GERARD O’KANE: Laying down a marker

WELL, the leagues have finished for all but eight teams who will compete in the finals this weekend. The other 24 teams have had a week off from league fixtures and planning, but it certainly will not have been a week off from county duty as the Championship is rolling around next weekend again.

On the subject of the league and the league finals, there has been some commentary and debate around the value of having the actual finals themselves as a game. For what it’s worth, I think the games are a good idea and should be treated as such. This is coming from the experience of someone who played in four of these occasions and they were very much valued even if we had a 50 per cent strike rate over the four occasions.

I played in three Division One finals, in 2008 v Kerry, in 2009 v Kerry, in 2014 v Dublin and also a Division Two final versus Westmeath in 2013. We gained experience from each of these finals for different reasons and for the players themselves it;s always an experience getting to Croke Park for a showpiece final.

In reality, there are only a limited number of trophies handed out each year so now that all eight teams are in position I am sure they will look forward to and relish the opportunity to get their hands on silverware. I am aware that those finals in my day were before the split/condensed season so there was a window of five or six weeks before the championship. Today’s opinions might be based on the congestion of games, but it is a given that if those teams in the final were not there, they would be training anyways.

Now that I am not a player at that level anymore, from the point of view of a supporter I am looking forward to getting to Dublin with my wee lad and the wider family of my parents, brothers and sister and nieces and nephews.

In Derry we are quite lucky we have had a few trips to headquarters in the last three years and the children love the buzz of it. Now this might be easy for me to say as we are a strong Derry supporting family, but I can’t complain about a €5 ticket for my wee lad for a day out in Croke Park.. There are obviously cost implications outside of the match itself and it can be a costly day especially for larger families, but to take this day completely out of the calendar doesn’t make sense and the GAA definitely do market leagues for the family experience and their pricing allows for this.

On the games themselves, there is a big Ulster interest across the weekend but more so on Sunday. The Derry game is important to both Derry and Dublin for differing reasons. For Derry, there was an idea that the league game a few weeks ago, Derry did not field a full side because it was Dublin coming to town and Derry were very much in pole position at that stage to be in a league final so a school of thought was ‘well, they won’t beat Dublin twice in six weeks so better leave it to the game down the line to go all out.’ Paul McFlynn then subsequently confirmed that it was always the plan to get to eight points, guarantee safety and then look to give lads much needed rest while letting others have gametime. The fact it was Dublin was just a coincidence

For Derry heading to Croke Park, I think this is a chance to lay down a marker. Derry have only won six out of 19 Championship games in Croke Park and while this is not a Championship game, it is as close as in terms of the atmosphere, opposition and all-round standard of opponent.

Three weeks out from the Donegal game, sure it’s the best possible preparation available.

Dublin, on the other hand, will probably target this game as their last big test before they head into Leinster, and they probably won’t get another similar test until the post provincial group series. That is not being disrespectful to other Leinster sides but just being realistic.

None of the rest of Leinster play in Division One in the league and there is nothing in the form book which suggests that they can turn their performances around in the space of three weeks to be able to compete with Dublin. So for them, Dublin will want a good test now as it might be more than two months before they get another one.

From the outside, the Armagh versus Donegal game in the first game on Sunday is a case of, ‘job done, promotion gained and anything else is a bonus’ for both sides. However I would hazard a guess in saying that silverware is more important for Kieran McGeeney then Jim McGuinness.

While a Division Two trophy will not be the be all and end all for Armagh, it might be justification that they are on the right road. After relegation last year, it shows a fair degree of resilience to immediately bounce back with minimum fuss and prove they are in the conversation around the top eight teams.

I think Jim McGuinness will already be looking ahead three weeks to the clash with Derry in Celtic Park and hoping to come through this game on Sunday with a clean bill of health.

Ironically, in McGuinness’ last season as Donegal manager, in 2014, Derry played Dublin in a Division One Final which was preceded by a Monaghan v Donegal Division Two final which Monaghan won.

For a neutral looking on that day, Derry were playing at a grade higher and Donegal still could not win Division Two and sure five weeks later they came to Celtic Park and turned us over and deservedly so. They ended up as Ulster champions and back in an All-Ireland Final so Derry folk beware that, what you might see in the first game on Sunday won’t be anything like what Donegal will bring in three weeks’ time to Celtic Park.

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