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Danny Hughes: Safety net of League play-offs should help steer Ulster counties clear of danger

Monaghan have shown great resolve in getting very credible draws against two of the lead contenders for the All-Ireland in Tyrone and Donegal Picture: Seamus Loughran

GIVEN the structure of the Allianz Football League, the play-offs provide a saftety net and ultimately will dictate whether a team is promoted or relegated.

It hardly seems fair on those teams who have secured positive results compated to those who have failed to register a point, yet one win could mean retaining their divisional status.

However we can hardly cry foul now given we all knew what we were signing up for.

Like many fans, it is just great to see games played after the longest of winters.

Had the white walkers started appearing, you could be forgiven for thinking that life had indeed become akin to an episode from Game of Thrones.

Dublin remain rooted on the Iron Throne and given that they always find a way, they are unlikely to be unseated any time soon.

Galway came close last weekend, closer than I ever thought they would.

The Tribesmen had taken a few hidings from lesser teams than the Dubs in recent seasons, so the routine nature of the win for the All-Ireland champions never seemed to be in doubt.

To be fair, though, Galway raised their game and with it, as we edge closer to a start of the Championship, perhaps there is the suggestions that Dublin's grip of domination may be beginning to loosen somewhat.

Nothing lasts forever.

In the North, we look to the South, as ultimately it will be either Dublin, Kerry or perhaps even Mayo where Sam Maguire eventually finds residence in 2021.

It has to be said that, in general, football is in a good place.

The penny has dropped and teams are now facilitating freedom of expression at the expense of more rigidity and structure.

The dreaded defensive inflexibility when a team defends its way to a victory, or in some cases adopts a form of damage limitation to salvage some pride, is slowly finding no favour among fans.

If Donegal were the standard-bearers and innovators of such play, they have certainly showed enough promise under Declan Bonner to convince me that those days are gone.

They have developed players who are enjoying playing with freedom and high skill levels which we, in turn, as fans are enjoying on a weekly basis.

Some of the score-taking by players from Tyrone, Armagh, Donegal and Monaghan last weekend were as good as anything we have seen in the past. Some of the players we are witnessing currently would find favour in any of the greatest teams or any era.

David Clifford, Shane Walsh, Con O'Callaghan to name but a few and in an era when anyone and everyone has an outlet for their opinion, few would argue against the latter being of some of the greatest players in the game, even at this early stage of their career.

It's extremely unlucky that Armagh find themselves in a relegation play-off as they have showed enough promise in the League campaign to warrant consolidation for another year in the top flight.

Roscommon will be disappointed too, with a decent performance under their belt in the opening fixture against Dublin, Galway pulled off a surprise win against the Rossies despite the fact that Galway looked akin to Newcastle United under Kevin Keegan.

A free-flowing attack is all well and good but if your individual defending and collective approach to the same is neglected, you will take a hammering.

While innovation in coaching and defending has evolved over the years, the fundamentals of the game haven't.

Paidi O Se had an approach which was simplistic yet effective and no player scored from play when he marked them in an All-Ireland final.

I would always communicate this very basic personal goal within a team environment.

Get a look at the man, his number and as a defender, it is ultimately your responsibility.

Win your battle.

On this basis, that is why I think Monaghan will beat Galway in any relegation tie.

The Farneymen have spirit, always had and if you were going to war in the morning, you would backbone your army with a few Monaghan men.

Despite the ageing profile and despite Conor McManus's influence waning to a degree in this particular campaign, Monaghan have secured very credible draws against two of the lead contenders for the All-Ireland in Tyrone and Donegal.

Will this Galway side be as battled-hardened as Monaghan?

Will they be able to survive a relegation scrap when the pressure comes on?

Monaghan have dealt with such scenarios before and can always draw on this experience.

Galway have wilted under expectation, but should they win this game, it could perhaps spark a new resurgence among the Tribesmen.

My own county, Down, pulled off a very hard-fought win at Westmeath and this has secured a relegation tie against Laois – a winnable fixture for the Mournemen.

Goalkeeper Rory Burns has been unfairly criticised in the past but turned out to be the hero last weekend with shot-stopping, a penalty save and a strong kick-out performance.

Down's season may hinge on this relegation fixture, especially given that their Ulster Championship tie with Donegal is a straight knockout.

In the past, progress may have been gauged via a back-door run but this isn't possible for any team for at least another year.

Antrim's strong start to the season has continued and again a one-off game against Waterford should see them being promoted to Division Three.

Job done for Enda McGinley and his team and he will have nothing to lose in going in to play against Armagh in an opening round Ulster Championship match.

A fighter with nothing to lose is a very dangerous opponent.

Derry again showed fantastic resolve and character in beating a Cavan team that needed to win and should they beat Limerick, which they should, two successive promotions would cement a job well done for Gallagher.

Derry are one of the sleeping giants of Ulster football and second tier football is the minimum expected from a loyal and deeply fanatical fan-base.

With Fermanagh possibly joining them, with Offaly standing in their way, the Erne county will have once again shown a resolve and depth of character synonymous with larger counties and greater pools of talent.

Something tells me that this year's Championship could throw up some real surprises and with added bite given to the fixtures by the straight knock-out structure, anything is possible.

Hope springs eternal and when a boxer lies against the ropes, all it takes is for one punch to land and it's over.

That's the beauty of a straight knock-out game when anything can happen.

League form aside, on any given Sunday.

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