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25th Jun 2015

#THETOUGHEST ISSUE: Can any county break up Gaelic Football’s established top four this season?

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Will Slattery

Kerry, Donegal, Dublin and Mayo have dominated the Football Championship in recent years, but are there any counties fit to take their place in the top four?

Will Slattery of says: YES

There is no need to reiterate how dominant four particular teams have been in the football championship recently.

We all know that Kerry, Dublin, Mayo and Donegal have divvied up every trophy worth divvying since 2011. Nothing new there.

But look past their admittedly dominant trophy hauls and there is hope for the remaining teams in the championship.

The aforementioned quartet are exceptional sides but judging by the rhetoric spoken about them, you would swear that they win every game they play by double digits and are only troubled when they play each other.

Granted, that does happen a fair bit, but they have been pushed perilously close in recent years by counties who may as well withdraw from championship 2015, since apparently this much talked about two-tier structure should be split into tournaments featuring 28 counties and four.

In last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, Armagh had possession twice in the game’s final moments to kick an insurance point against Donegal. Two wasted opportunities later, Donegal’s Paddy McBrearty’s kicked the winning score and an upset was averted.

Allianz Football League Division 2 9/2/2014  Donegal  Paddy McBrearty  Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Paddy McBrearty’s late score prevented Armagh causing an upset last season

Just because that shock didn’t happen last year doesn’t mean it CAN’T happen this year. Luck plays a big role in championship matches, and it has gone with the top four sides at times over the last few years.

Let’s talk about Mayo? They are certainly All-Ireland contenders, but immune to defeat by a county other than Dublin, Kerry and Donegal? Hardly.

The week before Armagh’s blunder last year, a late Aidan O’Shea goal saw Mayo past Cork by three points. Cork were outplayed for long stretches by the Connacht champions but were able to exploit them in their weakest area.

Mayo concede A LOT of goals for a team that has supposedly copper-fastened its place in the ‘top four’. Darragh O Se called it a ‘top three and a half’ in his Irish Times column on Wednesday and that seems closer to reality.

Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Pearse Stadium, Galway 14/6/2015 Galway vs Mayo GalwayÕs Gary Sice scores the opening goal despite the efforts of Mayo's Chris Barrett Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Cathal Noonan

Gary Sice exposed a big Mayo weakness against Galway: conceding goals

So who is best placed to break into the upper echelons of the championship?

Leinster have nobody, Roscommon were Connacht’s big hope but they laid an egg against a limited Sligo side, which leaves Ulster and Cork (not Munster, Cork).

Unfortunately for the Rebels, their path to the semi-final requires them to beat either Kerry in the Munster final or Dublin (barring a monumental upset) in a quarter-final.

Cork have the forwards to trouble any defence in the country and as Colm Cooper and James O’Donoghue are still regaining match fitness, the Munster final in Killarney is Cork’s chance to make a mark on this year’s championship.

Up north, Monaghan are the team ready to make the step up. Sure, they strengthen the argument for splitting Dublin in two almost every time they take the field against Jim Gavin’s men, but the rest of their CV is strong.

They employ a very structured game plan that sees them intelligently use every inch of the pitch to advance the ball up the field and have one of the game’s marquee forwards, Conor McManus, to create scores when scores cannot be created.

Malachy O’Rourke was also the only manager to defeat McGuinness in Ulster during the his four-year stint with Donegal, proving that Monaghan have a top tactician on the sideline too.

Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Kingspan Breffni Park, Cavan 21/6/2015 Fermanagh vs Monaghan Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Presseye/Andrew Paton

In Malachy O’Rourke, Monaghan have a manager who knows his stuff

The biggest thing the Farney County have going for them this season is the potential quarter-final draw.

They have avoided Dublin! That on its own should see Monaghan fans revelling on main street in Clones. First up, they will play Donegal in the Ulster final.

Win Ulster, and a quarter-final against a qualifier team is their reward, and with it, an excellent chance at making the All-Ireland semi-final.

But even if they lose, they will likely face the most vulnerable of the established teams in the last eight. Facing Mayo in Croke Park wouldn’t hold the same fear for Monaghan as another match against Dublin would.

