Final audit on the 2018 AFL: who takes what into the summer
Pleasing consistency for Dublin and encouragement and caveats for Galway
Dublin’s Brian Fenton is tackled by Galway’s Ciarán Duggan during the Allianz Football League Division One final at Croke Park. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho
Some 20-20 vision
Back 10 weeks ago when the league started, I was asked to do some Nostradamus stuff on the likely outcome of Division One. Whatever about looking forward, looking back at this stage doesn’t make comfortable reading.
There are little victories of prophecy in that Dublin, Monaghan and Mayo are only one place away from where I foresaw their seasons ending: respectively, third instead of second, fourth instead of third and fifth instead of sixth.
One call is actually bang on: Donegal finished seventh and dropped.
Otherwise, oh dear.
Galway in the real world ended the season unbeaten and top of Division One whereas, in mine, they finished bottom in eighth place and were relegated.
The reasoning was that they hadn’t played at the top in a while, had been comfortably beaten by Kerry in last summer’s championship, would struggle to implement their defensive system in Division One and would be missing Corofin players.
Instead they ran Dublin close in last Sunday’s final and even left manager Kevin Walsh looking reasonably happy with the Croke Park outing.
The predictions proved groundless, as Paddy Tally’s arrival – albeit more in a consultative capacity than a permanent back-room member – refined the defensive structure and how it could best interact with the team’s talented forwards.
They ended the season with the tightest defence in the top division and in the entire league; only Fermanagh conceded fewer scores in the regulation fixtures.
They competed consistently well and by the final weekend, with the news that Liam Silke would be taking the summer off after a hectic spring with club and college, people were asking who if any of the All-Ireland club champions would be guaranteed a starting place on Walsh’s championship team.
The historical evolution of the league into a competition that runs closer and closer to the championship, which this year gets fully up and running in early May, means that teams have to position themselves for a provincial date with a team they’ve already played in the league.
Top of that list in terms of profile is the Connacht clash of Galway and Mayo on May 13th in Castlebar. They have already played in Salthill where the home side won a fairly sparky encounter although Mayo will point out that they weren’t at full strength.
Another Division One prelude was the meeting of Monaghan and Tyrone in Castleblaney, won by the home side on the narrowest of margins. They re-engage on May 20th, this time in Healy Park, Omagh.
By coincidence that weekend will also feature further renewal of rivalries in the same part of the world. The day before Monaghan and Tyrone meet, Armagh and Fermanagh face each other in Enniskillen by which point they may well be faintly weary of each other having played a 0-7-each draw also in Brewster Park and last Sunday, Armagh came out two points ahead in Saturday’s Division Three final at Croke Park.
Relevance of all this?
Last year there were three fixtures in the opening rounds of the provincial championships between teams who had already met in the league. All of the sides that had lost in the league ended up losing again in the summer.
Laois and Leitrim repeated their wins over Longford and London, respectively. Although their initial win against already promoted Wexford was a surprise in Division Four, Carlow repeated the dose in the Leinster championship and gave notice that they were on the rise, confirming s much with their longest championship since the 1940s and last month’s promotion.
Winners and losers
Division One: It’s easy to overlook Dublin, simply because they’re always winning the league. But at a juncture where injuries are making inroads into the experienced ranks of players who have been around for five All-Irelands and Diarmuid Connolly’s future uncertain, Jim Gavin was going to be stretched to continue sifting for suitable long-term contributors while at the same time keeping the show on the road.
Yet with just one defeat in eight matches, the All-Ireland champions gave plenty of game time to Brian Howard and Colm Basquel – both of whom were mentioned by Gavin at Sunday’s media conference along with last year’s promising under-21 defender Eoin Murchan, the somewhat more experienced Shane Carthy and oddly, Con O’Callaghan, who at 21 already has the most extensive All-Ireland practice in the country.
Maybe the Dublin manager was referring to the fact that the Young Footballer of the Year has yet to start a league match for the county thanks to his involvement with back-to-back All-Ireland club hurling champions, Cuala.
Galway have been referenced above but on a more cautionary note, half the teams beaten by Dublin in AFL finals, Derry (2014) and Cork (2015) have been relegated the following season. More appropriate to Galway’s experience though is Tyrone in 2013 – narrow losers, who stayed up the following year.
In terms of championship destination, the 11- and 15-point drubbings prefaced disappointing summers for Cork and Derry. Cork did make a splash when nearly beating All-Ireland champions Kerry in the drawn 2015 Munster final but once the replay was lost they blew out with a bad defeat by Kildare a week later in the qualifiers.
Derry’s championship lasted two matches, both lost to Donegal and Longford. On the encouraging theme of Tyrone in 2013, they reached an All-Ireland semi-final, something Galway haven’t done since last winning Sam Maguire 17 years ago.
It’s not unfair to name-check Monaghan either. Malachy O’Rourke’s sustained ability to keep the team competitive while this year trialling a few newcomers was impressively accomplished with a third place in the table and a first win in 50 years over Dublin at Croke Park.
Again, it may appear obvious that the losers’ file would contain Kildare, who lost all seven matches despite being more than competitive – three of the defeats were by less than a score – but it was a frustrating campaign which, even if morale wasn’t shattered, isn’t the ideal way to enter the championship having come up a year ago with high hopes.
Division Two: Obviously Roscommon and Cavan are the winners. It’s been a great 12 months for Kevin McStay who from the uncertainty of the management shake-up at the start of last year, player absences and relegation, has built a Connacht-winning outfit, one decent and another not-so-great championship outings at Croke Park, followed by promotion and a divisional title.
Cavan also bounced back – the first time since the league was restructured 10 years ago that both teams relegated from Division One have turned the drop into a return ticket in the space of a year.
Mention should also be made of Tipperary, as Liam Kearns’s team came very close to taking one of the promotion places and looked comfortable in the division, and Clare, who managed for a second year to do enough to stay in the top half of the league.
After last year’s turnaround of a ghastly run of results, Down ended up sliding into Division Three on the final day of the season. Louth looked lost from day one whereas once big hitters Cork and Meath have to be disappointed not to have made more of an impact.
Division Three: Leaving aside the promoted counties, Armagh and Fermanagh, who were deserved departures form the division, Longford were very unlucky not to take points off both of them.
The biggest losers of the whole league were arguably Derry, who completed a once-unimaginable tumble from top to bottom: within four years of contesting a Division One final they slid through successive relegations into Division Four despite having started the campaign as promotion candidates. Wexford joined them but their brief sojourn in Three looked doomed from an early stage. Westmeath will be disappointed not to have made more of an impact, having defeated Fermanagh.
Division Four: The unambiguous winners were Carlow, who secured promotion for the first time in 33 years to consolidate the great progress made by Turlough O’Brien. Laois went up with them and won the divisional title but, like Derry this year, they would have felt that they had no business in the basement in the first place.
A number of managers in the division were very unhappy with the GAA’s decision to abandon their fixtures because they had no bearing on the final promotion places. In the circumstances, there wasn’t much that could have been done and but for arithmetic the same would have happened in Division Two.
Otherwise Antrim were the obvious disappointment, losing out on promotion before the schedule was even complete.