By James McMahon
Saturday 9 February
Cork v Kildare, Páirc Uí Rinn, 7.00pm
The reigning league champions were certainly not firing against Dublin last weekend. Wayward shooting at the posts and numerous misdirected passes blighted their play. Because of the competitive nature of this division, manager Conor Counihan will want an instant response as another defeat could very well leave them facing a relegation fight.
Kildare, for their part, impressed in seeing off Donegal at GAA HQ. Despite a slow start, the Lilywhites gained a measure of control they never looked like surrendering even when the All-Ireland champions chipped away at their lead at a crucial stage of the second half. McGeeney and Co. will have a pep in their step as they head to the southern capital. Niall Kelly has certainly caught the eye for the Leinster county in the O’Byrne Cup final and last Saturday. The 19-year-old has a maturity that belies his years and is a welcome addition to the Kildare attacking unit.
The evergreen John Doyle just keeps delivering and his personal haul of 1-05 last time out underlines his importance to the squad. Seanie Johnston will look for an improved showing against the Rebels. He was taken off against Donegal, while his replacement Paddy Brophy did not look out of place and kicked a fine score.
Newcomer John O’Rourke did his bit with 0-03 for Cork against the Dubs. Paul Kerrigan was lively in parts, but overall the side lacked cohesion up front. There are four changes in personnel for this Saturday’s tie. Michael Shields and Graham Canty will start at full-back and centre-back respectively. Alan O’Connor is recalled at midfield, while Ciaran Sheehan is named at No 12
It’s early in the year and any team can be forgiven for a bad performance. The Rebels’ season will ultimately not be defined by their spring adventures, but another reverse will lead to some soul searching ahead of a three-week break before the league resumes.
Last August, Cork breezed past Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final. The latter are now more confident about themselves after that 13-point mauling. The response from the home side will be interesting it what should be a high scoring contest.
Donegal v Down, Ballybofey, 7.00pm
With limited preparation, it was perhaps not surprising that Donegal left Croke Park empty handed last weekend. Yet there was enough to suggest the manner in which they closed the gap on Kildare in the second half, that it won’t take them long to find their groove again. Michael Murphy was outstanding against the Lilywhites, contributing 0-09, and he chalked up a similar score for DCU in the Sigerson Cup during the week.
On the down side, Frankie McGlynn and Colm McFadden went off injured with hamstring tears last weekend, though the latter may be fit for the Ballybofey clash.
Down were in control for a lot of their league opener against Tyrone, but were reeled in late on in a rather tempestuous affair that saw Conor Laverty sent off after two yellow cards. He will, however, be available to face the All-Ireland champions.
James McCartan’s side would have targeted maximum points from their home games at the start of the league, so last week’s loss in Newry and the manner of it, will have them well pumped up to get something by the banks of the Finn. The manager keeps faith with the side that lined out against Tyrone
Benny Coulter and Donal O’Hare showed that they could not be faulted for their effort against the Red Hand, while newcomer Connaire Harrison, who has shown good early season form will look to further enhance his claims for a regular place in the attack.
Donegal’s Mark McHugh played close to 40 minutes against Kildare, as he continues to regain his fitness following a pelvic injury. He, along with Neil Gallagher, may feature against the Mournemen. The latter was absent last Saturday because of a groin strain. With the likes of fringe players Dermot Molloy, Ross Wherity and Daniel McLaughlin all vying for places, Jim McGuiness will welcome the chance to assess all options in the weeks ahead.
The two sides met in last year’s Ulster final, with Donegal running out comfortable winners after Down were competitive early on. It may not be so one sided this weekend, but the All-Ireland champions’ determination to get their year up and running and their greater strength around the park should be telling.
Sunday 10 February
Kerry v Dublin, Killarney, 2,00pm
You have to go back to 1966 for the last time that Kerry were held scoreless during a half in the National League. Last Sunday’s capitulation in the second period against Mayo was not the start new boss Eamonn Fitzmaurice wanted, though he made no excuses for their display in his post-match interview. On the other hand, Dublin were most impressive in seeing off Cork and will no doubt travel south with their sights set on adding to the Kingdom’s woes.
Kerry’s response is to make three changes from the side that surrendered tamely in Castlebar. Tomás O’Se returns at centre-half back, with Peter Crowley moving to corner back, as Shane Enright makes way. Bryan Sheehan will start at midfield in place of Johnny Buckley, while Barry John Keane gets the nod at No 15 in place of Conor Cox.
Fitzmaurice will still have to do without a number of key players who have club commitments, but that said he will want this side to show an approved appetite for the battle. The presence of blue jerseys at Fitzgerald Stadium, he hopes, will bring that about.
Jim Gavin can look back at a job well done at GAA HQ last weekend. Bernard Brogan and Paddy Andrews were the scorers in chief for the Dubs, while newcomers Jack McCaffrey, Johnny Cooper and Kevin O’Brien also stood out. The range of options that Gavin has at his disposal also saw the likes of Ciaran Reddin, Darragh Nelson and Shane Carthy get game time.
After the opening week’s action, Dublin are now favoured by many to ultimately land league honours. That may be a foolhardy assessment! The old maxim of talking one game at a time should be adhered to, with the Dubs capable of dealing with a Kerry backlash this weekend if they carry the same energy and drive that served them well against Cork.
Mayo v Tyrone, McHale Park, 2.00pm
An intriguing encounter awaits at McHale Park as Mayo and Tyrone lock horns. The Connacht side’s superior energy and workrate saw them get past Kerry last weekend. Manager James Horan was pleased with the way his side defended and their midfield superiority, while also singling Jason Doherty (0-06) out for praise.
Speaking to RTÉ Sport afterwards, he said: “Doc has played a lot of football with DIT, preparing for the Sigerson Cup, he’s very sharp at the moment and showed it today. Any free we got, he punished Kerry for it."
There is a sense that Mayo want to pick up from where they left off last year and a productive league campaign will leave them well placed for a tilt at bigger prizes come the summer.
Tyrone travel west on the back of a hard-earned win over Down. Mickey Harte’s side trailed for much of the game, but a Mark Donnelly goal and late points from Conor Clarke, Seán Cavanagh and Stephen O’Neill saw them take the points. The only downside on the night was Joe McMahon’s dismissal for a second bookable offence.
Sunday’s clash sees Justin McMahon start at full-back, while Conor Clarke will partner Seán Cavanagh in midfield. Patrick MacNiece is named in the half-foward line, with Kevin Gallagher dropping to the bench.
A consecutive home game is obviously an advantage to Mayo, but Tyrone will carry the fight, unlike Kerry, right to the end. This clash may well produce the best football in the division this weekend, with the margin of victory likely to be a narrow one.