Joe Kernan: Trio put down a marker for Championship
Sure it’s only the league . . . how often have we heard that rather disparaging remark attributed to the second most important competition in the annual fixtures calendar?
And invariably this sentiment is expressed by managers, officials and supporters of teams who do not fare well in the Allianz Football League.
Perhaps they would like the rest of us to believe that the league counts for nothing and that we should discount the matches which have taken place over the past two months.
Certainly, the league should not be taken as a truly accurate barometer of just how teams might perform in the Championship, but it would be fair to say that there are indications already as to just what Ulster counties might be in the running for the provincial title.
To my mind, three in particular — Down, Donegal and Tyrone — have already laid down a firm marker that they will be chasing bigger prizes than league divisional honours in the weeks that lie ahead.
And by the same token I feel that Derry, Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan, Antrim and Fermanagh have grounds for concern, albeit for different reasons perhaps, as they contemplate the summer.
While Down have remained a potent force in Division One — they were desperately unlucky to lose to Dublin last weekend — Donegal have remained unbeaten in Division Two while Tyrone are tucked just in behind them having won four games on the bounce.
When the Red Hands lost their opening two league games to Derry and Donegal, many were writing off their chances of making any impact whatsoever in the league.
But they had conveniently overlooked the fact that Tyrone had done little or no training, preferring to ease themselves into 2011 rather than show their hand too soon.
Their deferred start to the campaign came when the county was still mourning the tragic death of Michaela McAreavey, daughter of team boss Mickey Harte, and the players’ minds were quite naturally more focused on this terrible event.
Yet Tyrone, who have Brian Dooher and Philip Jordan back in the fold although there is a question mark over the latter’s continuing involvement with the county, have duly made up for lost time and could clinch promotion this weekend in tandem with Donegal, a team that I feel will be well worth watching in the Ulster championship.
Do not be at all surprised, indeed, if the Red Hands should find themselves confronting Jim McGuinness’s side in the Ulster semi-finals.
But for six Ulster counties a period of soul-searching will now take place in the countdown to the provincial championship.
Derry, who have several players out through injury at present, may still be in the promotion frame from Division Two but they don’t quite have the conviction necessary for major success.
Armagh are worse off as they are in danger of dropping out of Division One should they fall to Cork on Sunday — and that would certainly not help morale in advance of their mouth-watering Ulster Championship clash with Down at the Athletic Grounds on May 28.
Monaghan reached the Ulster final last year only to implode against Tyrone and under new manager Eamon McEnaney they have suffered more than their fair share of ill-luck in the league to date.
Yet the harsh statistics show that Monaghan have only one win in the league and with injuries having hit key players right now they are under huge pressure going into Sunday’s must-win game against Mayo.
No county has been harder hit by injuries than Antrim. And that’s why manager Liam Bradley is keeping his fingers crossed that players like Kevin Niblock, Michael McCann, C J McGourty, Kevin McGourty, Paddy Cunningham, Justin Crozier and Andrew McClean will be fully fit for their big championship opener against Donegal in Ballybofey.
And if Bradley has his problems, then Fermanagh boss John O’Neill has found his county making the headlines for all the wrong reasons of late.
The Ernesiders have been ploughing a modest course through the backwaters of Division Four but the steady drain of players from the squad culminating in the defection of four players ostensibly disenchanted with the management’s approach to things has not shown Fermanagh football in the best possible light.
Cavan have also undergone something of a transition but the fact that they have unearthed some Under 21 gems such as Gearoid McKiernan and Niall McDermott could prove a pre-championship boost.