MICKEY HARTE HAS spoken for a long time about the importance of Division 1 football.
It was something that irritated him in recent years that his team were operating in the second tier and he was glad this season to finally be back up competing at the top level.
On Saturday night in Newry, his Tyrone team got off to a positive start in a division that is clearly going to be intensely competitive.
Kildare, Dublin and Mayo experienced a similarly bright opening over the weekend in a division where points are of paramount importance.
The championship may be the grand prize but no team wants to drop down to Division 2 in the league. The defeats for Cork, Kerry, Donegal and Down over the weekend creates a layer of pressure ahead of next weekend’s round of games. Suffer another defeat and they’re already bracing themselves for a relegation scrap.
Donegal’s defeat was hardly surprising on Saturday night given that they have wintered well and celebrated the medals in their pockets. They clearly weren’t at the peak of their powers and there was a fundamental difference in the conditioning levels between themselves and Kildare.
That was to be expected given Donegal do not have much work done and they will certainly improve. Their one shining light was Michael Murphy and the benefits of playing Sigerson Cup football at this time of year were DCU were evident in his attacking showing.
Donegal badly needed his input though after Colm McFadden went off injury and his loss brought into sharp focus just how important he was to Donegal last year. He scored heavily in 2012 and aside from Murphy, you wonder who else can chip in consistently with scores for Donegal?
In Saturday’s second game, Cork were a huge disappointment. They have been magnificent in the league over the last few years but against Dublin they looked tired and stuck in a rut. Granted their team line-up was experimental, but they continue to recycle and retain possession rather than be direct and serve the immensely talented forwards that they possess.
Look at Donegal’s All-Ireland final victory and the game hinged on the trust they showed in their quality inside forwards as long deliveries were pumped into Murphy and McFadden for those early goals.
Kerry for their part lost the run of themselves completely against Mayo in the second-half yesterday. Granted Anthony Maher’s sending-off was a setback but they still struggled noticeably. It’s important to note that Kerry are not winning minor and U21 All-Ireland titles with the regularity of Dublin for example. Every county goes through a transitional period and Kerry are not immune from that. Yesterday was the type of experience that should stand to their younger players as they realise the standards required at this level.
And as for Down on Saturday night, they suffered because they were far too lateral. They came out and looked like being the more dominant team but they produced far too much short passing across the park then. It was a fractious affair and had plenty edge to it, which was not a bad thing, but Tyrone were better able to kick on and dig out the right result.
Of course it’s early February and differing training schedules dictate that some counties are currently not at their sharpest. There’s no point in panicking at this time of the season.
But the four winners of the weekend can still be pleased. Kildare had a rough time of it in 2012, suffering an awful thumping against Cork and enduring plenty controversy off the field. Kieran McGeeney has spoken openly about those difficulties and it must have taken a toll. To start the league in 2013 with a victory in a game where they unearthed a couple of impressive young forwards in attack is an obvious plus point.
I was impressed with Dublin’s young defenders in the second game. It was a strangely open match in ways but the likes of Jack McCaffrey, Johnny Cooper and Kevin O’Brien were trusted by Jim Gavin to a do a job and they did that excellently. They racked up an impressive total on the scoreboard.
And of yesterday’s winners Mayo, they are slowly building a bit of confidence and belief in themselves. They were not far off ultimate glory last year and to hold Kerry scoreless on an afternoon where they were down leading forwards is something that James Horan can build on.
Players that caught the eye this weekend…Dublin’s Johnny Cooper was tight in defence and aggressive in attacking the ball. Jack McCaffrey was an obvious standout in the same game for Dublin. Stephen O’Neill utilised all his experience and cuteness to help Tyrone win their game. And Niall Kelly did really well in attack for Kildare considering the lack of senior football he has been exposed to.