Mayo can edge Galway while Dublin face test of character in league deciders

National Football League finals: The four finals at Croke Park across the weekend are littered with old friends and foes


Allianz National Football League

Division Four final: Sligo v Wicklow, Croke Park, 5pm (live on TG4) – The long friendship between the managers played out with Sligo delivering the result that Wicklow needed in last week’s divisional finale by defeating Leitrim. Tony McEntee’s Sligo have been the most consistent side in the division once they put aside the curiously anaemic opening display against Laois, winning all of their remaining matches.

Oisín McConville’s first foray into intercounty management has featured a fine recovery from harvesting just a single point in the first two matches. The second of those fixtures was a home defeat by Sligo, built on an improved second half showing at centrefield. Last October he outlined his season’s priorities as, “promotion first, followed by as good a run in Leinster as we can and then trying to win the Tailteann Cup”. That’s one box ticked.

Wicklow made heavy weather of Waterford for a long time last week until Dean Healy’s goal but the pressure will be off now with promotion secured.


Sligo have had the more impressive campaign and also banked Croke Park experience in last year’s Tailteann Cup semi-final. With most of the same players on display this Saturday, they have to be favoured to kick on and add some silverware to the promotion achievement. Verdict: Sligo

Division Three final: Fermanagh v Cavan, Croke Park, 7.15pm (live on TG4) – Fermanagh have been the Division Three form team in recent weeks. The Erne County lost their round two match against Offaly, by a single point, but since then they have chalked up five straight victories – including a 1-14 to 2-9 win over Cavan last weekend. Mickey Graham’s Breffni Blues, in comparison, enter this final on the back of a slump in form.

Cavan lost their last two games in the division – to Antrim and Fermanagh. However, for the first few weeks of the campaign they looked like the standout team in the division, and they had pretty much tied up promotion with two games to spare. Cavan, who will make changes to their team for this final, led 2-3 to 0-6 at the turnaround in Breffni Park last weekend, but Ultan Kelm proved to be the difference between the sides, the Fermanagh forward was superb. You can be sure Cavan will have a plan for him at Croke Park.

For both teams the main objective from the league has been achieved by securing promotion, but each will have their motivations for wanting to bring home silverware from Dublin. Fermanagh, in particular, have endured enough league final hardship over the years. They lost a Division Four final to Wicklow in 2012, and two Division Three deciders to Armagh – in 2015 and 2018.

A Division Three trophy would certainly mean more to the Fermanagh players, you’d imagine. However, Cavan are now hitting championship mode – and they could do without entering the Ulster SFC on the back of three straight losses. Plus, Cavan should have more scope for improvement in terms of last Sunday’s meeting between the sides. Fermanagh needed to win to guarantee promotion, while Cavan were already on their way to Division Two before that game. Both teams conceded the same amount over the course of their seven games, but Cavan had a higher scoring return of 130 to Fermanagh’s 114. Verdict: Cavan


Division Two final: Derry v Dublin, Croke Park, 1.45pm (live on TG4) – Dublin needed to beat Louth last weekend to guarantee promotion, but the truth is that from a long way out these two teams looked nailed on to occupy the top two spots. Dublin largely huffed and puffed their way to second – never quite producing their swashbuckling best but never quite having to, either.

Derry were the best team in the division – swatting all before them until their much-changed side conceded a late goal against Cork last weekend, the game finishing in a draw. Derry concluded the group stages boasting the best defensive record of any team across the four divisions, their concession of just 69 points averaging out at marginally under 10 points per game. Dublin conceded a total of 95 points over their seven games.

Yet only a single point separated the sides when they met at Celtic Park last month – Brendan Rogers kicking an injury-time winner for Derry. You could see in the celebrations of the Derry management and players that it was a victory that meant something, as if they had just climbed another rung on their ladder of development.

