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Monaghan and Donegal head the Ulster pecking order after Allianz Football League action

Jack McCarron's emergence was the highlight of Monaghan's Division One campaign

THE group stages of the National League certainly ended with a bang. Right throughout the divisions, the tables changed as the afternoon progressed.

Final placings or relegation spots in the top three divisions were only decided in injury-time.

Now the dust has settled, the landscape has definitely altered since the start of the League.

Well, altered if you ignore the all-too-familiar Dublin v Kerry Division One final pairing.

Many managers will be moving into spin doctor mode. Crumbs of positivity will be sought to try to nurture some degree of confidence, which is essential for heading into Championship and in maintaining an enthusiasm within the camp for the upcoming weeks of hard training.

For others, criticism of League performances will be used to circle the wagons and head into that wonderful GAA world of ‘the long grass', where all manner of mysterious turnarounds in form have been achieved.

In Ulster, Donegal and Monaghan definitely have their tails up. They are two teams who were expected to struggle, with many questioning Rory Gallagher's and Malachy O'Rourke's wisdom in staying on.

Both camps were hit by the loss of many previously key players and had been around the top for a while and most thought the inevitable slide down into the ‘transition' years had begun.

The emergence and impact of players like Monaghan's Jack McCarron and Donegal's Ciaran Thompson has had a huge impact. Both teams have a great look to them in terms of defensive solidity and attacking threat.

Donegal have re-energised their running game, while Monaghan have re-introduced an increasing rarity in the game, that of a potent full-forward line.

While Monaghan and Donegal are on clear upward curves, Tyrone give the impression of a team plateauing.

Tyrone are reigning Ulster champions and were tipped by many as more likely All-Ireland challengers than their Ulster counterparts, but the League has only served to reinforce perceptions of a team lacking the ultimate cut and thrust to take them over the lines in the biggest of games.

Even wins, especially over Cavan, failed to remove the doubts about their firepower, and the run of losses at the end of the League has been used to confirm these doubts.

A word of caution, though, to those putting a line through Tyrone's name on the list of challengers. Division One is

cut-throat and small margins make a massive difference.

The Dublin draw and the Mayo loss could easily have been two wins.

Mickey Harte and Tyrone have always made very good use of the period between League and Championship.

A win against Dublin or a League final berth would have generated even more hype and attention for a Tyrone team that already attracts its fair share of media scrutiny.

The big news story this week was an anonymous player telling Joe Brolly he is not enjoying his winter training. Hardly ground-breaking stuff, yet it got widespread coverage.

For those thinking it is big news I would invite them to stand up in Garvaghey for training some fresh March night and try to enjoy it.

I think the long grass will do Tyrone no harm and they will come back a sharpened unit come the Championship.

The doubts in terms of attacking potency will remain until the team prove otherwise. They will get their chance in the summer.

For Armagh and Cavan, their respective failures to get into and avoid Division Two will be disappointing – yet both teams have plenty of real positives to take.

Cavan produced a couple of huge performances that show the team's potential, especially against Mayo and Kerry.

Armagh, on the other hand, went on a scoring spree and would have had promotion well wrapped up but for a poor first two games against Sligo and Laois. Their 3-15 to 0-10 win over Louth, who ended up being promoted, says more about Armagh than their late failure against Tipperary.

Both Armagh and Cavan will be looking to achieve greater consistency and if they do they stand well placed to close the gap between them and Ulster's big three.

Fermanagh, Derry and Antrim bring to four (from six) the number of Ulster teams relegated this season. That's a disappointing statistic by any stretch of the imagination.

Derry and Antrim were hampered by the loss of key players, either through retirement or club commitments. With resources stretched, both camps, despite some decent results, did not have the depth to cope.

Fermanagh may have reached their high watermark under Pete McGrath. Their progress for several years has been remarkable but this year they appear to have run out of steam.

A few defeats have hit confidence and an Ulster Championship quarter-final against Monaghan doesn't look like a great place to try to regain it.

Down relied on a last-minute point in Cork to stave off relegation in what was an uninspiring League campaign.

In fairness, the character they showed to pull off that first win in 22 months against Meath, when all around them people were slating them was immense, and suggests all is not lost yet.

My post-league Ulster pecking order is: Monaghan, Donegal, Tyrone, Cavan, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Antrim.

But the League, no matter how good a competition it may be, remains the League. Like mocks compared to final exams, the only one that counts is the big one.

Roll on the summer.

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