Five Things We Learned from the GAA Weekend: Derry’s rise might not stop at league crown

Keeping an eye on the keepers; All-Ireland champions fail to cash again; McGuinness focused on Derry; Westmeath’s hard slog

Leveraging the league for greater gain

Derry went into the weekend as the most consistent side in AFL Division One and came out with indisputable All-Ireland credentials. That was evident in the manner in which they outplayed champions Dublin, exposing fault-lines all through the team, especially in defence, and learning a few valuable lessons about themselves along the way.

The good news doesn’t stop there. On the evidence of the past 20 years (omitting the two Covid years when there wasn’t a final), winning the Irish National Insurance Cup gives you a 50 per cent chance of adding the All-Ireland, as 10 counties have done so since 2003.

Sunday was Derry’s first Division One title in 16 years and that’s not simply a random statistic. That season, 2008, was the first of the current hierarchical, four division structure.

In the intervening seasons, the league roll of honour features only four counties: Cork, Kerry, Dublin and Mayo, all of whom have been serial contenders for the All-Ireland.


If we again look at the past 20 years, the above counties have won 16 of the available All-Irelands and strikingly account for 32 of the 40 finalists. At least one of them has contested every final.

Derry now move into that territory, having built a solid base of incremental achievement. Five years ago, the county was in Division Four. Three promotions later, they are at the top of Division One and are looking for a third successive Ulster title this summer.

Tyrone are the main outliers – no league success but three All-Irelands, the first two under now Derry manager Mickey Harte.

There is something there for Dublin as well. Although it’s not common for defeated league finalists to rebound to an All-Ireland later in the same year – it has happened just eight times in nearly a century of the competition – Dublin have turned around their two most recent such defeats, against Kerry in 2017 and Cork in 2011, to claim Sam Maguire a few months later. – Seán Moran

Great fun keeping an eye on the keepers

You learn a lot sitting behind the goals. We were in the Davin End on Sunday, right behind the black spot on the crossbar. And apart from having the best view in the house of the penalty shoot-out, it was also very interesting to watch the two goalkeepers across the afternoon at such close quarters.

Evan Comerford and Odhrán Lynch are clearly two very different characters. Comerford is borderline obsessive about keeping his stock of O’Neill’s footballs just so beside his posts, ready and available. The first thing he does after every kick-out has been safely dispatched is go back and get the next ball ready, precisely on the endline by the post, wedging it there with one of his little goalkeeper tees. Nothing is left to chance, in order for him to have access to a quick ball to get the next kick-out away.

Lynch takes an altogether more unhurried approach. He gives the impression that although he’d like to have a ball handy, he’s not going to worry too much about it. Frequently, after a kick-out, he just carries on his run to go and join the play and he doesn’t pay too much heed to whether he has picked up his tee or not. He backs himself to find a man from his kick-outs – and generally does it very well.

While they both try to join the play, Comerford sprints back to the house at the first sign of danger. Lynch, on the other hand, seems to take a fair bit of pleasure in the fact that the whole stadium is screaming at the sight of his goal lying empty and isn’t going to pull a hamstring getting back to fill it. It’s great entertainment, all in all.

Plenty of teams will fancy that they can target Lynch over the course of the championship – he’s not quite as slick in possession as his outfield team-mates and you always suspect that somebody somewhere is going to make an example of him some day. But he never makes too many mistakes, no matter what people think.

Also, between yesterday and last year’s Ulster final, his penalty shoot-out record reads: Eight penalties faced, two goals conceded. Can’t argue with that. – Malachy Clerkin

All-Ireland champions fail to cash in league chips yet again

Attitudes to the league have fluctuated through the decades with all kinds of self-serving rationalisations. Traditionally, the All-Ireland champions have had access to a free pass for the following league, if that suited their purpose. Increasingly, though, they have turned it down.

In the last 50 years, the reigning All-Ireland football champions have turned up in the following season’s league final on 14 occasions – including the Covid ravaged 2020 league, at the end of which Dublin and Kerry shared the title without playing a final.

Of those 14 league final appearances by the All-Ireland champions, though, half of them have occurred since 2010. Before that, the All-Ireland champions hadn’t appeared in a league final for 22 years.

Since Heffo’s Dubs won their first All-Ireland in 1974, Dublin have been the All-Ireland champions most likely to turn up in the league final the following spring. It happened three times in the 70s, and six times since 2013. Sunday’s loss to Derry was their fourth in a league final as All-Ireland champions.

In his first season as Derry manager Mickey Harte has emphasised the importance of the league, and there was ample evidence of this attitude during his time as Tyrone manager. But after the three All-Irelands that Tyrone won under Harte’s leadership, they failed to reach the playoffs on two occasions in the following year’s league and were beaten in the semi-finals in the other year. – Denis Walsh

McGuinness and Donegal keeping close eye on Derry

After Jim McGuinness came bounding into the media room he first pointed at his watch and said: “Twenty minutes to the Derry game lads, hurry on.”

Donegal had just completed the primary purpose of Sunday’s trip to Croke Park, crowned Division Two champions thanks to the late, late winner by Aaron Doherty. Now McGuinness could sit back and enjoy a sort of secondary purpose, watching the Division One final between Derry and Dublin.

It’s just under three weeks now until Donegal travel to Celtic Park to play Derry in the Ulster Championship, and there’s little doubt McGuinness will have been well impressed by what Derry produced. If not a little daunted. What was also evident was the step up in standards and intensity in the Division One final, something Donegal can look forward to next year.

Denied the win in normal-time, then in extra-time, Derry displayed remarkable nerve in the penalty shoot-out, especially compared to Dublin. McGuinness will be under no illusions now of what awaits them on April 20th. He’ll certainly want his best players back by then, with Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh among those sidelined on Sunday.

The Derry-Dublin game was already in full swung when Kieran McGeeney came in, and like McGuinness, the Armagh manager was already looking ahead to their Ulster championship showdown against Fermanagh in a fortnight.

Some of the Armagh players, McGeeney said, had been hit by a bug the week before, and despite that narrow window before the start of the championship, he wasn’t making a big deal of that.

“In the GAA world, we are looking to give out about something. I still think it is good to get to Croke Park and play a final. It mightn’t suit all the time, but I still think they are a good idea.”

On the game itself, he added: “I would have been disappointed just with our flatness. I don’t think we went at it. At the same time, I wouldn’t be too hard on the players. A lot of them had a tough week”.

Good week, bad week, all thoughts from here turn to the championship. – Ian O’Riordan

Westmeath reward could be five on the bounce

The Westmeath footballers are about to become the latest test case of the lopsided intercounty structure. Dessie Dolan’s side claimed the Division Three National Football League title at Croke Park on Saturday, with a deserved and what could ultimately prove to be a season-defining victory over Down, given the Tailteann Cup consequences of the result.

However, the Lake County won’t be afforded even a few days to enjoy their success because they now begin their Leinster campaign on Sunday when they face Wicklow in Portlaoise. Should Westmeath emerge victorious against the Garden County, then they would face Kildare in a Leinster quarter-final the very next weekend.

Given they played the last three consecutive weekends in Division Three, Westmeath are facing the prospect of five hugely competitive games in as many weeks – three in the league and two in the championship. Arguably the five most important games of their year sandwiched within a five-week window.

All this while several other counties are on training camps ahead of the 2024 championship. The programme is too condensed, at the very least every team should be guaranteed a fortnight break between the end of their league campaign and the start of their championship schedule. – Gordon Manning