There is nothing and everything at stake in Croke Park for this one. The Division Two title itself doesn’t really matter to either camp, but the outcome of the game could represent something significant. If Derry can beat Dublin twice in a matter of weeks, especially putting one over them at Croke Park, then Rory Gallagher’s men will have climbed another distance higher up that ladder.

There’s no doubt Derry are All-Ireland contenders but a victory here would hammer home their credentials. For Dublin losing to a coming team twice in quick succession would be a blow. Their aura of invincibility has gone at this stage but Dessie Farrell’s side surely need to start flexing. This could be Dublin’s toughest game until the All-Ireland series, they can afford to throw everything at it, put a few doubts in Derry’s heads and at the same time raise confidence levels within their own dressingroom. What Dublin 15 actually takes to the field is, as ever, one of life’s little mysteries – but if Farrell is closing in on his championship team, then this is the perfect opportunity for a road-test.

Derry’s draw with Cork last weekend can be dismissed when looking at their general trajectory because they remain a team on the rise. Still, the optics of Dublin losing to Derry twice in four weeks wouldn’t be ideal for Farrell or the squad. Given their patchy form, they could certainly do without a downbeat ending to what has been generally a middle of the road campaign, where they’ve done just enough to get promoted, nothing more, nothing less.

Dublin need a big performance more than Derry, it’s up to the players now to prove they are capable of delivering more than we’ve seen from them so far this season. Verdict: Dublin

Division One final: Mayo v Galway, Croke Park, 4pm (live on TG4) – They opened the Division One campaign and on Sunday will get to conclude it. In January both sides approached with trepidation, Galway because of missing players and Mayo partly for the same reason but also with new management entering the fray for the first time.

Pádraic Joyce will remember it positively because of the quick and easy domination Galway established but negatively because of the injury to Robert Finnerty when being tackled mid-score by Enda Hession, who coincidentally now misses out himself.

Kevin McStay was positive because of his team’s comeback, especially equalising at the death on turnover ball, but not so pleased at the systems failure that led to a goal concession and the failure to pick up Cillian McDaid that led to a second.

Both teams have put down excellent league campaigns. Mayo have quickly built on that first display. David McBrien has established himself at full back and the Aidan O’Shea redeployment has worked well.

The problem with being indifferent to last week’s final match, by which stage they were already qualified for this weekend, is that another defeat would leave them heading into next week’s Connacht quarter-final against Roscommon on two straight losses. Accordingly, McStay makes 10 changes for Sunday.

Galway staked their claim with a gritty and clear-thinking win over Kerry, their composure visible as they chucked the ball around in the dying minutes to protect the two-point lead. Joyce was encouraged by the greater depth in his panel compared with last year. Despite injuries, he can field his All-Ireland full-forward line, as both Finnerty and Damien Comer have recovered and Shane Walsh is building his way back after returning from a break.

John Maher’s display at centrefield was also encouraging in that his energy looks like a good resource for veteran Paul Conroy and his accuracy for two points an indicator of his improving game. They are likely to miss McDaid, however, even though the teams show much the same number of changes from the first round.

This will be an updated temperature check on the Mayo strengths: O’Shea’s influence as a ball winner and distributor on the inside line – as well as an evolving scoring threat; Conor Loftus as a footballing centre back in the style of opposite number, the influential John Daly; the return of Ryan O’Donoghue to sharpen the attack as well as the surging form and self-belief of Jack Carney.

Galway’s strengths looked compelling last week. Seán Kelly again showing a remarkable ability to combine marking David Clifford with well-judged counter-attacks in a manner that has recalled Kerry’s Séamus Moynihan when he was drafted into full back. He may well pick up O’Shea in what will be a fascinating duel.

Galway, whether because of injury disruption or other issues, managed the second-lowest scoring total in the division – ahead of only doomed Donegal – but impressively they also have by far the tightest defensive record. Mayo though have developed since that first night and won’t have the same apprehensions going into the match as well as the confidence that their game is likely to thrive in Croke Park.

Impossible to call with conviction but possible to choose. Verdict: Mayo

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times