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Tuesday 12 December 2017

Frank Roche: Dublin not in league of their own just yet

THERE are many sceptics out there who believe the National Leagues don't matter a damn.

There are other true believers who are adamant that there is a clear correlation between spring form guides and September silverware. "Just ask Jack O'Connor!" they will say with a smug flourish, pointing to Kerry's league and All-Ireland doubles in 2004, 2006 and 2009.

And then you've got a third constituency of National League agnostics. They reckon the only time to sit up and take notice of results and trends is from the middle of March onwards. In other words, from right about now.

If you belong to the latter category then you may be a dyed-in-the-wool Dublin diehard but you won't be getting carried away just because your team has won four on the bounce for the first time since Methuselah was in short pants and Blackthorn boots.

TAKING SHAPE

It's all about the last three rounds, you see. This is when your team should be taking shape for summer. This is also the time when rival managers should be paying particular attention to the form guides of Kerry and Tyrone or, if we're to swap codes, Kilkenny in the hurling.

This is not an attempt to rain on Dublin's Paddy's Day parade -- we'll even hazard a guess that Pat Gilroy will harbour similar thoughts concerning his team's last three NFL outings, away to Cork this Saturday, at home to Galway a week later and then away to Tyrone on April 11.

Dublin have already bucked several trends this season, and the significance of forming a winning habit while trying to embrace a new style of play should not be downplayed. Yet it's fair to surmise that if they could record an all-too-rare win on Leeside and emerge from Omagh with both points then that would constitute a far bigger achievement than those earlier (albeit encouraging) victories away to Kerry and Mayo.

Clearly, if Dublin keep winning they will enjoy the added advantage of qualifying for a first Division One final since 1999. But they shouldn't start smelling themselves just yet, because history is littered with examples of teams who stormed out of the February blocks only to lose their way as the days lengthened.

Take Galway as the classic recent example. At the corresponding stage of the 2009 NFL season, Galway and Kerry were sitting pretty with a maximum eight points from four games.

Kerry duly kept the pedal to the metal and finished with 13 points, way ahead of the chasing pack. Meanwhile, Galway collected just one point from their last three games -- drawing in Derry, then overhauled by a second-half Mayo comeback, before suffering heavy last-day defeat in Kerry. As a consequence, Derry edged them out of a league final place on scoring difference; crucial momentum was lost and Galway never got it back again for the championship.

This wasn't the first example of Tribesmen flattering only to deceive in the Division One home straight -- they lurched from table-toppers to third on the last day of the 2008 campaign, all because of a five-point defeat to Kerry.

The grim irony for Galway is that, under Joe Kernan's watch, they now find themselves in a very different place after another crushing defeat to their green-and-gold nemesis.

Kernan's appointment was heralded as a masterstroke, but maybe the truth is now slowly dawning that even football messiahs can't work miracles without the raw materials. And certainly not without Michael Meehan.

This year there will be no talk of league final prospects with Galway instead rooted in a relegation battle. Maybe this time, necessity will be the mother of reinvention and they will actually finish strongly instead of blowing up on the last day -- but given the latest injury travails of their forward line (aka Michael of the Meehans) you wouldn't bet on it.

Tyrone and Kerry also started this league in surprisingly poor fettle, but both now seem to have turned a corner. Kerry have won two on the bounce and, suddenly, losing one-third of last year's All-Ireland team doesn't seem like such a fatal blow. Not when you've got Gooch and Star and Declan O'Sullivan reminding us all that form is temporary but class is permanent.

Two years ago Kerry had just four points after four rounds but won the last three rounds to make the final. Who's to say it can't happen again?

Tyrone can forget about league baubles, and they certainly aren't out of the mire yet, but Saturday night's victory over a previously flying Cork could yet transpire to be a watershed date in the Red Hand's 2010 calendar. Tyrone may have got lucky in the sense that Cork were rampant at different stages in either half only to be sucker-punched by the concession of three goals, but Mickey Harte will instead accentuate the positives of that belated first win.

Suffice to say, Tyrone haven't gone away but they need to push on over the next few weeks. The same can be said in Division Two for Kildare and Meath, who have mixed fleeting promise with some brutal displays thus far. In fact, the same can be said for almost everyone.

The league proper starts now...

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