Stakes high for four teams in Division Two as relegation dogfight intensifies

Louth and Fermanagh meet in a pivotal clash in Ardee while Cork and struggling Kildare both still have work to do

In the immediate aftermath of Meath earning a draw in Cavan two weeks ago, Colm O’Rourke declared his players had mined enough precious league points to let their hair down.

“Nunc est bibendum,” smiled the Meath manager. But as Cavan’s Latin Quarter wasn’t open for business that Saturday evening, the time for drinking was instead put on hold until they sampled “the delicacies of some north Meath taverns”.

Later that night, a photo emerged of O’Rourke in The Carnaross Inn – one of the first watering holes you encounter on the green and gold side of the border with Cavan.

Meath’s Division Two status was secured that weekend, leaving four teams circling the drain – Kildare (0pts and a scoring difference of -28), Louth (2pts; -7), Fermanagh (3pts; -15), Cork (4pts; -10).

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In the days that followed, Kildare chairman Mick Gorman was busy trying to pour water on the flames of a messy public controversy which suggested a rift had developed with manager Glenn Ryan.

Gorman reassured delegates at the monthly board meeting, “We as a management committee fully support every management team and the players that represent our county.”

Meath had only beaten Kildare by three points when the sides met in late February but the contrast in where the teams found themselves after five rounds of the league could hardly have been starker – from watering holes to watering cans.

Two from that quartet – Kildare, Fermanagh, Louth, Cork – will be relegated to Division Three, after which their only hope of playing in the All-Ireland SFC this season will be if they contest their provincial final. The stakes are high this weekend.

The remaining Division Two fixtures are:

Round Six: Meath v Cork; Louth v Fermanagh; Kildare v Donegal; Armagh v Cavan

Round Seven: Kildare v Louth; Donegal v Meath; Cork v Armagh; Cavan v Fermanagh

Kildare’s survival chances look to be somewhere between challenging and bleak, while Cork might have turned a corner after two consecutive wins. As for Fermanagh and Louth, their fixture in Ardee on Saturday feels like a proverbial winner-takes-all four-pointer.

Both sides are exceptionally unlucky to find themselves dicing with the drop, and Fermanagh must wonder how they are not sitting on six points rather than three.

They were three up after an hour in Navan on the opening weekend only for a late Meath rally that forced a draw, while Cork plundered an injury-time goal to steal maximum points from a game the Rebels had trailed throughout in Ederney. Small margins.

It would have been easy for Fermanagh to clutch the ‘poor us’ straw after that gut-punch, but they have refused to dwell on what might have been. You can’t change the past, after all. But you can score goals and points in the future.

“We do feel we have to accentuate the positives,” says Fermanagh manager Kieran Donnelly.

“When the performance levels are high and you are playing a good brand of football, which we have been doing, it comes down to the small percentages, it’s all about that final pass or that final decision, finishing off the move.

“In that Cork game, we missed our goal chance in the closing stages but then Cork went up the field and scored a goal. I suppose that reflects how you are punished at this level coming up against better teams.

“But we haven’t dropped confidence and I think we maintained that level of performance in how we played against Armagh.”

In four of their five games, Fermanagh have been impressive. In fact, pretty much all of their negative scoring difference was accrued in a 14-point hammering against Donegal. Take out that game and Donnelly’s side would have a scoring difference of -1.

Fermanagh were one of the two teams, along with Cavan, promoted from Division Three last season.

“Coming in this year, we lost several players through retirement plus there were three or four substantial injuries,” adds Donnelly.

“So going to Meath for the first game was a massive step up. The fact we acquitted ourselves well, we took confidence from that.

“We have found it very enjoyable in Division Two because you are playing at a higher level, playing teams in the likes of Donegal and Armagh who are aspiring to win Ulster Championships, the likes of Cork who were in the last eight of the All-Ireland last year and Meath, who were coming in after a good season in 2023.

“We believe as a county we can only improve by playing at this level and we feel we have shown we can live with a lot of these teams, that has given us confidence and we hope to bring that confidence to Ardee because it will be needed on Saturday.”

The league-championship link with the consequences of finishing positions has added huge significance to this period of the season, and nowhere else is the jeopardy as impactful as it is in Division Two. Meath finished sixth in the division last year but still ended up in the Tailteann Cup.

Of course, the kicker in all of this is the weight carried by a provincial final appearance – which trumps league positions.

Sligo gained a spot in the All-Ireland group stages last year by beating London and New York in the Connacht SFC.

This summer, one of Clare, Tipperary or Waterford will advance to the Munster final. In Leinster – Westmeath, Wicklow, Carlow, Wexford, Kildare, and Louth are all on the same side of the provincial draw.

This is Donnelly’s third year in charge of his native county, and Fermanagh’s opening game in the Ulster SFC during that time reads: 2022 v Tyrone; 2023 v Derry; 2024 v Armagh.

Emma Little-Pengelly could tell you the system is skewed against the Ulster counties.

However, Donnelly says the various pathways leading towards playing either Sam Maguire or Tailteann Cup football this summer haven’t been mentioned within their dressingroom.

With two rounds remaining, given the web of league permutations and possible provincial final ramifications, predicting where several teams will end up is like trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube blindfolded. But for Fermanagh the equation this weekend is simple – beat Louth and the Ernesiders will remain in Division Two.

“It’s a massive game for both teams and the table reflects that, we know that if we win it then that’s us safe,” adds Donnelly.

Ger Brennan has labelled the Ardee encounter as “a championship match”.

Fermanagh and Louth were seen by many at the outset of the competition as the two favourites for relegation from the second tier, but there’s a good chance the winner of Saturday’s game will be playing Division Two football again in 2025.

“The championship is not far around the corner either, so it just means the next two or three months are all big game scenarios,” says Donnelly. “And as Ger alluded to, that goes for Saturday because it does feel like a championship game.”

And it might yet play out as one of the most significant league matches of the season.

Because for any of the four teams circling the Division Two drain, defeat could change not merely the course of their St Patrick’s weekend, but of their entire season.

Nunc est bibendum, indeed.

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

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