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National Football League Division One Semi-final and relegation play-off previews

By Tom McLoughlin

In this most unique of years, there is a high probability that the league champions for 2021 will be a joint coronation with no single winner emerging. Given the proximity of the culmination of the league and the commencement of the championship, the powers that be in GAA HQ deemed it not possible for teams commencing their championship campaign on the 26th June (i.e. Kerry and Donegal in Division One) to be in league action the week prior. As such, if either Kerry or Donegal win their respective semi-finals this weekend, no league final will be played and the league title will be shared. Therefore, only if both Tyrone and Dublin win this weekend will we see a league final contested. It certainly raises question marks as to the integrity of the competition when the league essentially commenced but was never properly concluded. Anyway, perhaps that argument is for another day and we can concentrate on four intriguing contests.

Saturday 12th June

Tyrone v Kerry

Round: Semi-final

Venue: Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney

Referee: Conor Lane (Cork)

Time: 5.00pm

Channel: TG4

With no promotion at stake unlike the other three divisions, you could argue that the Division One league semi-finals are a free hit for all four teams involved as they have already secured their topflight status for 2022. The first semi-final sees one of the great rivalries of the noughties renewed when Kerry and Tyrone clash in Fitzgerald Stadium. Tyrone can feel slightly aggrieved that they must make the long journey down to Killarney and perhaps a neutral venue may have been fairer for all semi-finals and relegation play-offs this weekend.

These sides last met sixteen months ago in Edendork in the league with Tyrone winning by the minimum 0-14 to 0-13 in wet and wintery conditions. This Saturday should see better weather and likely a much higher scoring affair. Kerry, thanks largely to the scoring exploits of GAA/GPA Player of the Month for May, David Clifford, have averaged a total of 25 points (including a total of 7 goals) in their three games to date whilst Tyrone have averaged just 17 points (including a total of just 2 goals).

Kerry have been the team and the talk of the league so far. The rest of the country outside the capital are crying out for a challenger to usurp the Dublin dominance and seem to be throwing all their eggs in the Kingdom basket. Peter Keane will be quietly happy with the league so far and will have learned some valuable lessons particularly from the draw against the Dubs where he will know the concession of four goals again will unlikely bring success or even parity in an All-Ireland final.

David Clifford and Seán O’Shea are in flying form and are a joy to watch when working in tandem. Dara Moynihan also looks to have improved and Paudie Clifford has been a welcome addition to the forward line. That said, we always knew Kerry had good forwards and that has never been their downfall. It is in defence where Kerry will be looking to shore things up and Saturday should bring another good test where they will come up against a much improved Tyrone forward line.

Arguably, the Red Hand county had the tougher division in Division One North where they faced an Ulster rival on each occasion, picking up a win, a loss and a draw in their campaign to date. Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan’s men will certainly be battle hardened from their close games and we are certainly seeing a more expansive and direct style of play from the Ulster side. Darren McCurry has been their star performer up front to date along with Darragh Canavan and Tyrone also look to have discovered a gem in Paul Donaghy. Throw in the likes of Conor McKenna and Cathal McShane to return too and the Tyrone attack for the summer looks dangerous.

This has the makings of a cracking encounter in Killarney and I hope for a high scoring affair. David Clifford has already amassed a mammoth league tally in his three games to date of 5-21. In his current form he looks unmarkable and unstoppable and Kerry should emerge with that most coveted of prizes on Saturday – a shared league title!!

Verdict: Kerry by 4

Saturday 12th June

Donegal v Dublin

Round: Semi-final

Venue: Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan

Referee: Ciarán Branagan (Down)

Time: 7.15pm

Channel: TG4

The second semi-final pits All Ireland champions Dublin against Division One North table-toppers Donegal in a neutral venue, Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan. These two teams last met in the league in February 2020 in Croke Park with Dublin overcoming a five point deficit to win by a point with Davy Byrne proving to be the unlikeliest of matchwinners. On that occasion both John Small and Michael Murphy were sent off and Dublin and Donegal will have to cope with their absences this weekend through injury.