If you are ranking the top teams in the championship, you would definitely have Mayo four and likely put Monaghan five. Given how close last year’s quarter-finals were, are Mayo that entrenched in this ‘top four’ that Monaghan couldn’t produce a minor shock?

Conor Heneghan of says: NO

Plenty of people have been arguing of late that the All-Ireland Football Championship should be split into two.

It’s a healthy debate that’s being had too because as far as I’m concerned at least, it’s well past the time that a tiered structure was introduced to the Championship.

It would increase competitiveness amongst the weaker counties, it would hopefully reduce the number of ridiculously one-sided encounters we’ve been seeing in recent years and a revamp of the entire system might even help the plight of the oft-forgotten club player.

One thing that would remain in spite of whatever changes were introduced, however, for the time being at least, is the status of the four counties dominating the Gaelic Football landscape as it currently stands.

Dublin and Mayo have reached the semi-finals of the last four Championships. Donegal and Kerry have been there in three of the last four years and I would be amazed, well, very surprised, if it’s not those four counties battling it out again this season.

GAA Football All Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final, Croke Park, Dublin 2/9/2012 Dublin vs Mayo Mayo's Keith Higgins and Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Mayo and Dublin have been in the last four of the Championship since 2011

The longer the status quo remains in place, the more people want a change. It’s just the nature of things, it’s just life.

Maybe people are starting to think that seeing the same four counties competing at the business end of the Championship is getting a little bit boring.

As a result, the potential challengers to the establishment are arguably being talked up a little more than they deserve.

We’ve seen it in Ulster. Armagh, having only lost by a point to Donegal in the All-Ireland quarter-finals last season, were going to give them an awful rattle on their home patch.

They were annihilated.

We’ve seen it in Connacht. A coming Galway team had a mighty chance of stopping a vulnerable Mayo team from launching their drive to five at Pearse Stadium.

The Tribesmen gave it a good shot, mind, but a cuter Mayo team playing in third gear won pulling up.

Connacht GAA Football Senior Championship Semi-Final, Markievicz Park. Sligo 20/6/2015 Sligo vs Roscommon SligoÕs Eoin Flanagan, Keelan Cawley and Niall Murphy tackle Cathal Cregg of Roscommon Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Roscommon, a team on the up, fell way short against Sligo in Connacht

Nevermind, it was Roscommon who were going to provide the real threat to Mayo’s dominance out west. They had the formality of Sligo to get over first, of course, but they couldn’t even manage that.

We’ve seen it in Leinster. Actually, no, we haven’t it seen in Leinster. Dublin are a mile ahead of the chasing pack and everyone knows it.

Munster is as Munster has always been and will always be as long as a seeding system remains in place, a toss-up between the big two,

As far as I can see, the only teams with a hope of punching their way into the top four at the moment are Cork, Monaghan and maybe Tyrone at a long shot.

But even their credentials are hardly bulletproof.

Encyclopedias could be written about the infuriating capacity of the current Cork team to whither on the big days against Kerry and other opposition.

They have forwards as good as there are in any county, but unless they develop a backbone fast, they’ll fall to the Kingdom in the Munster Final and likely perish before the semi-finals once again.

Allianz Football League Division 1, Pairc Ui Rinn, Cork 29/3/2015 Cork vs Mayo Cork's Donncha OÕConnor and Kevin OÕDriscoll celebrate with Brian Hurley after his late goal Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/James Crombie

Cork have great forwards, but have repeatedly flattered to deceive

Monaghan have experience. They have two of the best forwards around, a good manager and characters like Dick Clerkin, Dessie Mone and Vinny Corey who would inspire any dressing room.

But have they shown that they can do it in Croke Park once the dust has been settled on the provincial championships? A limp defeat to Tyrone in the 2013 quarter-final and a hammering from Dublin last year would suggest otherwise.

Tyrone are the best of the rest after that but despite a spirited display against Donegal in Ballybofey, a scalp of one the big guns in the Championship seems beyond them.

Challengers will emerge and the composition of the top four will change eventually.

The reality for now, though, is that four teams are well ahead of the chasing pack and are purposely tailoring their training to peak for late summer, with the possible exception of Donegal, who have to maintain that peak for longer.

If I end up being proved wrong about one of those four teams (apart from Mayo for personal reasons), then great; the Championship could do with a bit of shake-up.

But I can’t see it. Not this season at least.

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