We asked our top GAA writers here at Pundit Arena to have a look at the Football Championship so far this year. Here’s what they think…..
- Biggest winner of the year so far? (Exceeded expectations)
Danny Ryan: Monaghan – The only team to knock off one of this year’s supposed Big Four, Monaghan proved that they deserve to dine at the top table. Donegal looked ominous earlier this year, but Monaghan proved that you can beat the System, were incredibly disciplined and in Conor McManus possess the type of marquee forward that makes the difference between the good teams and the rest, It will be interesting to see if their rigid defensive system will survive the wide open spaces of Croke Park, but for now they are right where they want to be.
Our podcast team, ‘The 16th Man’ by hosts Paul Corcoran and Maurice Brosnan: Monaghan – It is difficult to underestimate the job Malachy O’Rourke has done with Monaghan. He’s one of few getting maximum return out of the resources available. They’ve beaten Cavan and Fermanagh before beating Donegal at their own game. In all three games they didn’t concede a goal or even a goal chance which is remarkable. A common criticism is their reliance Conor McManus who has scored 1-19 in three championship games, but there’s very few teams who wouldn’t rely on him as he’s in the top three players in the country. The fact that Monaghan have won two provincial titles in three years under O’Rourke, in the most competitive province is a massive achievement.
John Ivory: Westmeath – Despite going down to Dublin in the Leinster final, Westmeath have gained the most from the provincial championships. Victories over Louth and Wexford propelled them into a Leinster semi-final and this was where their story took off. They clawed back a seemingly insurmountable deficit to defeat the old enemy Meath. You couldn’t help but get swept up in the emotion of the occasion, and ‘Yop Westmeath’ spread like wild fire. The buzz around the county is huge after their run in Leinster and they have a shot at the last eight. Massive strides forward for the Lake County.
Tadgh Evans: Fermanagh have built on their league promotion with a championship campaign to remember. A decent display against Monaghan has been followed with a terrific comeback against Roscommon. Fermanagh still struggle to shake off their reputation as a perennial minnow, but they’ll be in Division Two next year, and I see no reason why they should fear Westmeath next time out. Who knows, if they can win that they’ll be up against Kerry, which might even be enough them a mention on The Sunday Game. They really can dare to dream!
Brian Barry: Westmeath – It has got to be the Lake County. A first ever championship win over neighbours Meath brought them to the Leinster Final, where they were by no means embarrassed by the Dubs. A favourable qualifier draw with Fermanagh leaves Tom Cribbin’s side with a real chance of reaching an All-Ireland quarter-final. Whatever happens from here, 2015 has been a year to remember for Westmeath.
- Biggest loser of the year so far? (Biggest let down)
‘The 16th Man’: The Leinster Council – nobody could watch the Leinster championship this year and be happy with proceedings. Dublin’s dominance should not mean the rest of Leinster is of such a poor standard and if Fermanagh beat Westmeath and Cork beat Kildare as expected it’ll be the third year in a row with only one Leinster team is in the quarter-finals. Rather than accept that the 11 teams in Leinster aren’t good enough and put them all in a second-tier competition, a change in funding structures needs to be implemented.
JI: Roscommon – Whether it was the John Evans hype machine, the underage success, or the genuine talent in the squad, there was a lot expected of Roscommon this year. They disposed of London but were then taken out by Sligo and found themselves looking through the back door. Although they out-gunned Cavan, they were narrowly defeated by a high-flying Fermanagh and will be disappointed with their year overall. They have the players to challenge for Connaught but something needs to change mentally so they don’t get caught on the hop again.
TE: Roscommon – I tipped them to win Connacht this year on the back of their promotion to Division One, but their performance in Sligo was a huge let down, particularly when you account for Sligo’s ensuing crucifixion at the hands of Mayo. The path to an All-Ireland quarter final was relatively kind to the Rossies, but to lose such a commanding lead against Fermanagh, when the clock had nothing left to offer, only added to their ignominious campaign. Armagh probably deserve a mention too, but at least they lift. Anything to be said for another weights session?
