GAA Football

Kenny Archer: Down only Ulster side up after disappointing NFL finale

The demeanour of Derry's players sums up the feelings of most Ulster sides at the Allianz Football League finale - but there were some positives. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

AFTER a final day of the Allianz Football League when only one Ulster county (Derry) won - and even they got relegated - it's hard to think positively about the performances of the province's teams.

None of them reached their respective divisional finals, four of them suffered demotion (Cavan, Fermanagh, and Antrim also dropping down), and one missed out on promotion by losing despite being four points up in the 72nd minute of their final match, needing only a draw to go up (Armagh).

Yet there were good points amidst all the disappointments, and at least none of them will be heading into Championship burdened by over-confidence.

Many feared for Donegal, but Rory Gallagher's new-look side, without an array of big names who went into retirement, actually came very close to reaching the final, missing out due to defeat by their old pals Mayo on Sunday.

Before that, though, their youngsters had impressed greatly, notably in drawing with Dublin and dismissing Tyrone yet again in Ballybofey.

Monaghan had a very good league campaign too and also pushed hard for the chance to compete in the annual 'Challenge Dublin' game (aka the Division One Final).

Indeed they did so with the surprising tactic of scoring a lot against the Dubs, rather than merely attempting to stifle the All-Ireland Champions, as most others do. Jim Gavin had to send on a host of star names to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

As well as testing Dublin, Malachy O'Rourke's men won in Mayo and Kerry, suggesting that they might be in with a shout of reaching the All-Ireland last four.

Two other wonderful words for them: Jack McCarron.

Tyrone will probably feel the most disappointed.

After going to Dublin in round two and drawing, albeit a match they really should have won, there was little for them to celebrate after that.

Sure, they recorded two more wins, but one came against a 13-man Monaghan side, the other against Cavan, who ended up relegated on their first appearance in the top flight for some time.

To conclude with three consecutive defeats, all against the other recent All-Ireland winners and finalists – Donegal, Mayo, and Kerry, and the first and last of those fairly comprehensive – does not bode well for the Reds Hands' hopes of lifting 'Sam'.

Cavan went down, as expected, but at least Mattie McGleenan's team showed great guts in several games, notably by winning in Mayo and drawing with both Monaghan and Kerry.

There remain flaws and frailties, of course, as evidenced by their second half collapse in Tyrone and their inability to win away to relegated Roscommon, but even victory over their recent nemesis wouldn't have saved them anyway.

The Breffnimen showed enough to suggest that they can cause problems for plenty of teams, in League and Championship.

Division Two was terrible for Ulster. The three northern teams managed just six wins between them, with one of each of those coming against one of the other Ulster sides in a sort of round robin of mediocrity.

Down ended up the least worst. After a dreadful start to the League, humiliated at home by Fermanagh and well beaten in Clare, they did show character to end their long losing streak, against Meath, then handed a hammering to Derry in Celtic Park.

The losses against the two promoted teams, Kildare and Galway, were to be expected – less so was their late comeback to earn a draw in Cork and secure survival. The increased involvement of more experienced players saved them - just about.

Derry arguably went down because of that eight-point home loss to Down, accounting for the 16-point scoring difference between them in the end. However, the Oak Leafers simply shipped far too much for most of the league, conceding more than they did against Down (1-15) in four other matches (3-15, 1-17, 5-15, and 0-20).

The absence of their Slaughtneil players was obviously a factor – they kept clean sheets in their last two games – but the damage was done before then.

For Fermanagh their opening night was almost the only highlight of their run.

They embarrassed Down that evening in Newry, but let themselves down too often after that. For all Clare's improvement, it's come to something if you have to talk up a home win over the Banner footballers.

Fermanagh did not show the competitive spirit they are famed for in Cork, Kildare, or especially in Meath, and that will be a concern for Pete McGrath.

Goals aren't everything but scoring just one and conceding 12 indicates problems at both ends of the pitch for the Ernemen, having been strong defensively last season.

Armagh had plenty of positives in terms of their finishing - especially when putting 6-22 past a shell-shocked Offaly and 3-15 in thrashing table-toppers Louth on their own patch - but their stuttering start to the campaign cost them in the end.

It's not stretching things to say that they could, nay should have won all their matches, but their inability to hold onto leads has led to calls for Barbara Woodhouse to be brought into their management team (Google her, kids).

The bright spot for the Orchardmen was their scoring power especially their goal-scoring power, netting 15 times in seven matches; or in five, to be precise.

Armagh may note that they two matches they lost, both at home, against Laois and Tipperary, were the only games when they did not get at least one goal.

Antrim are again the lowest-ranked Ulster county, slipping back down into Division Four. The Saffron beacon of hope remains a weak, sputtering one that is still extinguished too easily.

Yet there were many shafts of light amid the gloom of going down: they battled impressively to beat both Sligo and Laois, could have won away to Armagh, played will in Tipperary, and continued their unbeaten record at Corrigan Park, albeit that a draw wasn't enough to save them on Sunday.

Only in Offaly were they awful, losing by 13 points – then again, that was the scoring difference that separated them from Longford in the final table.

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