The National League reaches its first pivotal point this weekend; for teams like Donegal, Kildare and Derry, the prospect of finishing the third round on zero points is unpalatable in the extreme and would raise fears that their seasons were already starting to slip away.
Here we assess the games in the top two divisions in an effort to assess the state of the nation after a three-week break that that counties will hope to have used wisely with the championship a mere three months away.
Armagh v Mayo
Mayo’s fine start to the season was only saved by fog in Castlebar three weeks ago, so we look to the Athletic Grounds for evidence of whether the James Horan project is an initiative of substance. Armagh ought to be favourites on form but they are hit by suspensions and northern teams have never held any fear for the men of the west.
Laois v Dublin
The O’Moores had a most agreeable trip to Ballybofey last time but they will remember that they had a good league last year and still exited the championship with a 15-point defeat to Kildare. Their supporters will also remember the non-performance against the Dubs last year. So this is a key game as Justin McNulty aims to build a foundation of mental strength. However, Dublin started to look like All-Ireland champions against Mayo, before the game was postponed, for the first time since September; if, for instance, Diarmuid Connolly repeats his form from those 35 minutes, Laois will be in severe trouble.
Donegal v Cork
Just the fixture Donegal didn’t need as they seek to lift the gloom partly caused by Jim McGuinness’s over-the-top cutting of Kevin Cassidy and mostly caused by an insipid start to the league. We would expect a Tir Chonaill backlash but Cork are one of the teams that look certain to kick on with power from now to September; they made short work of Down and could win more comfortably here than you might think, particularly if their recent taste for rattling the net manifests itself again.
Down v Kerry
Kerry had an interesting challenge game with Kildare on Saturday which they lost 0-18 to 0-17, but only after they had led 0-17 to 0-9 and made 10 substitutions. Reports suggest that young forwards James O’Donoghue and Patrick Curtin really caught the eye once more for the Kingdom. Down’s defence is still too shaky and Kerry should get back on track after their frustrating evening against Armagh last time out.
Derry v Monaghan
Derry simply cannot be as bad, with the talent at their disposal, as their first two results suggest. Monaghan, with Paul Finlay in even more rampant form than at previous peaks of his career, surely can’t be quite as good as their first two results suggest. This is one where we expect form to turn given Derry’s tradition of excellence in Celtic Park and the fact that their need is greater.
Meath v Kildare
It’s hard to know whether Kildare football is in rude health or undermined by failings; their VEC team blew an All-Ireland final lead against Cork while an NUI Maynooth team with a fair sprinkling of Lilywhites reached the Sigerson Cup final but went down heavily to a DCU team containing a liberal dosage of Dubs. Seamus McEnaney and Meath appear to be growing on each other at last and they will be desperate to end a dire losing streak against their neighbours to the south. Kildare, on zero points, are badly in need of a win and that necessity may drive them to a narrow win.
Westmeath v Galway
Just when it seemed that good news and Westmeath football would never be associated with each other unless you were talking about Garrycastle, they received the huge boost of John Heslin’s return from Melbourne. If you haven’t seen him play, you should believe the hype. He is a serious footballer; not serious enough for his trip home to have any impact on the likely result here, though, as the Tribesmen look to put their terrible finish to the game against Louth behind them.
Louth v Tyrone
After a Leinster final hangover that lasted a full season, Louth finally seem to be putting serious effort into proving that they would have been worthy provincial champions had only big Joe not “jumped in with it”. Thus events in Drogheda will let us know whether they are back to being a side of substance, and whether Mickey Harte’s rebuilding project can be termed Tyrone 4.0 just yet. We suspect both might be true, and that the Red Hands will only prevail through greater nous when the game is there to be won.