With the beginning of the Allianz Football League imminent, Anthony McBrien previews the upcoming season
Can you smell it? Yes, spring is almost upon us and with that we can say goodbye to those murky and dreary days. It is the light at the end of the tunnel, as the first weekend of spring sees the beginning of the GAA season for 2015. Yes, county teams have been back training for some time now, and the pre-season competitions began in the first week of January, but this is the ultimate destination of the past few weeks. This is where the heart of the GAA season begins to beat.
Year after year, managers recognise even further just how important the National Leagues are in defining their respective seasons. Don’t believe the cliché: “It’s just the league, we have our sights set on the Championship”, after teams suffer defeat. Managers and players alike realise that a good league campaign can have a significant bearing on how your season will be determined. This is evidenced by the fact that three of the last six All-Ireland winners, began their campaign by winning Division one of the National League, in the early part of the year. Already, there are contenders for the All-Ireland title emerging and most of them will be eating at the top table this spring.
Dublin, having previously not won a league title since 1993 managed to retain the crown they successfully lifted in 2013. Although they were unsuccessful in retaining the All-Ireland last year, they are rightly quoted as favourites for this year’s title. There are not many teams with such strength in depth in all areas of the pitch, with talented players frequently not seeing past the bench on match day. If they can get the likes of Bernard Brogan, Diarmuid Connolly and Paul Flynn firing, backed up by the attacking flair of the rest of the team they can blow other teams out of the water. However, matches are not only won by putting up high scores but also by keeping other teams at bay, something they failed dramatically at against Donegal’s counter-attacking display in last year’s Semi-Final.
While Dublin are favourites, Kerry scan only be written off at your peril. Éamonn Fitzmaurice was left with mission impossible at the beginning of last year. Colm ‘the Gooch’ Cooper, the master of precision, sustained a cruciate ligament injury while playing for Dr. Crokes. And the experienced duo of Paul Galvin and Tomás O Sé called time on glittering careers in the green and gold. However, the shrewd Fitzmaurice successfully integrated the likes of Paul Geaney and the unfortunate David Moran with the evergreen Marc O’Sé, James O’Donoghue and Kieran Donaghy. To have become All-Ireland champions under such circumstances is testament to the never say die attitude, of the manager and his group of players, in the face of adversity. Welcoming ‘the Gooch’ back will elevate even further the confidence of this group of players. Add to that the returning Tommy Walsh, Young Footballer of the Year in 2009 and it’s clear that Kerry will be well stocked on ammunition for 2015. Selection dilemmas lie ahead for Éamonn Fitzmaurice but it will add further excitement for the Kingdoms’ followers. Kerry narrowly avoided relegation to Division 2 last year. But with players battling fiercely for positions this time around, it’s hard to see the same position in store for them.
Mayo are one of the many teams currently experiencing a transitional period. With the calm, calculating James Horan stepping down last year to be replaced by the joint managerial team of Pat Holmes and Noel Connolly. A significant year lies ahead for Mayo. After reaching the showpiece in September on the last two occasions, will they now slowly drift off into the abyss? Personally, I cannot see Mayo getting over the line in the near future. Too many players with the mindset of stage-fright are still hanging around the Mayo dressing room. It is time for the old dependables, such as Andy Moran and Alan Dillon to step aside, and give the successful underage teams of the past number of years scope to develop. Sure, giving it one last big push is to be admired. However, they have failed to deliver for Mayo on the third Sunday of September too many times. Letting talented young footballers warm the bench is not how they will develop. Gaining experience is paramount to proper development. It’s sink or swim in the melting pot during the championship season, just ask Cillian O’Connor. Due to the transitional period which they will now undergo, I cannot see Mayo being serious contenders either for the All-Ireland or the National League this year.
Donegal represent a similar kind of story as they too will undergo a changing of the guard. The glorious ‘Jimmy’s winning matches’ era has reached a conclusion. However, his legacy will live on in the form of Rory Gallagher, McGuinness’s sidekick for the first three years of the four he spent at the helm. How rare it was that McGuinness stood alone on the sideline, during his first three years, is a testament to the esteem in which Gallagher is held in Donegal. Donegal will represent a considerable challenge to Kerry and Dublin and it is from this trio that the eventual All-Ireland winners will most likely arise. However, not unlike the demise of Dublin last year, Donegal suffered a similar fate in the All-Ireland final. Kerry ‘out-Donegaled’ Donegal. It will certainly be interesting to see which style of play Gallagher opts for, and whether he will revert to the constant soaking up of pressure which delivered the All-Ireland in 2012 and brought them so close to the final in 2011. However, their recent league form has never been anything but patchy. Being relegated in 2013 they gained promotion from Division Two at the first attempt, only to lose out to Monaghan in the League Final. However, don’t expect them to suffer relegation again this year, as the management should have a full contingent to call upon, except for the recently retired Rory Kavanagh, with Mark McHugh committing to the cause once again.
Monaghan would be an outside bet for All-Ireland glory this year. The only disadvantage for them is their apparent lack of fire power, as they can be guilty of over-reliance on marksmen in chief Conor McManus and Kieran Hughes. Certainly, it is a possibility that they will make a league semi-final at least. They will want to avoid the embarrassment suffered by their Ulster counterparts Derry last year. A promising league campaign hit the rocks in the final against Dublin, and they exited Ulster at the hands of Donegal. Eventually exiting the All-Ireland series to Longford. The Ulstermen will need to show extreme character to keep their seat at the top table. The Rebel county are the other team likely to struggle to retain their status. However, they always perform quite well at this time of the year.
Division Two is also shaping up to be a real war of attrition. Most of the teams in this division will fancy their chances of gaining promotion. Kildare, Galway, Roscommon, Cavan, Down and Meath are extremely difficult to separate. Kildare are probably slightly ahead of the chasing pack and will have their sights set on a swift return to Division One. However, do not be surprised if the rise of the young guns from Cavan and Roscommon continues, with either having a good chance of gaining back to back promotion. Laois and Westmeath look most likely for the drop. Another year of struggling is almost certain for Tomás O Flaharta’s side, while Westmeath’s ludicrous decision to relieve Pat Flanagan of his duties despite gaining promotion to Division One in 2013, looks set to bite them once more, unless Tom Cribbin can successfully steady the rocking ship.
Armagh, being dark horses for the All-Ireland title will almost certainly gain promotion from Division Three. Kieran McGeeney takes over from Paul Grimley, who successfully guided the Orchard to an All-Ireland Quarter Final last year, losing out by the minimum of margins to Donegal. The second placed team is more difficult to call, however it seems Tipperary, Wexford and Louth are the biggest contenders. However, Clare with an emerging young team, are not to be written off so easily.
Division Four can be a tricky course to navigate as many of the teams are quite evenly matched. Offaly and Longford will be looking to rectify miserable league campaigns last year and are probably the most likely to gain promotion. Wicklow, always a tricky team to beat in the fortress of Aughrim, will represent the biggest challenge to the midlanders. While Leitrim and Waterford, both under new management, will be looking to cause a few upsets.
All in all it promises to be a thrilling league campaign with many shocks to be expected along the way. Spring is just around the corner. The perfect time to whet our appetites for the onrushing Championship campaign in the summer months.