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Football's most intriguing division already shaping up as dogfight to avoid Tier 2

The rise of Mike Quirke’s Laois has been the story of Division 2 so far.

pjimage Ryan McMenamin, Kieran McGeeney, Mike Quirke and Anthony Cunningham. Source: Inpho

TWO WEEKS INTO the campaign and Division 2 table already makes for interesting reading. 

Mike Quirke’s Laois, who came up from the third tier, sit on top of the table as the only unbeaten team left in the division. Roscommon and Cavan, both of whom dropped out of the top flight in 2019, find themselves in the relegation zone. 

table Source: The42

Of course, this league campaign has an added importance given the summer consequences of demotion from Division 2. For the two counties that suffer the drop, they must reach a provincial final in order to avoid a place in the new Tier 2 competition.

That’s not to suggest there’s any need for Anthony Cunningham or Mickey Graham to press the panic buttons just yet.

It’s only the first week of February. The Breffni men are still just a point off the top. The Rossies have a winnable home tie against Clare next weekend that could propel them up the table. 

Yet they are down a few key players. Cunningham has already lost two potential starters in Shane Killoran and Ronan Daly to injury for the remainder of the spring campaign. Star forward Conor Cox continues to battle a fractured wrist and has been ruled out of the Banner clash.

It appears unlikely at this stage that talented brothers Diarmuid (opted out) and Ciaran Murtagh (injury) will play any part in the league, further depleting the manager’s hand although inside forward Cian McKeon has hit form after taking a break in 2019. 

Cunningham will be wary of peaking too early in the year, but will expect to gain at least four points from their next three games against Clare, Kildare and Westmeath to push them back into the promotion hunt.

Having given up six point leads against both Laois and Fermanagh, the former Galway hurling boss will be imploring his team to finish games out when they put themselves in a winning position.

Cavan have been worst hit from absentees in the second tier, losing Cian Mackey (retirement), Dara McVeety, Conor Moynagh and Killian Clarke (all opted out). But the Breffni men showed courage to haul back a five-point deficit with 14 men in the final 20 minutes against Westmeath last Saturday.

The rise of Laois, Cavan’s next opponents, has been the story of the division so far.

Popular manager John Sugrue made the surprise decision to step down last year after achieving successive promotions. In his first senior inter-county role, former Kerry midfielder Quirke hasn’t been weighted down by the absences of the Kingston brothers Donie and Paul, so far.

evan-ocarroll Evan O'Carroll has been in good form for Laois so far this season. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

They scored two late goals to snatch a late draw against Roscommon and followed that up with a commanding win against an Armagh outfit that many tipped to go up. 

“Everybody keeps focusing on the guys that aren’t here and I’m telling you to start noticing the guys who are here because we’ve a lot of really good footballers,” quipped Quirke after the Orchard victory. 

With Evan O’Carroll in good scoring form up front – he’s scored 1-11 in two games – the O’Moore County are motoring nicely as they bid for a third promotion in-a-row. Cavan and Clare are next on the agenda for Quirke’s team.

Armagh have added young prospect Conor Turbitt, who posted 1-6 on his league debut, to an already formidable forward line, but consistency has long been their issue under Kieran McGeeney. 

They’ll be looking to give a response to last Saturday’s flat display in a home tie against his former team Kildare in round 3.

There’s a good deal of intrigue around the Lilywhites under Jack O’Connor, who are still evidently a work in progress.

Star man Daniel Flynn hit 1-2 on the opening weekend but was held scoreless in the away loss to Clare. Discipline proved an issue for the visitors against the Banner as they shipped 11 cards, including Paul Cribbin’s black and Paddy Brophy’s red.

keelan-sexton Keelan Sexton has returned to the Clare squad after opting out in 2019. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Clare continue to impress under Colm Collins, now the second-longest serving football manager in the country. They’ve lost Gary Brennan and Jamie Malone from the squad, yet with Keelan Sexton, David Tubridy, Gearoid O’Brien and Eoin Cleary in attack they remain formidable opponents.

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Westmeath and Fermanagh have both a win and a defeat to their names, and meet this weekend in Mullingar in a key clash for both sides. 

The second tier is already shaping up to be a dog fight over the remaining five rounds.

The average winning margin in Division 2 games so far is just 3.8 points.

All eight teams are remarkably well-matched and capable of taking points off one another on any given day. 

For instance, Armagh whipped Cavan by 13 points in round 1 and fell to Laois by six in round 2. Fermanagh lost to Kildare by four points and then rallied for two late scores to down Roscommon. Clare were pipped by a point against Westmeath before edging out Kildare by the same margin a week later. 

The absolute must for every manager is to avoid relegation. The blow of demotion will only by compounded by unwanted added pressure heading into the championship.

The final Sunday of regulation games on 22 March could throw up a gripping few hours, with all four games throwing in at the same time (2pm).

Depending on positions, two or more games could involve sides battling to survive in the Sam Maguire competition. If we’re lucky, all four ties will have a horse in the race. 

There’s a long way to go between now and then, but the most important relegation battle in the league promises to heat up over the coming weeks. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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