By James McMahon
Saturday 9 March
Allianz Football League Division 1
DOWN v MAYO, Newry, 7.00pm
Down boss James McCartan will have had six days to get his side focused for the visit of the westerners following the agonising loss to Cork. It wasn’t just Ciarán Sheehan’s last-gasp goal that will have McCartan in a state of vexation, but the manner in which Down conceded the three green flags to the Rebels.
The Ulster County did display much spirit on the day, and the way they wrested control of the game back from Cork in the second half was impressive.
They also played a brand of football that got much praise from their manager, who claimed it was the best display his charges have put in of his four-year reign. Still, Down are pointless after three games and with Dublin, Kildare and Kerry still to come, the spectre of relegation looms if another barren return is the outcome against the green and red
Mayo, on the other hand, can take some positives from their narrow defeat to Dublin. They had periods of domination and kicked some fine scores, with Enda Varley, Jason Doherty and Mikey Conroy all showing well.
Yet they were also guilty of glaring misses and their midfield duo of Jason Gibbons and Barry Moran were second best for much of the encounter, while the full-back line also struggled.
Ger Cafferkey tried hard to contain the rampant Bernard Brogan, with boss James Horan pointing to those outfield and their inability to close down space on the providers as a contributing factor to why the Oliver Plunkett’s player again stole the headlines.
Still Mayo would feel confident that they can get required points to stay in the division and have another good run at the championship. The eventual return of Andy Moran, Alan Dillon and Cillian O’Connor to the fold will add weight to a forward line that combines well.
Collectively, however, the unit needs to score more goals. Aidan O’Shea was tried at No 11 and Kenneth O’Malley started in goals against the Dubs, with boss Horan, as befits any driven manager, still looking for the perfect blend.
Down won’t have happy memories of their last meeting with Mayo – a 12-point defeat in last summer’s All-Ireland quarter-final. In truth, the Mournemen were listless that day.
Assuming they are still not feeling sorry for themselves, their desire for points against the beaten All-Ireland finalists should ensure they are competitive on Saturday evening.
Benny Coulter will get more game time after his return from injury, while the pace and point-scoring ability of tricky corner-forward Donal O’Hare can cause problems for the Mayo defence.
A close battle is in store, with the visiting side just having the edge in crucial areas to propel them to victory.
SUNDAY 10 MARCH
DONEGAL v KERRY, Ballybofey, 2pm
Kerry go in search of their first points against the All-Ireland champions, who themselves will be smarting from their defeat to Tyrone. Indeed, ahead of this game, the contrasting views of the respective managers with regard to relegation were interesting.
Speaking to The Examiner, Kerry boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice was quite forthright on his team’s current predicament. He said: “We do have to start getting points or else it is going to be a foregone conclusion that we’re going down. We don’t want to go that direction.”
Jim McGuinness, in an interview with RTÉ Radio was looking further down the road and added: “It all about Tyrone in May (in the championship) - it has to be. If we’re relegated, were relegated. We want to stay in the division, but for us our preparations will be building towards that game.”
McGuinness’ experimentation in the league saw him start Neil Gallagher at full-forward in Omagh last weekend, while Mark McHugh was redeployed at wing-back.
Ross Wherity again started in the half-forward line and fellow attacker Ryan McHugh was introduced as others battle for regular starting places. Expect McGuinness to tinker more in the weeks ahead as Donegal strive to kick on from last year.
Their defeat to Tyrone was a niggly affair that saw Michael Murphy and Neil Gallagher get their marching orders. In general, Donegal showed a lot of ill discipline at Healy Park, with Ciarán Whelan describing it on RTÉ 2FM’s Game On as “post All-Ireland crankiness.”
Ballybofey at the end of May is the place to be as the Red Hand bid to end Donegal’s eight-match unbeaten run in the Ulster championship.
Kerry left Newbridge last Sunday disappointed that they at least did not get a point from the game. Their performance was much improved from the defeats to Mayo and Dublin and they battled right to the end.
Hitting 16 wides did not help their cause, many of them from good scoring positions. Yet they created the chances and with many of the big guns still to return, coach Fitzmaurice knows that his side are capable of a strong finish to their league campaign.
Of those who returned against the Lilywhites, Johnny Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh impressed, with Buckley starring in midfield, after originally been named in the half-forward line.
The form of the latter gives Fitzmaurice an added option when regular midfield duo Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher return to the set-up.
Sunday sees Darren O'Sullivan back in the Kerry line-up at full-forward, where he will alongside Michael Geaney, who also returns.
A third change from last week sees Peter Crowley get the nod to start at No 7.