It will be interesting to see how the Ulstermen approach this game tactically with the loss of Murphy being keenly felt by Declan Bonnar’s men in the last two games. First day out, Donegal looked very impressive in their two point victory over Tyrone with Murphy putting in a man of the match performance in Omagh. Murphy was injured in the early minutes of Round Two against Monaghan and Donegal would need to claw back a nine point deficit to snatch an unlikely draw and similarly struggled for large parts of their final game, a draw with Armagh.

It is hard to know what to expect from Donegal in each game and can blow hot and cold even within games; dire in the first half against Monaghan, sublime in the second. The truth probably lies in the middle somewhere and that type of inconsistency won’t be enough to beat Dublin. The full back line looked very “un-Donegal like” against Monaghan when conceding four goals, three in the first half to Conor McCarthy and such naivety in defence will be punished heavily by Dublin.

On a positive note, Paddy McBrearty has had an excellent league campaign amassing 0-20 to date and has really stepped up in Murphy’s absence. Michael Langan has also scored not one, but two early goal of the season contenders and along with Niall O’Donnell and Ciaran Thompson has impressed for the Ulster runners-up.

In contrast to the uncertainties that Donegal possess, there are little or no question marks around the Dubs. We know Dublin very well at this stage and regardless of the personnel employed on the day, they will play their usual style of patient possession football, probing and seeking the right area to exploit and attack. Dublin do not play the opposition but simply play their own game, never phased by any situation. Cormac Costello, looking to hold down a starting berth, is joint top scorer in the league tied with Clifford and he, along with Ciarán Kilkenny and Con O’Callaghan have been Dublin’s main attacking threats. Dessie Farrell, who we presume is still calling the shots, has used the campaign to give a number of younger players game time with the likes of Michael Shiel, Dara Mullin, Seán McMahon and Tom Lahiff all seeing significant action and no doubt one or two of those will slot seamlessly into the team come championship.

Donegal are in Ulster championship action in two weeks’ time against Down in Newry and perhaps given their shock defeat to Cavan in last year’s Ulster final, Declan Bonnar will have more than one eye on that game which should assist a comfortable victory for Dublin – and a shared league title with their good friends in the Kingdom!

Verdict: Dublin by 7

Sunday 13th June

Armagh v Roscommon

Round: Relegation play-off

Venue: Athletic Grounds, Armagh

Referee: Seán Hurson (Tyrone)

Time: 3.00pm

Channel: GAA GO

Kieran McGeeney must be scratching his head at how his side are not safely tucked up in a league semi-final with Division One status assured rather than facing into a relegation play-off. Armagh were four points up going into the last quarter in their final group game against Donegal only to allow their Ulster rivals eke out a draw that would see them progress to a league semi-final rather than the men from the Orchard County. Similarly, in the week prior, against even bigger and more bitter foes Tyrone, Armagh led midway through the second half but had a Stefan Campbell penalty saved by Niall Morgan and would go on to lose by 5 points. The chances have certainly been there for Armagh to have already sealed their Division One status and McGeeney will be hoping those missed opportunities don’t prove costly.

All in all, Armagh have been a breath of fresh air in Division One and have been competitive throughout, securing a win against Monaghan as well as a draw, that could and should have been more, against Donegal. The O’Neill brothers, Rian and Oisín play with a wonderful fraternal chemistry and often seem to seek each other in possession but never to the detriment of the team. They are very much the present and the future of Armagh football and along with Campbell and Rory Grugan they possess a very potent forward line. Allied with that is a strong base in midfield through Niall Grimley and Jarlath Óg Burns and there are certainly plenty of reasons for Armagh fans to be positive.

Roscommon have been disappointing in their season so far and were admittedly handed a very tough group in Division One South which pitted them against Dublin and Kerry, arguably the two best teams in the country, as well as Connaught rivals Galway, who they face in the Connaught championship again in a few weeks’ time. The fruits of the Rossies labours from this division were scant as they are one of just six teams to lose all of their league games so far along with Westmeath, Laois, Wicklow, Leitrim and Wexford.

