The quality of a team is always hard to rate when it comes to the Allianz Leagues. Play too well and you could be considered to be peaking too soon, play badly and your performances would be written off, as you are clearly timing your peak for the championship. The latter was evident in the discussion on Dublin last year as Dessie Farrell was praised for focusing on the much more important championship, rather than the league from which his side was ultimately relegated.
The former is much harder to distinguish from actual quality. This question is being put to both Mayo and Derry this year. Both counties have made terrific starts to their league campaign, in Division 1 and 2 respectively. Mayo sit top of Division 1 and are unbeaten, with a record of three wins and two draws. Derry, however, have a more impressive record, winning all 5 of their games played and look to be assured of having a place in the top division next year.
However, doing well in the league would mean nothing to both sets of supporters if their sides fail to make a deep run in the championship. Derry are the reigning Ulster champions, having won their first provincial title since 1999, with a 2-point win over Donegal last season. They also made it to the All-Ireland semi-finals, losing out to Galway.
Manager Rory Gallagher will hope to take the Oak Leaf County one step further this year. Although, Gallagher does have a history of his teams peaking too soon. Back in 2017, then managing Donegal, Gallagher had to deal with a swathe of retirements in his squad, leaving him to manage a youthful team through a harsh Division 1. To everyone’s surprise, Donegal finished in a comfortable third place behind Dublin and Kerry come the start of April.
Unfortunately, their good form unravelled as summer came along. Donegal suffered a 9-point hammering at the hands of rivals Tyrone in the Ulster championship before limping their way through the qualifiers and crashing out in embarrassing fashion losing by 15 points to Galway in round 4.
Is Rory Gallagher making the same mistakes this time around? The Ulster side have outclassed their opponents in numerous games this campaign, giving Limerick, Meath, and Kildare double-digit hammerings whilst squeaking out wins against Dublin and Louth.
Under Gallagher, Derry’s transition from defence to attack quickly. Fitness is therefore instrumental and may indicate if a team is peaking too soon. In their tight wins over Leinster opponents Dublin and Louth, Derry outscored them both in the latter stages of the game.
Against Mickey Harte’s Louth, they got three out of the last four points to seal the victory. Facing a 5-point deficit at half time versus Dublin, Gallagher’s men put in a sensational second half, outscoring the Dubs 1-09 to 0-06, utilising counterattacks to break through their opponent’s defence. Overall, with Gallagher’s history and Derry’s second half statistics, many might think that may lead to the side peaking too soon.
Kevin McStay is enjoying a great start to his first season in charge of his native Mayo, but could the same apply to his team? Unlike Rory, McStay’s previous teams do not have a history of hitting peak form in spring rather than summer. The Mayo native was given a baptism of fire during his first stint in intercounty management in 2017, with the task of keeping Roscommon in Division 1. He failed, with the Rossies going down with a measly 2 points and a goal difference of -46.
The tables had turned come July, when McStay led Roscommon to their first Connacht title in 7 years as they outclassed Galway in the rain, winning by 2-15 to 0-12.
After joining Mayo he began his second stint as an inter-county manager quite well with a 2-8 to 1-11 draw with Connacht rivals Galway. They have since enjoyed fine wins over Kerry and Tyrone, a draw with Armagh, and a tight victory over McStay’s former team Roscommon.
There are a few signs that Mayo could be peaking early. In their game against the reigning All Ireland champions, it was clear that they were a lot fitter than the Kingdom, winning the ball with ease and only letting off in the second half. Against Armagh, their fitness helped them to a 5-point lead coming down the final stretch but the Ulster side managed to reel them in for a draw.
Reaching peak physical fitness now is a dangerous game with the new championship structure. Mayo begin their campaign against Roscommon on the 9 April and Derry play Fermanagh on 15 April. Their fitness levels may be a bonus in the provincial campaigns, but it could prove detrimental in the latter stages of the All-Ireland Championship when fatigue begins to take its toll.