Enda McGinley: Don't let the league fool you
LIKE a little humour, a little perspective goes a long way. Looking over the results of the League so far and trying to determine the bigger picture is a confusing task.
What appears to be obvious suddenly becomes less so with a slight change in how or where it is being looked at. Let’s take a few examples. Oh, to be Galway right now, right? Newly-promoted and four wins from four in such a competitive division is some achievement. Paddy Tally (inset), for some time now, has been blessed with a magic touch in terms of his impact on teams and this appears to be continuing alongside Kevin Walsh with the Tribesmen.
There are, however, a few notes of caution. It is possible and probably necessary for newly-promoted teams in Division One, especially if it has been a long time since they were at that level, to make an almighty push at the start of the year to secure their status and prove they can live with the big boys. For such teams, every game has the feeling of a Championship tie.
The attention, in terms of crowds, media and TV coverage has the players right on edge and determined to produce big performances. A few wins and the momentum that builds is massive. The problem here, as Roscommon found out only two years ago, is that all too often one of the oldest adages in the GAA tends to ring true – that League form is a poor guide come Championship.
Roscommon, high fliers early in 2016, reaching a semi-final with Kerry in Division One, were later beaten in Connacht by Galway and put out of the Championship completely by Clare. In 2017, when they were relegated to Division Two, the Rossies won the Connacht Championship, beating Galway with ease.
At present, the teams who are topping the divisions (Galway, Cavan, Fermanagh/Armagh and Carlow) have all made a big push for the League and their early season form line shows. Winning tight games early in the year is great for confidence and momentum, but it also can cover up cracks. Now, in Championship this matters less as the primary thing is to progress to the next round. The League, however, is realistically about preparation for Championship.
The primary focus then is preparation. Galway did not really merit a win against Donegal and both Kerry and Tyrone produced probably their worst performances to date in their respective defeats to the Tribesmen, yet the Tribe’s run of wins creates a feeling that all is well. Numerous other narrow results throughout the League can cover up similar issues.
Donegal were getting plaudits for many of their early performances despite losing the games. They obviously got their first win last week against Kildare yet realistically, given the ridiculous nature of Ryan McHugh’s goal and ‘Gumshieldgate’, it was a win they merited less than maybe some of their earlier performances deserved.
Kildare, meanwhile, completely bottom of the pile, can count themselves very unlucky to not have beaten Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal. Win those one-point defeats and the buzz around the Lilywhites would have been massive. Regarding Tyrone, every man and dog in the street seems to want to chat about the fact they are ‘not going well’ and ‘in a spot of bother’. All euphemisms for what they are really thinking – Mickey Harte’s in bother.
Certainly, Tyrone, as I said last week, are furthest from top gear within Ulster, although Derry are challenging for that title too. The thing is, if we cast our mind back to last summer, Tyrone’s top gear was on another planet to any other team up here. Tyrone have several top players just not in form at present and Harte has been chopping and changing formation, particularly up front, to try and find the right balance and potency.
Division One, however, is a harsh environment for such experiments, yet with the Championship in mind, it is crucial they are carried out. The one-point loss to Monaghan probably hurt the most so far. Tyrone didn’t play well yet it took four unbelievable second half scores, two each from Conor McManus and Rory Beggan, for Monaghan to fall over the line with a one-point win.
Consider it was not only a home game, but a home game in Castleblayney. While it’s a fine ground that produced a brilliant atmosphere, it would have been completely foreign to practically every member of the Tyrone set-up, meaning the one-point win is as close to a mirage as you can get in our current frigid conditions.
Then we get to the biggest perspective-changer of all. All the work done so far has been in January and February. The early start and rapid-fire nature of games in this year’s League means it feels later in the year and results are being given more credence than usual.
The change to the calendar, with April being completely void of county games and the ‘Super 8’ changes to come, means our usual early season form guides are worth even less than they previously were. Not that, come the big games in July or August, anyone ever thought too much regarding results in February.
Suggestions of teams in crisis or of teams on the brink of doing something are simply not worth anything so early in the season. To flip the perspective one last time, however, is to realise that any long-term development must, for the top teams, have maintenance of Division One status as a crucial objective. Tyrone and Donegal are both in major difficulties in this regard.
At the end of the day, survival is what always counts no matter what way you look at it.