BB: Following years of underage success, Roscommon needed a breakthrough season at senior level, and were presented with the ideal opportunity in 2015. Drawn on the opposite side to Galway and Mayo in Connacht, hopes were high for the Rossies. Perhaps they were guilty of having one eye on a Connacht Final with Mayo as they were well beaten by Sligo in the semi-final. A qualifier victory over Cavan is all they have to show for summer 2015 having been ousted by Fermanagh. Back to the drawing board for John Evans and Co.
DR: Roscommon by far. No other county this year has promised so much and failed to deliver on such a scale. Completely shocked by Sligo, and then lit up by Seamus Quigley and Fermanagh. No disrespect to Fermanagh, but a team with serious championship ambitions should be putting them away. The second half collapse against the Ernesiders was symptomatic of their Championship season. You have to believe that the Rossies would have put up a much better struggle than Sligo’s effort in the Connacht final against Mayo, which just shows how off the boil Roscommon were. For all their faux outrage about Eamon O’Hara’s tweet, it’s proven to be right.
- Most impressive team of the year so far? (Best team so far)
JI: This came down to Donegal and Monaghan, and based on Sunday’s result, the Farney men just shade it. They have emerged on top of the toughest province after three testing games. They started away to Cavan and showed all their experience to advance to the last four. There they disposed of Fermanagh – who have gone on a run themselves – and then beat Donegal to the title. They have been on the road a while, but their intensity and disciplined defence was impressive throughout. Conor McManus is a star forward and in the likes of Dessie Mone and Dick Clerkin, they’re not short of leaders.
TE: I was very taken with Donegal’s display against Armagh earlier in the campaign, but they’ve been less impressive since then, and their old failings against teams who ape their system continue to haunt them. Kerry improved considerably against Cork last Saturday, but the first outing provided plenty to keep the opposition interested. Dublin actually looked pretty blunt for long periods against Westmeath’s blanket, which leads you to wonder what would happen against one of the top teams. Mayo might just get the nod for this question, but the championship is wide open, and everyone is still guarding their cards.
BB: Dublin – Easy answer. The Dubs have not faced stern tests like Kerry or Mayo, but nonetheless have been clinical throughout. Jim Gavin’s side now enter the All-Ireland series with a potentially tricky draw. Whether the lack of real competition in Leinster will cost them remains to be seen, but at this moment, they are very much the team to beat.
DR: Honestly, none in particular. All of the big counties have mixed good and bad this year. Dublin looked unstoppable against Longford and Kildare but mortal against Westmeath. Kerry’s second half against Cork in the Munster final is counter-balanced by their second half in the replay. Donegal looked unstoppable until Sunday, serious questions remain about the quality of Mayo’s opposition and until Monaghan prove they can do it in Croke Park, questions will remain. An interesting year awaits.
‘The 16th Man’: Tyrone: It’s hard to say as few teams have played brilliant against quality opposition. You can’t pick Dublin with the quality of opposition, same argument could be applied to Mayo and Monaghan have already been praised so given the massive pressure they were under Tyrone deserve mention. Lost to Donegal by 3, then went on a run in the qualifiers and beat Limerick, Meath and Tipperary and now Sligo stand in their way to an All-Ireland quarter-final. Given where they started from and the pressure Mickey Harte was under that’s a terrific achievement. There’s something brewing in Tyrone and they could still play a big part in this year’s championship.
- Surprise packet of the year so far? (Most shocking team – could be good or bad)
TE: Cork got a lot right against Kerry during their first outing, which I really didn’t expect, but they looked pretty flat last Saturday. Westmeath have done well, and not many would have tipped them to beat Meath, certainly not with twenty minutes to go. But I think I might give Monaghan the nod for this one. It might seem unusual to pick the country’s fifth best team as a surprise packet, but I don’t think many expected them to beat Donegal yesterday. Like two years ago, Malachy O’Rourke’s game plan stifled Donegal, and an All-Ireland semi-final is within their reach.
