Just your normal, run-of-the-mill Sunday to end the National Football League. Two Crossmaglen managers took their counties to the top of Division Four while Armagh got relegated from Division One. Monaghan saved the best display of their campaign until the final day, beating Mayo in Castlebar to stay in the top flight for a 10th successive season. And the most newsworthy player of the day got the country talking without so much as kicking a ball.
Let’s start there, shall we? Stephen Cluxton is back in the Dublin squad, after almost three years away. The eight-time All-Ireland winner, who will be 42 in December, returned to the set-up in recent weeks and was a late inclusion to the subs’ bench at Croke Park ahead of Dublin’s 0-16 to 1-6 victory over Louth. Almost as encouraging for Dublin as Cluxton’s return is the fact that there was not a whisper about it anywhere. Nobody outside the squad knew about it until TV cameras picked him out during the warm-up.
“I saw a man’s name on the substitute’s list that I’d rather had stayed retired!” smiled Louth manager Mickey Harte afterwards. It is 20 years since Harte first faced Cluxton in a league game, his Tyrone 2003 vintage denied a win in Parnell Park by a brilliant penalty save by the then 21-year-old. “Of course he is the master of goalkeeping in the last 10 years at All-Ireland level, so why wouldn’t you want a player of that experience and that ability in your team or around your team?
“It can only be good for Dublin that he’s there in any shape or form. It’s the kind of position where you don’t have to be 23 to play in, you can be higher up the scale and be very valuable there.”
Ordinarily, you would say that only someone of Cluxton’s stature could have overshadowed the last day of the league. In truth, however, quite a lot of the ups and downs were more or less decided before the ball was thrown in for the Round Seven games. With Mayo already in the Division One final, Galway’s 1-13 to 0-14 victory over Kerry in Salthill booked their passage to next weekend’s decider.
[ Galway to face Mayo in league final after victory over Kerry ]
[ Kildare beat Meath by six points to finish league with back to back wins ]
The drama came at the bottom of the table, where Monaghan made it a fifth final-day escape in nine years by beating Mayo in Castlebar. Conor McManus put on a quality display to score 1-7, including five points from play and a last-minute penalty to seal a six-point victory. Though Mayo did rest some of the players who had been so vibrant for them throughout the campaign, the sides were level with five minutes left on the clock, a result that would have relegated Monaghan, regardless of results elsewhere.
As it was, Armagh are the ones who drop to Division Two along with Donegal. Kieran McGeeney’s side lost their final-day encounter with Tyrone by 0-18 to 0-16, capping off a league campaign that started so promisingly but curdled along with the mood in the county as the weeks went by.
Down the divisions, quite a lot of the day went according to script. With relegation already decided in Divisions Two and Three, it only remained to confirm who would go up. Dublin’s win over Louth meant an immediate bounce back to Division One, along with Derry. Fermanagh’s 1-14 to 2-9 victory over already-promoted Cavan in Breffni Park earned them a move up from Division Three – the two counties will face off again in the final next weekend.
[ Division Three: Cavan and Fermanagh book their places in second tier for 2024 ]
[ Clare canter to much-needed victory over Limerick in Shannonside derby ]
It was in Division Four where the real entertainment of the afternoon was to be found. Four of the eight teams began the day with a shot at getting out of the basement division and when the smoke cleared it was Sligo and Wicklow who ultimately went up. Sligo finish their campaign as the top team in the league, their 1-15 to 2-11 win away to Leitrim sealing their promotion in style.
Sligo are, of course managed by Tony McEntee, childhood friend and clubmate of Wicklow boss Oisín McConville. The pair will meet in next Saturday’s Division Four final, thanks to Wicklow’s 2-8 to 0-8 win over Waterford in Dungarvan. Much like Dublin, it’s an immediate bounce-back for Wicklow having been relegated from Division Three last year. Laois ran up a 6-6 to 2-8 thumping of London but they finished on the same points as Wicklow, so it’s McConville’s side who advance on account of the head-to-head record between the teams.
[ Limerick advance to league final showing old appetite for destruction ]
Meanwhile, the hurling action of the day got raw and rowdy in Nowlan Park as Kilkenny proceeded to the league final on a 2-22 to 0-22 scoreline. An all-in row in the second-half ended with four yellow cards and a red for Cork’s Eoin Downey. With Kilkenny six points up at the time, there was no way back for Cork. Kilkenny now play Limerick in the final on Easter weekend.
Up and downs
Finalists: Mayo, Galway
Relegated: Donegal, Armagh
Promoted: Derry, Dublin
Relegated: Clare, Limerick
Promoted: Cavan, Fermanagh
Relegated: Longford, Tipperary
Promoted: Sligo, Wicklow