Monday 19 March 2018

League form bordering on schizophrenic

FOOTBALL, as Greavesy once said, is a funny old game. The same cliché should be applied to this year's NFL, which has been funny-peculiar bordering on plain weird.

The sceptics used to constantly remind us that it was "only the league" when dismissing the link between spring success and likely championship progress.

Then, at some point in the past decade, someone spotted a correlation between winning league titles and lifting summer silver. Suddenly, league consistency mattered in the All-Ireland scheme of things.

Which brings us to this week's befuddled juncture, with two rounds remaining (or three, in the case of Dublin and Mayo). By now, you'd imagine, the divisions should be taking shape regarding knockout qualification, relegation and promotion.

But with a couple of notable exceptions, we haven't a clue. Not just because Divisions One and Two constitute a mid-table morass of counties who could go up or down; but also because form-lines have bordered on the schizophrenic.

Consider the following rollercoaster case study. Dublin lose to Kerry by six points. Kerry then lose at home to Armagh by four. Dublin duly demolish Armagh by 16! Similar sequences are repeated elsewhere. You also have several teams who started at 100mph and have stalled -- or vice versa.

This year's altered top-flight structure has added to the uncertainty. Prior to last Sunday's defeat in Down, there was a widespread presumption that Dublin would definitely make the semi-final stages ... now all bets are off and Saturday night's Croker showdown with Donegal has assumed far greater significance.

There is every chance that Dublin will deliver a backlash performance; but if they don't, can we be sure which Donegal will turn up? The one crushed by Kerry nine days ago, or the one that bounced back with a seven-point win over Mayo?

Perhaps the only trustworthy top-flight pointer is that Kerry - notwithstanding their shock demise to Armagh - are motoring ominously well. They have eight points, two clear of Down - who looked likely candidates for the drop after leaking four goals to Cork in February.

Division Two has been equally topsy-turvy. The one constant have been Tyrone who, after several erratic league campaigns serving as a precursor to deflating summer exits, have rediscovered their mojo - and already sealed promotion.

The other seven counties are separated by a trifling three points. As anticipated at the outset, Louth and Westmeath (on scoring difference) currently occupy the relegation slots but their form-lines are moving in opposite directions.

Back in February, when they lost abysmally to Meath by 0-17 to 0-5, a seemingly demoralised Westmeath looked shoo-ins for demotion. But from somewhere, they have unearthed some belief. They have won two of their last three games - the latter in prolific style, albeit against a Monaghan side that mix home brilliance with brutal away form.

And what of Meath? After hammering Westmeath they had a maximum four points. Now, three games later, they're stuck on four and facing a daunting trip to Tyrone. Chances are, they will require a last-day victory at home to Louth.

Kildare's spring graph is a polar opposite: three straight wins after two early losses. Ollie Lyons' injury-time winner in Navan has kickstarted their faltering season and now they are back in the promotion shake-up - standing second behind Tyrone.

Whoever said it was a funny old game?

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