BB: Galway. The Westerners have flattered to deceive come Championship in recent seasons, and Mayo’s fifth consecutive Connacht title tells its own story. Too often have the Tribesmen missed out in tight games in recent years. But perhaps the winning mentality is creeping back in. They showed heart in a four point loss to Mayo, before qualifier wins over Armagh and Derry. The next tie against Donegal will be a real litmus test as to how far they have come.
‘The 16th Man’: Roscommon – Roscommon have been the victims of their own success this year in that their team clearly got complacent after promotion to Division One. This wasn’t helped by John Evans then coming out and saying they should be dreaming of All-Irelands, a fair point delivered at the worst possible time. The loss to Sligo was a disaster and they then beat a 14-man Cavan before losing to Fermanagh. Once again they have failed to play any part in Connacht and the squad they have signals the biggest waste of potential this year.
DR: Westmeath – Not especially surprising that they bet Wexford or Louth. No one could have seen the comeback against Meath on the horizon. That fight back has changed the complexion of Westmeath football and given the county its first real burst of momentum since 2004. Weither they can maintain this momentum against Fermanagh and further on remains to be seen, but for a county that has experienced a fair few false dawns, it’s been a good year. Also helped to do it against their bitter rivals. I’m not pissed off. (Very pissed off still).
JI Sligo – They had two outings in Connaught and shocked me on both occasions. Firstly, their performance against a much fancied Roscommon was a sight to behold and really made an argument for the validity of the provincial championships. Adrian Marren was superb, as were the whole team and their focus and intensity was brilliant to see from underdogs. However, their Connaught final appearance showed them up to be a team nowhere near capable of competing at the highest level. Whatever way you look at it, they let themselves down by not performing on the day and have definitely been the biggest shock on two counts.
- Best individual performance of the year so far?
BB: Aidan O’Shea vs Sligo – The Mayo man is recognised as one of the finest footballers in the country at present, but few could have predicted the problems he would cause the Yeats County on Sunday. The Breaffy man scored 3-4 as the Connacht champions sent out a loud, clear message to the rest of the country that they are real contenders again. If Mayo are to finally win Sam Maguire, O’Shea will need to be at his imperious best like we saw on Sunday.
DR: Michael Murphy vs Tyrone. Dominated the game. Murphy has become one of the great field generals of Football. Directs play with calm assurance, points his team mates in the right direction, and has developed a keen sense of when he needs to take over. Those two late frees on a miserable day are two of the best in recent memory. He hadn’t a great game in the Ulster final, but that shouldn’t take away from the magnificence of his earlier performance.
‘The 16th Man’: Conor McManus – yes, Diarmuid Connolly has looked sensational and was the only Dublin forward to stand up in the first half against Westmeath. I’d also be tempted to give it to Shane Enright who kept Brian Hurley scoreless twice and only conceded a point against Tipperary but more than that looks a skilled corner-back benefiting massively from the managers clear belief in him. Conor McManus should get it though, he’s had three brilliant games against three blanket defences. For any team looking to play that game-plan a clinical inside forward is vital and McManus is the prime example of that.
JI John Heslin – John Heslin’s display against Meath in Westmeath’s historic Leinster championship win was nothing short of spectacular. Even though his side weren’t at the races for the entire 70 minutes, Heslin stood out and led the line extremely well. When Westmeath got on top he was scorer in chief, eventually notching up 1-09. He was calm and composed on the Croke Park turf and the goal he scored at the end was laced with class. He was an inspiration that day when his side needed him and it was the standout performance in the provincial championships.
TE: Martin Carney tells me James O’Donoghue had a cracker last Saturday, but I think I might look elsewhere. Aidan O’Shea’s tally of 3-04 against Sligo might just have been the best individual display thus far, but Kieran Martin’s performance in steering the Lakesiders to a first ever Championship victory against their greatest rivals, given what it meant, probably deserves this accolade. I think the player of the championship so far has been Diarmuid Connolly, and I certainly look forward to seeing what the top teams can do to try and counter his enormous talent in the Autumn months.