Seán Moran: Decline in the east gives hope to Sam Maguire aspirants elsewhere

It was a good league for the three other provinces with several counties in robust health ahead of the championship

It has been an eventful couple of years for Pat Teehan as Leinster chair. He came into office just before the pandemic tore through society and forced the GAA into its most disrupted period of activities since the independence upheavals of a century previously.

His tenure also began under pressure to explain what was being done to stop Dublin's dominance ruining everything for everyone. Little over two years later he is being challenged on steps being taken to save Leinster football from Dublin being so useless after a season during which they officially lost the province's last senior national football title (as joint-winners with Kerry of last year's league).

It prompted graveyard humour from the capital suggesting that the county needs massive grants to compensate it for relegation to Division Two.

Much of the focus of the Allianz Football League’s (AFL) thrilling denouement fell on Dublin’s existential struggle in Clones – you don’t see those words written very often – and the crash of other Leinster counties falling to earth like slates in a storm.

There was consequently little attention paid to how well the other three provinces had fared and the robust state they are in with championship unprecedentedly on the horizon at the end of March.

The others may well be unimpressed by all of the hand-wringing after a decade in which Leinster, through the agency of an outstanding team, won eight All-Irelands in 10 years, a haul equalled just once, 100 years ago when it took the combined efforts of Wexford, Kildare and Dublin to record the same feat.

Nothing lasts forever and decline in the east gives way to a landscape which offers a few candidates for this year's Sam Maguire.

Connacht counties completed a very strong campaign and will have all three of their top teams in next year's Division One. This happened in 2019 but otherwise not in the last 30 years and reflects Roscommon's great resilience under three managements.

The last six Connacht titles have been evenly divided between Roscommon, Galway and Mayo but only James Horan's team have looked likely All-Ireland contenders. Galway's blazing progress through Division Two gives decent momentum going into a championship showdown against Mayo but the past two Connacht meetings have been disappointing for Pádraic Joyce's men.

Horan has never lost a championship match against Galway as manager, a sequence that covers six matches over a decade.

Stunning achievement

Connacht also accounts for the greatest wealth inequality with three counties in Division One and the rest, Leitrim, London and Sligo in Division Four.

For a province that has traditionally been associated with that type of disparity, Munster had an excellent league campaign. None of its counties were relegated and two secured promotion.

Pride of place probably goes to Billy Lee's Limerick, who came through the most competitive division of the lot, the third, to gain promotion after a campaign, which combined setbacks and advances before finishing in the top two.

It was a stunning achievement when you bear in mind that three years ago in the last pre-pandemic league, Limerick ended up second from the bottom of Division Four, just two points ahead of London. Also in 2019, Dublin were making history with a fifth successive All-Ireland. Next season the counties will meet in Division Two.

Limerick haven’t been this elevated since the glory days of Liam Kearns’s team, which topped the 2004 Division 1B table and narrowly lost a 2004 league semi-final to eventual winners Kerry, who they also took to replay in the Munster final later that year.

It means that there will be three Munster teams in Division Two and Tipperary managed to rectify a campaign that started disastrously and get straight back up to Division Three.

Kerry will contest the final against Mayo this Sunday and, given that Jack O’Connor has won a league in the spring before each of his All-Irelands, this is one the joint-holders won’t be treating as ‘just the league’.

Munster mightn't look the most competitive but with Cork and Kerry on one side of the draw, there is an opportunity for the other counties to reach a final. It's a particular relief for Clare after another fine season left them intact for an eighth successive year in Division Two, making Colm Collins's team the second most consistent league performers in the province after Kerry.

Ulster entered the season as the strongest of the provinces with four in the top flight. They end it all still in place, thanks to Monaghan’s annual performance of 11th hour deliverance.

There was more to the province than that however and only Donegal of the Division One teams will feel disappointed by their campaign. Derry will also have regrets. Having looked the best team in Division Two for most of the league, their fine record didn't survive contact with the other two top three teams, Roscommon and Galway.

From opening night when they destroyed Dublin, Armagh were one of the top three and gave Kerry a searching test. Much will be expected of them in the championship.

Champions Tyrone came back late from holidays and struggled to find form. Threatened by relegation they went to Killarney of all places looking to get a result. That they did will be of great satisfaction to the team with championship on the horizon – just as it will have given Kerry a queasy feeling to have lost narrowly to them of all opponents in the circumstances.

As ever the Ulster title race will be a demolition derby. Leinster may be for the moment subdued but the other provinces are buzzing.