“I’m looking forward to the League, I think the League is better than Championship. There’s a lot of pressure in the Championship… The League is just that much more relaxed… I’m excited!” – Martin McHugh (RTE Sunday Sport).
Say what you want about the League it’s far more important than it was in years gone by. Here’s a preview of the eight teams in Division One.
Conor Counihan’s side is looking to make it four National League titles in a row this year; a feat last accomplished by Mick O’Dwyer’s 1974 Kerry team. Unlike most other teams in Division One, Cork have an established starting line-up with only the likes of young Odhran Mulrooney and Andrew O’Sullivan with a realistic shout of becoming first choice Championship starters. Eoin Cadogan’s decision to focus solely on football this year will be music to Counihan’s ears as will news of Damien Cahalane who has also chosen to ditch his dual sport role in favour of football. Although book-makers have made Cork favourites to land this year’s League title, one feels Cork would prefer to concentrate the efforts on adding to their 2010 All-Ireland success.
It’s all change in Dublin with new manager Jim Gavin promoted to the top spot after guiding Dublin to an Under 21 All-Ireland title. With the retirements of Tomás Quinn and Paul Casey, the new backroom team has decided to overlook the likes of Eamonn Fennell, Ross McConnell and Paul Brogan in favour of younger players from the Under 21 ranks. After a number of open trials, Gavin fielded what was effectively a Dublin B-Team for the O’Byrne Cup and saw them push Kildare all the way in the final. The strength of Dublin’s squad is truly an embarrassment of riches for the county and with the return of Ciarán Kilkenny from Australia to supplement the Brogan brothers in the forward line, Dublin will be a force to be reckoned with in 2013. Playing five games in Croke Park will also boost Dublin’s chances (and the GAA’s coffers).
The All Ireland champs have had a relaxed run up to the League: unable to train before Christmas, Jim McGuinness charged U21 manager Maxi Curranin with the responsibility of blooding young players for the McKenna Cup while the main side jetted off to Dubai for a final celebratory holiday to mark the end of the 2012 season. Although Monaghan and Fermanagh subsequently hammered Donegal in that competition one feels that McGuinness didn’t lose much sleep over it. A number of injuries will not help Donegal’s League prospects with both Karl Lacey and Mark McHugh confined to the sidelines. Statistically McGuinness’s side has been poor in the League even needing a last gasp win against Armagh to avoid relegation last year. By contrast Donegal’s Championship record under McGuinness has been outstanding, registering only one loss to date – the 2011 All-Ireland semi final against Dublin – and a poor run in this campaign will probably only result in supporters remarking, “Sure ‘tis only the League.”
Perhaps the weakest team in Division One, Down’s efforts to stay in Division One will not be helped by the injuries to key players Dan Gordon, Daniel Hughes and Ambrose Rogers. However manager James McCartan defied all pundits last year when he produced his team superbly with Down finishing third in the Division. Wins over Armagh and Cavan in this year’s McKenna Cup will have bred confidence in the team, and with an experienced group of players led by their on-field talisman Conor Laverty, Down will fancy their chances of turning over some of the bigger names. However away trips to Donegal, Kerry and Dublin mean that Down will have to be at their best to avoid relegation.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has taken over a Kerry team which must be still licking its wounds from defeats to Cork in last year’s Munster final and then to Mayo in the All-Ireland semi final. The Finuge man made a shrew decision to get silverware straight away and in winning the McGrath Cup he will have settled some of the mutterings that his side Kerry side are over the hill. With seemingly endless experience at his disposal (Gooch Cooper, Kieran Donaghy, Paul Galvin, Brendan Kealy, Anthony Maher, the Ó Se brothers, Darran O’Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan), Fitzmaurice must be bold in his selection of some younger players to freshen up his panel: Jack Sherwood, who played under Fitzmaurice at Under 21 level last year, is certainly one to watch out for. It would take a brave punter to bet against Kerry winning more matches than they lose in this campaign.
Once billed as “the fittest team in the country”, Kildare under Kieran McGeeney have gradually slipped out of the media limelight they occupied in 2010 and 2011. Now entering into his sixth year in charge, McGeeney may finally reap the benefits of lower expectation from the fans and less pressure from the tabloids. Having quietly wrapped up the O’Byrne Cup last month, the Armagh man will be pleased with Johnny Doyle’s decision to stay another year, and spurred on by Dermot Earley’s return to training. McGeeney also has options with some younger players and with the return of Paul Cribbin from the AFL there is a real prospect for a future county star to replace long serving heroes Doyle and Earley. It has been four long years since the Lilywhites last competed in Division One of the League and there will be real hunger to see that they don’t go down at the first time of asking. But with their opening four matches against the four previous All-Ireland champions, Kildare will have to hit the ground running if they are to avoid that fate.
Defeated All-Ireland finalists and beaten in the League final in two of the last three years, Mayo seem to be living up to their cruel tag of being the nearly men. However considering the recent war of words between manager James Horan and Joe Brolly over the Derry man’s comments made during last year’s Championship, it’s safe to say Mayo have not gone away. After a team holiday to Miami, Horan will want to knuckle down to business immediately and his first priority should be to introduce a new scorer or two to a forward line which lacked for firepower at crucial stages last year. With three All Star defenders led by the peerless David Clarke it’s clear that Mayo will not concede many scores this year and that should stand them in good stead as the season progresses. The real question is whether Mayo will be able to hold their nerve in front of goal and throughout the field when the pressure comes on them in the Championship. But for now the men from the West will fancy themselves to go all the way in this year’s League.
Promoted this year along with Kildare to Division One, Tyrone’s rebuilding work from the triple All-Ireland winning team of the mid 2000s goes on apace. Mickey Harte will begin his eleventh year in charge without the services of Championship regulars Ryan McMenamin, Brian McGuigan and Davy Harte. Possible new faces include midfielder Plunkett Kane and forward Conor McAliskey who both impressed in the Tyrone side which won the McKenna Cup in January and one feels it will fall to these young guns to take responsibility if the side is to have any success this year. The return of Seán Cavanagh from injury and the continued fitness of Captain Stephen O’Neill will be major factors for Tyrone this year and supporters will dare to dream of glory once again should these players perform to their ability. Mickey Harte was quoted by the BBC earlier this year that he believed he has a squad that can genuinely challenge for the All-Ireland. Only time will tell if his side will make good on that belief.
The strength of Dublin’s squad to outmatch committed performances from Cork and Tyrone with Down propping up the bottom of the table.