Despite no points so far this spring, talk of Kerry in a crisis is far off the mark. They won’t, however, find it easy in Donegal and will have to work hard for their first win.
They showed enough against Kildare to suggest they are finding their rhythm again, but whether it’s enough against opposition who will be keen to beat a football ‘super power’ on their own patch’ remains to be seen.
KILDARE v DUBLIN, Croke Park, 2.00pm
A decent crowd should assemble at GAA HQ to watch unbeaten Dublin and Kildare battle for the points.
Meetings between the sides in recent Championship encounters have been close – and if earlier hurdles are safely negotiated – then counties will lock horns again in a Leinster semi-final at the end of June.
Before that it’s a question of league supremacy and a test that Kieran McGeeney’s Lilywhites will relish as they strive for more consistency in the months ahead.
Keeping Bernard Brogan quiet will be one of their main tasks on Sunday after the ace attacker hit 1-10 for the Dubs against Mayo. At times, Brogan was a delight to watch against the westerners and his performances so far this year have surpassed the levels of excellence he reached in both 2010 and 2011.
A fine win for Dublin was overshadowed by the sending off of Ger Brennan, while Jim Gavin will also point to a few periods where Mayo were dominant and failed to make their advantage count on the scoreboard.
So Dublin have a few things work on. With the likes of James McCarthy and Philly McMahon to return in a few weeks, and the young guns, headed by Ciarán Kilkenny, competing for regular starts, Gavin’s difficulty will be in naming a settled XV come June.
Kildare have already beaten Dublin in the final of the O’Byrne Cup – and their impressive start to the league is sure to be a confidence booster.
However, coach McGeeney is around long enough to know that it’s early in the year and that his troops must continue the hard work. Watching Seanie Johnston’s performance against Kerry will have pleased him as the Cavan native played well off Tomás O’Connor. In midfield, Padraig O’Neill is making a real name for himself this year in the absence of Gary White.
With Daryl Flynn and Eamonn Callaghan nearing a return to full fitness and Alan Smith featuring as a sub against Kerry, McGeeney’s hand will be stronger in the coming weeks. A further boost came during the week when the county’s Under-21 side had a good win over Meath in the Leinster championship where Niall Flynn and Padraig Fogarty were to the fore.
Kildare will have to improve on their sloppy second-half showing against Kerry, but the sight of the blue jersey should focus their minds.
Cutting down the supply of ball into Bernard Brogan will be crucial, but Dublin have other options and if they are exploited, then Gavin’s outfit should remain unbeaten come 3.45pm on Sunday.
TYRONE v CORK, Healy Park, 2.30pm
Is 2013 the year that Tyrone will reassert themselves and challenge for honours on all fronts?
Well they already have the Dr McKenna Cup in the bag and have three wins from three in the league.
Last Sunday, they certainly got under the skin of Donegal – ending a winless sequence against their neighbours – while also signposting their intentions come the Ulster opener on 26 May.
In Newry, Cork, while not committing an act of grand larceny, can feel fortunate to have wrested the points from Down, thanks to Ciarán Sheehan’s late goal. Points on the board for Conor Counihan’s outfit, but they certainly haven’t pulled up any trees in the campaign so far.
Counihan keeps faith with the side that broke Down hearts for the trip to Omagh.
Maybe Cork’s thoughts are firmly fixed on the summer and they are building secretly for that – devising systems that will give them an edge they have lacked for the last two seasons.
Nevertheless, they will have to up their game against a Tyrone side, who seem to be enjoying their football again, while also looking formidable in many areas on the pitch.
Seán Cavanagh, the McMahon brothers, Stephen O’Neill and wing-back Ronan McNamee are leading their charge. Add to that the imposing figure of new goalkeeper Niall Morgan, who scored 0-3 against Donegal and with the wing backs attacking with intent, the Red Hand are pleasing on the eye again and will be keen to maintain their unbeaten run before their joust with Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend.
Sunday’s game sees Mickey Harte opt for five changes to the Tyrone side. Conor Gormley replaces Conor Clarke at full-back, with Cathal McCarron coming in for Justin McMahon at number four.
After a long-term injury, Colm Cavanagh is back and will line out alongside his brother Seán at midfield. Kyle Coney and Ronan O’Neill replace Connor McAliskey and Mark Donnelly respectively in the full forward line.
Highlights of all the weekend’s Allianz League action on League Sunday on RTÉ Two and RTÉ.ie (Ireland only) from 8pm on Sunday 10 March.
Live Allianz League radio coverage on RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide) from 6.50pm on Saturday, and on RTÉ Radio 1, RTÉ RnaG and RTÉ.ie (Worldwide) on Sunday from 2pm.