Belfast Telegraph

Applaud Derry's early promise

By Declan Bogue

It has become acceptable shorthand to say that Donegal's weak defence of the All-Ireland title was somehow rooted in their casual acceptance of defeat during the National League.

In the year they won Sam Maguire, they were beaten by Down in the league opener. Laois bullied them off the park at home. They had a handsome win over Mayo and scraped wins over Armagh and Mayo for six points and safety.

The following year, with the tan of Dubai peeling off their backs and a mantra that everything would come right by May, they got off to a slow start with defeat to Kildare in the Division One opener, but almost rescued the situation.

With practically the last kick of the campaign, a Paul Mannion point grabbed a draw for Dublin in Ballybofey and left Donegal relegated on five points. Over in Omagh, Kerry had pulled off a great escape with a win over Tyrone, staying up by that one solitary point and a scoring difference 21 points worse off than Donegal.

Such subtleties are instantly forgotten in judging how teams are rated when they show up for summer Championship football.

On these pages we have expressed an opinion in the past that what occurs during February to late April can shape summer matters. And that still holds, given that six of the eight All-Ireland quarter-finalists last year played football in Division One.

But it's not everything, especially in Ulster.

Just prior to the league starting, Derry captain Mark Lynch spooned a great big dollop of pessimism on their chances in Division One, having captured the Division Two title last year with a late scoring splurge to beat Westmeath in the final.

They had Tyrone coming as guests and Lynch played it coy, saying: "Going up against Tyrone there's always that added bite of it being Derry v Tyrone but it's two teams trying to get two points and I know they'll go as hard at us as we will against them.

"If we don't, we'll be found wanting in Division One because we have to really battle hard against these teams because they're the best teams in the country.

"We'll have to be at our best if we want to stay in Division One. We have to play every game like it's a Championship game. We'll be seen as whipping boys I would say. We won the league a while ago and it's a whole new breed of players now.

"It's a good challenge for the lads, they're looking forward to it and they're training hard for it, but we understand we have to be at our best."

Derry pulled back a seven point gap from Tyrone to share the points and since then have not looked back.

They defeated Kerry and last weekend demonstrated how much the team have matured when they comfortably beat visiting Westmeath.

Manager Brian McIver was moved to comment: "There was no trepidation going into Division One. Whenever we were coming out of Division Two last year everybody would have said that there was this massive gulf.

"The players had to find out for themselves it was nothing more than a myth. (They have) proved to themselves that they are as good as anyone in the country."

There is navel-gazing within football that it is not as competitive as it might be.

But in the last decade, five different teams have won Sam Maguire. Last season was one of those when teams in Division One had the tradition and reputation to call it the strongest top flight in years.

Dublin won the league but the team that they just edged out – Tyrone – gave us a false reading.

Most sensible people felt that Tyrone were in a good place to finally take the Jim McGuinness-era Donegal at the third time of asking.

Yet they played like they hadn't a clue on that moody Saturday night.

Monaghan, though, came from Division Three to win a first Anglo-Celt in 25 years.

McIver feels the strength of Division One is a myth. Donegal and Down are currently enjoying life away from the spotlight, putting together impressive runs.

Perhaps later in the summer we might get to see just how close the race for Ulster and then Sam really is.

Belfast Telegraph

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