Mid-term report very good for Ulster counties as Harte mobilises Derry

Veteran manager’s strong league record continues in Division 1 and province dominates Division 2

The Allianz Football League passed the halfway mark at the weekend and already certain outcomes look guaranteed. Armagh and Donegal strengthened their grip on Division Two with a draw that did least damage to their respective promotion campaigns.

Cavan are just a point behind but have yet to play Armagh, and although that represents an opportunity for Raymond Galligan’s team, form and panel depth will make Kieran McGeeney’s side favourites.

The fact that Ulster is providing the current top three in the division is the latest evidence of a trend in place since the season started. The top three divisions are headed by counties from the province – and Division 4 bucks the trend simply because there are no Ulster counties in this season’s basement.

Of the six unbeaten teams in the league, four are from the north. Leading the way is Derry, sitting in first place in Division 1. The weekend’s activities hauled Dublin, by virtue of their big win over Kerry, all the way up to second place, making Saturday evening’s match between the Ulster and Leinster champions a top-of-the-table clash even if Derry are well ahead on eight points.


The counties are also second- and third-top scorers across all four divisions: Dublin on 5-65, Derry on 7-54 and the highest scoring county is Down, who have shot 8-61 on their way to leading Division 3.

After the general ambivalence that greeted Tyrone ground-breaker Mickey Harte’s appointment in Derry last autumn, the mood is a lot more positive after a blistering start to the campaign and four straight wins. Galway were the latest victims, losing on Sunday in Salthill. The understrength Connacht champions’ good record against Ulster sides and Derry in particular was unavailing.

Harte has always had a strong affiliation to the league. His first senior season with Tyrone saw them win the trophy in 2003 before adding a first Sam Maguire four months later. After beating his home county a couple of weeks ago, the Derry manager gave a characteristic take on competition at this time of the year.

“I don’t really enter competitions to lose them, so we have to do our best. I’m not sure it’s as definitive as that – that if you do well in the league it wrecks your championship hopes. I never subscribed to that school of thought.”

Nor has he. Harte has a high-achieving league record with teams. Each appointment, Tyrone for the 2003 season, Louth in 2021 and Derry for this year, has seen him conduct a strong campaign, winning titles in the first two – Louth shared the 2021 Division 4 title as their championship started before the divisional final against Antrim could be played.

Derry is still a work in progress but the county could well emulate Harte’s previous teams by securing league success and surpass them by going through the season undefeated. By a peculiar coincidence, both Tyrone in 2003 and Louth in 2021 lost their opening fixtures. Derry haven’t followed suit.

Maybe Dublin will want to challenge that as six years have passed since the county’s most recent outright league title, a win over Galway, although during the Covid afflictions of 2021 they were unable to contest a play-off as Kerry had a championship fixture against Tipperary due imminently. Tyrone could challenge in Division 1 as they have yet to play Kerry and Dublin.

Monaghan slid into irretrievable looking trouble when losing heavily to Roscommon in what is the only division propped up by an Ulster team. Galway, Tyrone and Mayo are their final three matches and they have beaten two of the three, Mayo and Galway to avoid relegation last year and in 2021. The team’s need for new players has, however, forced Vinny Corey’s hand into trialling a few during this league, and if the price has to be relegation so be it.

Fermanagh are the only Ulster county in Division 2 who look endangered by relegation. A decent start has fizzled out into two demoralising defeats – the first a second-half cuffing from Donegal and the second last Sunday’s heartbreak against Cork whose injury-time goal sealed a first win of the season.

The Tailteann trapdoor is yawning wide and there are an awful lot of counties congregating around it. Meath look safe after beating Kildare, the significance of which is that as the Tailteann holders the former won’t be gazumping Division 2 teams in the way Westmeath did a year ago.

As things stand there will be one county from outside the top two divisions guaranteed to get into a provincial final and that’s in Munster where one from Waterford, Tipperary and Clare will qualify, although Clare still have an outside chance of promotion from Division 3, where high-scoring Down already look home and dry.

Late goals against Tipperary and Leitrim at the weekend pushed Laois ahead at the top of Division 4 and moved Carlow into second.

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Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times