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.
They have established a good home record in Newry but that will come under critical examination tomorrow with the visit of Tyrone, once again with promising youngsters and early-season silverware.
Given how tight points are likely to be by April, Down don’t want to lose their first match at home to one of the promoted sides from last season. Mickey Harte’s side are, however, creating a stir that suggests they’ll hold on to Division One status, making something from tomorrow’s fixture vital for Down.
Kildare are with Down favourites for the drop but a demanding fitness programme has got them in good shape for tomorrow evening’s tilt with Donegal. The varying of the close season has given Kieran McGeeney’s team a good few weeks’ training and he’ll hope they can avoid the modest starts that kept the county moored in Division Two for the past couple of years.
Manager: James McCartan (4th year)
2012 placing: 3rd, Division 1 (semi-finalists)
First game: v Tyrone, Newry, Saturday, 7pm
Prospects: Despite a sound campaign a year ago, getting to the last four, Down are favourites for relegation. Big championship defeats won’t have helped morale
Odds: 20 to 1
Manager: Kieran McGeeney (6th year)
2012 placing: 2nd, Division 2 (promoted and winners)
First game: v Donegal, Croke Park, Saturday, 5pm
Prospects: Fairly or not,Kieran McGeeney’s men are tipped to join Down through the trapdoor but they looked fit and purposeful in January when winning the O’Byrne Cup.
Odds: 12 to 1
Manager: Mickey Harte (11th year)
2012 placing: 1st, Division 2 (promoted and finalists)
First game: v Down, Newry, Saturday, 7pm
Prospects: Back at the top and with a powerful campaign in the McKenna Cup behind them and some exciting young players they’ll be confident about staying up and even making the semis
Odds: 10 to 1
Manager: Jim Gavin (1st year)
2012 placing: 5th, Division 1
First game: v Cork, Croke Park, Saturday, 7pm
Prospects: Panel building with the recent under-21s looks the highest item on the agenda but with plenty of experience also available and the impetus of new management in place a challenge is on the cards in this campaign.
Odds: 5 to 2
Manager: Jim McGuinness (3rd year)
2012 placing: 6th, Division 1
First game: v Kildare, Croke Park, Saturday, 5pm
Prospects: For new All-Ireland champions reassembling a summer challenge is a strenuous enough task without chasing the league as well but confidence and . . .
Odds: 7 to 1
Manager: Conor Counihan (6th year)
2012 league placing: 2nd, Division 1 (winners)
First game: v Dublin, Croke Park, Saturday, 7pm
Prospects: Panel depth and physical strength have helped Counihans teams dominate their league campaigns for the past five years. Unlikely to go out of their way but will probably be in semi-finals
Odds: 11 to 4
Manager: James Horan (3rd year)
2012 placing: 4th, Division 1 (finalists)
First game: v Kerry, Castlebar, Sunday, 2pm
Prospects: Even though finalists in 2012 Mayo’s presence in the league under Horan has been more memorable for once-off performances than consistent delivery but will be hard to dislodge
Odds: 9 to 1
Manager: Eamonn Fitzmaurice (1st year)
2012 placing: 1st, Division 1 (semi-finalists)
First game: v Mayo, Castlebar, Sunday, 2pm
Prospects: Fitzmaurice has made a confident start to the year and despite the absence of Dr Crokes players for at least the opening weeks, they will be contenders.
Odds: 10 to 3
National Football League Gavin names three debutants in Dublin team to face Cork
New Dublin manager Jim Gavin names three debutants on the team to face Cork in tomorrow evening’s AFL Division One match against Cork. Last year’s under-21 captain Kevin O’Brien, wing forward Paddy Quinn and wing back Jack McCaffrey all make their first starts although the latter appeared as a replacement in last year’s championship.
Eoin Cadogan and Damien Cahalane, who both gave up on dual intercounty careers to focus on football, have been named in Cork’s defence by Conor Counihan for tomorrow’s trip to Croke Park.
CORK (v Dublin): K O’Halloran; E Cadogan, M Shields, J O’Sullivan; P Kissane, G Canty, D Cahalane; A O’Connor, A walsh; F Goold, P O’Neill, C Sheehan; C O’Neill, D O’Connor, P Kerrigan. Subs: D Lordan, J McLoughlin, E OMahony, N OLeary, T Clancy, D OSullivan, A O’Sullivan, J ORourke, B ODriscoll, M Collins.
TYRONE (v Down): N Morgan; A McCrory, C Gormley, C McCarron; R McKenna, J McMahon, R McNamee; P Kane, S Cavanagh; K Gallagher, P Harte, Matthew Donnelly; C McAliskey, S O’Neill , Mark Donnelly Subs: J Devine, C Clarke, J Lafferty, D McBride, T McCann, Justin McMahon, P McNiece, R O’Neill, M Penrose, B Tierney, S Warnock.
ARMAGH (v Laois): P McAvoy; M Shields, J Donnelly, G McCooey; K Dyas, C McKeever, F Moriarty, K Toner, J Lavery; C Rafferty, A Forker, E Rafferty; G McParland, S Forker, B Mallon.
WESTMEATH (v Louth): G Connaughton; M McCallon, K Gavin, K McGuire; M Curley, P Sharry, D Harte; P Bannon, J Heslin; G Egan, C McCormack, K Martin; R Foley, J Dolan, D Glennon.
DONEGAL (v Kildare): P Durcan; P McGrath, N McGee, E McGee; F McGlynn, D Walsh, A Thompson; R Kavanagh, M McElhinney; M McHugh, L McLoone, R Bradley; C McFadden, M Murphy, P McBrearty.
DUBLIN (v Cork): S Cluxton; J Cooper, R O’Carroll, K O’Brien; D Daly, G Brennan, J McCaffrey; M D Macauley, D O’Mahony; P Flynn, P Andrews, P Quinn; K McManamon, D Connolly, B Brogan.