Monday, February 26, 2007

Donegal Top of The Class Early On

And so for our first real look at matters GAA in 2007. Or, at least, that part of it that involves actual action on fields, as opposed to stuff about stadiums and payments and committees and all the other things that fill columns in January, but are barely footnotes in July.

The inter-county scene at this time of year resembles a classroom of attention deficient kids in the moments before their teacher barks order and they settle down into their pre-assigned seats to do as they're told. For those few minutes, while their teacher drains her tea-cup in the staff room, anarchy reigns.

Division 1A and 1B in the National Football League are headed by Donegal and Westmeath respectively. Both boast 100% records, neither were expected to do so at this point. Westmeath lead the weaker of the two divisions, not that that denigrates their achievements so far (good wins over a rebuilding Laois, Derry in Celtic Park and Down on Sunday last).

On the contrary, they were so unfancied that the NFL organisers might already have been chiselling out a space for them in next season's division 3 (the 2008 NFL will be organised in four descending divisions based on this season's final places, the bottom four teams in divisions 1A and 1B going into division 3 next year. Phew!). So primacy over the likes of Armagh, Galway and Laois even at this higgledy-piggledy stage is good work indeed.

But Division 1A is meaner-looking bunch altogether. Four of the five teams regarded by the bearded sages of the GAA as genuine contenders for Sam this year (Kerry, Tyrone, Mayo and Dublin) are there. Then there's Cork, last year's Munster champions and All-Ireland semi-finalists.

Donegal, too, are not without their own cred. But they are generally regarded in the vein of a Tottenham Hotspur: haven't won anything since the early 90s, plenty of talent but, nah, you wouldn't back them against one of the big boys.

They've come racing out of the blocks this year though (again with the Tottenham 'top of the league in August' Hotspur comparison). Wins over Cork (away) and at home against Mayo and Dublin have put them at the head of some very exalted company. Of course, as we mentioned earlier, everything's a little scattered at this stage of the season, but its still worthwhile to study the tea-leaves.

Indeed, given that this season's league places have more resonance than usual for next term, and also the now-established truism that the old chestnut about the league not mattering come the summer is, well, a false-ism, you have to take notice.

Dublin were comfortably dispatched on Sunday in Ballyshannon. The Dubs appeared not to fancy it from the start, not that it doesn't blow gusts of horizontal rain in Dublin of course. Donegal were five points to the good before the metropolitans had folded away their AA road map, and though they rallied to 0-5 to 0-3, that oh-so-familiar diffidence allowed Donegal to pull away in the second half. "Winter football is winter football," explained Dublin manager Pillar Caffrey, like a devoted mother excusing her bank-robbing sons by saying "boys will be boys."

Whatever about Dublin, Donegal looked pretty sharp, not a little mean and plenty keen. Two very good goal chances passed up by Rory Kavanagh and Brendan Devenney early on could have ended the contest in the first quarter.
Manager Brian McIver has been busy building strength in depth. Missing through injury yesterday was All Star Karl Lacey, and coming on as subs were such luminaries as former All Stars Adrian Sweeney and Christy Toye, seasoned county man Eamonn McGee, and bright young things Kevin McMenamin and Johnny McLoone.

There was variation in style as well as numbers. Despite the bias of the wind, Donegal won both halves. Kevin Cassidy - another returning erstwhile All Star - dropped back from midfield to aid Paddy Campbell and Barry Monaghan in smothering Dublin's forwards. The oft-won ball was thrust directly into the forwards with the wind, and in the second half Donegal's more familiar short passing game was deployed to suit the elements.

Dublin looked willowy in attack, lacking the physical presence to master the conditions, and the thorny issue of full-back looks no nearer to resolution, as Niall O'Shea was repeatedly roasted by Devenney.

Donegal face Tyrone next, whose defeat of them in the McKenna Cup final is the only blemish on their season so far. Their neighbours are always a good yardstick by which to measure progress. And although they're the smartest looking kid of a scruffy bunch right now, they've shown enough to suggest they could be in the front row come class photo time.

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