in Ulster and the Breffnimen saw off their neighbours with a well-drilled display after they had blitzed the Farneymen with 1-3 in the opening exchanges.
Next up was Armagh and the Orchardmen looked home and hosed after Jarlath og Burns’ goal sent them four ahead in the second half. Inspired by Cian Mackey, Cavan rallied to force a draw and they held the Orchardmen off in the second half to win the replay.
A late rally saved face after Donegal had put the final to bed at Clones and the disappointment of that loss was obviously a factor when Cavan failed to get going against Tyrone in the season-ending Qualifier.
SMOKE continues to rise and an eruption seems imminent.
Armagh are inching closer to a breakthrough and a little luck and a sprinkling of points at crucial times would have seen them mount a real push for Division One, the Ulster final and the Super 8s last season.
The emergence of several talented youngsters, particularly Rian O’Neill and Jarlath og Burns, allowed Armagh to join the promotion race but they did develop an unwanted knack of squandering winning positions which hampered their progress all season.
Kildare, then Clare denied Armagh wins in the League but mid-table consolidation in their first year back in the second tier was a creditable achievement.
From that base, Kieran McGeeney’s men travelled to Newry for their Ulster opener and survived an almighty scare – 14-man Down had looked dead and buried but forced extra-time – to record their first provincial win in five years.
There was more of the same in the semi-final. Cavan looked beaten but rallied and this time forced a replay which they won by six points, sending Armagh to the Qualifiers.
Armagh leap-frogged Monaghan in their round two meeting before drawing Mayo, in Castlebar. With Jamie Clarke, Rory Grugan and Stefan Campbell outstanding, Armagh pushed the Westerners every step of the way. But missed chances, poor decision-making and Mayo’s gritty street smarts denied them and time (only four minutes were added on in the second half) ran out to end their season.
WATCHING Cork beat Armagh at the Athletic Grounds you couldn’t help but ask the obvious question: ‘How did a team with so much going for it get in this position?’
Cork had too much talent to go down but down they went and they may need to reach the Munster final next year to avoid playing in the proposed ‘B’ championship if it is brought in.
Ronan McCarthy’s side turned their season around after that drab NFL campaign with a run to the Munster final and they gave Kerry a run for their money in it before making the Super 8s with a commanding win against Laois.
In the same group as Tyrone, Roscommon and the mighty Dubs. The Rebels had the misfortune to play Dublin first but the final score 5-18 to 1-17 concealed a gritty effort from them and it took a late salvo of goals to give the scoreboard its one-sided look.
Despite that hiding, Cork recovered to come within three points of Tyrone and would have been disappointed not to get something out of their final game at home to Roscommon. McCarthy’s men will start favourites in Division Three and if he can sort out defensive issues – his side shipped 11 goals in the Super 8s – they could take more ground in the Championship next year.
THE end of the Malachy O’Rourke dynasty and is it the end of a golden era for Monaghan? Their fans will certainly hope not and former boss Seamus McEnaney has taken over to continue O’Rourke’s good work which delivered two Ulster titles and Division One status to the Farney county and brought them to the brink of an All-Ireland final.
The last of O’Rourke’s seven seasons at helm was the story of a team in decline. Monaghan managed top flight survival by the skin of their teeth but lost to arch rivals Cavan in Ulster. Did get past Fermanagh in the first round of the Qualifiers but were well beaten by Armagh at the next stage.
O’Rourke stepped down after the loss.
“It is with a heavy heart I am doing so,” he said. Conor McManus is still there as are the Hughes brothers, Colin Walshe, Rory Beggan and many others, so 'Banty' has plaenty to work with.