National Football League Division Three South – Round Three Preview
By Daire Walsh
It was always likely that fine margins would dictate the final standings in each section of this year’s restructured National Football League and this will be particularly true of Division Three South come Saturday evening.
Moving into the third and final round of fixtures, all four teams in this group are within touching distance of a semi-final slot while simultaneously being in danger of finishing up in a relegation play-off position. This is true of most divisions in the 2021 edition of the NFL, but the close nature of the Division Three South fixtures to date makes it difficult to predict how Saturday’s two games will pan out.
To date, the lowest winning margin has been four points - Offaly’s 1-14 to 1-10 success over Wicklow on May 16. The Faithful County went on to secure a two-point triumph (0-16 to 1-11) at the expense of Limerick, who had been on the right side of a similar scoreline against Tipperary in their previous encounter.
Even if Wicklow find themselves rooted to the bottom with two defeats from as many games, they followed a commendable showing at home to Offaly with another narrow reversal to Tipperary at Semple Stadium, Thurles - this time on a margin of 2-12 to 1-12.
Although a relegation play-off is the most likely destination for the Garden County, a win for them over Limerick at Joule Park, Aughrim on Sunday (throw-in 3pm) - coupled with a victory for current table-toppers Offaly over Tipperary - would give them a potential shot at reaching the Division Three semi-finals.
Score difference would then decide who claims the top-two spots in the table and with averages of just seven and eight points currently separating them from Limerick and Tipperary respectively, it isn’t a completely far-fetched notion.
Nonetheless, getting the better of a Limerick side that appear to be on an upward curve won’t be easy for Davy Burke’s charges. Before the opening round of the league, the Treaty County had defeated Tipp as recently as 2019 in the Munster Senior Football Championship.
They looked set to match this result in last winter’s provincial series, only for Tipperary to pip them after extra-time. The fact that the Premier went on to be crowned Munster champions for the first time in 85 years shows how Limerick have progressed under Billy Lee.
During the tenures of Kerry men Liam Kearns and Mickey Ned O’Sullivan, they featured regularly in Munster SFC deciders. They may be some way off this level at the moment, but the chance to consolidate their Division Three status - at the very least - will serve as an indication of their short-term ambitions.
Adare’s Hugh Bourke has been Limerick’s main source for scores thus far in 2021. His 0-6 haul against Tipperary was supplemented by a 1-4 tally in their defeat to Offaly. Bourke’s inside partner Danny Neville produced an excellent display in the former, finishing the tie with 1-3 to his name - a total that was pivotal in getting his side over the line on the day.
He was perhaps less effective in their subsequent meeting with the Faithful, but he is one to watch out for nonetheless. The dependable and experienced Iain Corbett (an All-Star nominee in 2020) returned to the fold against Offaly, having missed out on Limerick’s clash with Tipp.
Elsewhere in the team, Brian Fanning (Pallasgreen) and Robert Childs (Galtee Gaels) have performed well in the key defensive positions with Monaleen’s Donal O’Sullivan proving an assured presence between the sticks.
Like Limerick, Wicklow earned promotion from Division Four of the National Football League in a disrupted 2020. Whilst the Garden County had a better score difference, a superior head-to-head record ensured the Treaty were crowned the fourth-tier champions.
Wicklow finished eight points in arrears when the sides met in last year’s league. Limerick’s handy knack for scoring goals during opportune intervals propelled them towards a 5-10 to 1-14 victory.
Burke has looked for ways to shore up his defence and the addition of Nicky Devereux to the squad in 2021 should certainly be a help in that regard. A brother of fellow Wicklow panelist Dave, he brings a wealth of experience to the set-up.
In 2010, Devereux won an All-Ireland U21 Football Championship title with Dublin alongside current senior stars like Rory O’Carroll, Jonny Cooper, James McCarthy and Dean Rock. When Jim Gavin ascended to the role of Sky Blues senior boss, he was quick to make the Ballinteer St John’s club man a part of his plans.
Having started the 2014 National Football League final win over Derry, he went on to feature heavily in that year’s Championship. Initially a debutant against Westmeath in the 2013 campaign - he also made an appearance in a provincial semi-final triumph at the expense of Kildare in the same term - Devereux started four consecutive games as Dublin sought to defend their Sam Maguire Cup crown the following year.
He was a half-time substitute in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final clash with Donegal - the most recent occasion that the Metropolitans lost a Championship encounter. If Wicklow were to get the better of Wexford in the opening round of this year’s Leinster SFC, the Devereux brothers would get a chance to face their home county at the quarter-final stage.
In their reversal to Offaly, Eoin Darcy (1-1), Dean Healy (0-3) and goalkeeper Mark Jackson (0-2) were the ones to lead the way from a scoring perspective.
Darcy and Jackson were also prominent at Semple Stadium in Thurles last weekend, while the reliable Seanie Furlong came away with a personal haul of 1-2. A member of the squad since 2008, Furlong’s know-how will be required again on Saturday if Wicklow are to get the result they crave.
Having claimed that historic Munster title last November, Tipperary will want to avoid dropping down to Division Four for the 2022 inter-county season. 2020 All-Star Conor Sweeney is one of their key figures and has accumulated 1-7 in his two appearances to date this year.
Clonmel Commercials ace Sean O’Connor is also in fine form at present. After kicking five points in their opening day loss to Limerick, he came away with 0-4 in their second round win against Wicklow.
Steven O’Brien has registered five points across his county’s two league games and the last day saw new recruit Philip Ryan getting off the mark. He previously counted the aforementioned Nicky Devereux as his team-mate on the Dublin panel and picked up an All-Ireland senior medal as part of the Sky Blues’ panel in 2015.
An All-Ireland U21 winner in his own right - under Jim Gavin in 2012 - Ryan is able to line out for the Premier County under the GAA’s parentage rule. Remarkably, there is another Dublin native to be found in the Offaly ranks within this division.
A member of Kilmacud Crokes, Shane Horan has been playing for the Faithful men since 2019. He has been restricted to substitute appearances so far, but has worked his way onto the scoresheet in both of Offaly’s games in Division Three South.
He will hope to leave another mark on their game against Tipperary at O’Connor Park, Tullamore on Saturday (kick-off 3pm) and ensure that the Midlanders safely advance to the semi-final stage.
Manager John Maughan has used his replacements to telling effect in this campaign, with a total of 10 points coming from his reserves across their wins against Wicklow and Limerick.
Niall McNamee was their marquee name for many years and he remains a valued member of the Offaly set-up. He may turn 36 this October, but based on the four points he has contributed as an impact substitute, the Rhode attacker still has plenty to offer.
For now, Bernard Allen, Joe Maher and Anton Sullivan are the go-to players in the Offaly forward line as Maughan attempts to move the Faithful back up the footballing ladder. A return to Division Two for the first time since 2007 would be a statement in itself, but first they have to overcome a Tipperary side that are determined to maintain the momentum built up in 2020.