Top eight all face hard questions
Action from last year's Division One final between Mayo and Cork. In the past 25 years, only Cork in 2011 managed to add a league title to the previous year's All-Ireland. photograph: Inpho
This promises to be one of the best seasons in a long time in the top flight of the Allianz Football League. By common consent the division contains the top-eight counties at present, with only Laois of last year’s All-Ireland quarter-finalists not present and in their place an exciting Tyrone side that has already claimed the first trophy of the Ulster season.
Tomorrow’s big lift-off at Croke Park will shed light on two of the most intriguing questions: how will Dublin and Donegal fare this season?
On one level the question is incongruous, as they’re the two most recent All-Ireland champions but Donegal have to cope with the impact of their first title in 20 years, whereas Dublin are under new management and have a host of talented young players that have been trialled by Jim Gavin in the O’Byrne Cup in the absence of half the championship team from 2012.
Sometimes having too many resources is a bigger management conundrum than too few.
Donegal face the difficulty of maintaining hunger and motivation after their breakthrough, which was effectively a two-year project, and the challenge of pacing the season to optimal effect. In the past 25 years, only Cork in 2011 managed to add a league title to the previous year’s All-Ireland.
Twelve months ago Jim McGuinness had to mend and make do under the influence of injuries but the team pulled out the stops to preserve their top-level status.
Holders Cork have become league specialists in recent seasons and, counting Division Two in 2009, have won titles in four successive years. Yet despite a recent CV of two Munster titles, the four leagues and an All-Ireland there is a strong sense in the county that a major overhaul is needed. Orthodox, traditional tactics may have won the above pile of silverware but the evidence of the past two years is Cork may have to adapt to more modern systems and as Dublin showed three years ago, the league is the ideal laboratory for that.
Getting the ball into attack at a less pedestrian pace than has been happening in recent times is the number one concern.
Kerry, like Dublin, are under new management. Eamonn Fitzmaurice, a typically smooth and unfussy appointment, has started well with big scores racked up in the McGrath Cup. The big question hovering over the quality of the rising generation will be at least partly answered in the weeks ahead.
There can be few counties whose season stretched to provincial final and All-Ireland quarter-final with as much redemption to seek as Down after the big defeats by Donegal and Mayo. Like Cork they look in need of tactical retooling after a kamikaze lack of caution allowed a reasonable attacking unit to be undermined by ramshackle defending.