Looking with a positive tilt at Roscommon’s campaign to date, the Connaught men were competitive against Dublin first day out before losing by 9 points with ill-discipline partially proving their downfall as they racked up two black cards and conceded three penalties. In Round 3 at home to Kerry, Roscommon gave their best performance of the campaign and were well in the game for fifty minutes until Kerry pulled away in the final quarter courtesy of two goals to eventually win by six points. Roscommon were not truly expected to win either of those games and it was their tussle with Galway that they would have targeted as their best chance for league points. Unfortunately, they never seemed to get out of second gear and limped to a very lacklustre and disappointing defeat in Salthill.

As for who will come out on top this Sunday, I can see Roscommon bringing a big performance with them to the Athletic Grounds as they are often at their best when expectation is lowest. Roscommon, given the group they were drawn in, would have realistically known a relegation play-off was always likely and may have targeted this game, regardless of opposition, from the start. However, I still think Armagh have laid solid foundations in this campaign on which to build and should have enough to just get over the line buoyed on by their home support, thus demoting perennial yo-yo team, Roscommon, back down to Division Two.

Verdict: Armagh by 2

Sunday 13th June

Monaghan v Galway

Round: Relegation play-off

Venue: St Tiernach’s Park, Clones

Referee: David Gough (Meath)

Time: 3.45pm

Channel: TG4

The backdrop to this relegation play-off is intriguing with Galway manager, Padraic Joyce not at all impressed on learning that his side would have to travel away to Monaghan for their final league fixture:

“We’ll play where it’s on, but it just disrespects the whole system, the whole Allianz League. If you’re going to get a home vital game, when you broke the rules. If it’s in Monaghan, that’s just unbelievable to me.”

I can certainly see Joyce’s point but Monaghan’s suspension was adjudged to have been served after the group stage and therefore, as Galway had two fixed home games to Monaghan’s one fixed home game (even though played against Armagh in neutral venue of Enniskillen as punishment), then Monaghan get the benefit of home advantage in Clones for this vital relegation play-off. Both teams should certainly be riled up ahead of this game and Joyce will not need to look too far for motivation if he feels his side have already been disrespected.

Galway, after a dismal defeat to Kerry, have bounced back fantastically well with victory over Roscommon and a creditable loss to Dublin in Tuam in which the enigmatic Shane Walsh starred in defeat. Much recent commentary has suggested that Joyce moved away from his footballing philosophy against Dublin betraying his own beliefs and perhaps adopting a defensive style more familiar with the Galway of Kevin Walsh. However, I think he merely cut his cloth to measure and after a heavy defeat to Kerry, the protection he gave his defence in terms of numbers against Dublin was certainly warranted. Most of the top teams have at least two ways of playing; 1) the way they want to play in every game and 2) the way they feel they need to play against Dublin. Joyce and Galway are no different to other teams in this regard.

Monaghan, like Armagh, may feel they should not be in this position teetering on the edge of demotion to Division Two. The Farneymen have been competitive in all of their games and should have claimed victory away to Donegal in Round Two when they led Donegal by 9 points at one stage with Conor McCarthy scoring a glorious first half hat-trick before eventually relinquishing their lead to merely take a share of the spoils. Similarly, against Tyrone last day out, Monaghan led by three points in the closing stages only to cough up this lead needing a late Ryan McAnespie equaliser in stoppage time to salvage a draw.

However, one pleasing aspect of the campaign for Banty McEnaney must be the development of some of his younger players and having less of a reliance on Conor McManus up front. Aaron Mulligan, Michael Bannigan, Andrew Woods and Stephen O’Hanlon have all showed well and have given some much needed fresh impetus to the Monaghan squad.

This game is probably the hardest to call as both sides are quite evenly matched. Neither Joyce nor McEnaney will want relegation to follow last year’s disappointing championship campaigns and therefore victory on Sunday is vital for both counties. I think Galway and Joyce were stung by the criticism they shipped after defeat to Kerry and they have steadily improved as the league has progressed. With plenty of chips on their shoulders about the home venue, I can see the Tribesmen snatching a victory in Clones to secure Division One Status.

Verdict: Galway by 1

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