Amid all the talk about how the GAA should restructure their various competitions, there is no denying that the Allianz Football League, as it currently stands, offers competitive fare where teams are grouped on their respective merits. There is an argument in hurling that the spring campaign could have a few more added to the top flight, but that’s an argument for another day.
Ahead of the start of the 2016 football league, there is no little intrigue when casting your eye over the four divisions. In the top flight, Dublin are eyeing a fourth title on the trot, while Roscommon are back among the big boys for the first time since 2003.
Division 2 sees a ‘mini Ulster championship’, with five teams from the province in that section. Kildare find themselves in Division 3, unknown territory for the Lilywhites, while Division 4 has in it a few counties that will be desperate to find the escape hatch. Add in the fact that ten new mangers will be patrolling the sidelines in the coming weeks adds a bit more spice to the narrative.
The action begins on Saturday next with two games in Division 1 as Down play host to Donegal and old foes Dublin and Kerry lock horns again at Croke Park.
A reliable indicator
In recent seasons, the league tells hardly any lies with regard to where the power base lies in football. During the noughties, Kerry and Tyrone followed up their spring titles with September successes. This decade began with Cork winning a hat-trick of Division 1 crowns. They remained competitive in the championships that followed and were rewarded with an All-Ireland win in 2010.
After winning back-to-back promotions, Monaghan have adapted well to life in the top tier and that, no doubt, aided their quest in capturing a brace of provincial titles. And then there’s Dublin. All-conquering and all-powering at the moment as they set off in pursuit of another league and championship double.
Removing the Dubs from the equation, the rate of slippage in Leinster is a cause for concern. The province accounts for only three teams in the top two tiers of this year’s league (Dublin in Division 1 - Laois & Meath in Division 2). The competitiveness in Ulster is underlined by having eight teams involved across the same divide (Donegal, Down and Monaghan in Division 1 - Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Fermanagh & Tyrone in Division 2)
In 1996, Mayo from the clutches of Division 3, reached the All-Ireland final. It’s very unlikely that a team from the third tier will be gracing Croke Park on 18 September. Those in contention for Sam, as has been the case for quite a while, will no doubt come from Division 1 or from those sides who cut a real dash in Division 2.
New men at the helm
The close season saw some notable appointments. In Roscommon, the partnership of Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell will be closely watched. Much is expected from the Rossies after decent underage success in recent years.
Speaking recently to RTE Sport, McStay was emphasising a long-term strategy in his new role and added: “We are very much taking the long view on everything we're doing in terms of fitness levels, player development and getting our point of view across. By going that way, we think we'll get a better result than going short term. We're here for three years, with the option of a fourth year.”
However, looking at the short term, there is no doubt that Roscommon will want to maintain their place in the top flight. Their opening encounter at home to Monaghan will be crucial, ahead of difficult away assignments against Kerry and Cork.
After a successful stint in club management, Stephen Rochford is the man in charge of Mayo after the departure of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly. The players had their say in an autumn of some discontent so there is as much pressure on them to deliver in the months ahead.
Rochford has assembled an impressive backroom team and even has somebody in place to oversee media matters. With Castlebar Mitchels involved in the All-Ireland club race and a number of injuries to contend with, it may take a while before we see a real impact from Rochford and co. Indeed, much focus will be on the style of play that all involved will settle on.
Cork’s tame exit from the 2015 championship was not a true reflection of their worth. They begin the new year with former selector Peadar Healy at the helm. Joining him on the ticket will be Eamonn Ryan, fresh from his trophy-laden tenure with the Cork ladies.
The Rebels have proven themselves as league specialists of late and will aim to be in the mix again for honours
Elsewhere, Eamonn Burns will be entrusted with keeping Down in the top flight and they welcome Donegal to Newry on the opening weekend, while Damien Barton’s start as the new Derry boss saw him banished to the stands during the McKenna Cup final defeat to Tyrone.
After rebuffing 15 inter-county positions in recent seasons, Cian O’Neill has answered the call from his native county to manage Kildare. After working the Tipperary hurlers and the Mayo and Kerry footballers, the Newbridge man comes with a wealth of experience. His immediate aim will be get the Lilywhites back to Division 2 and to arrest the graph that has been pointing downwards of late.
List of new county managers for 2016
Cork – Peadar Healy
Derry – Damien Barton
Down – Eamonn Burns
Mayo – Stephen Rochford
Laois – Mick Lillis
Roscommon – Kevin McStay and Fergal O’Donnell
Kildare – Cian O’Neill
Longford – Denis Connerton
Tipperary – Liam Kearns
London – Ciaran Deely
The rising stars
Con O’Callaghan (Dublin)
The Cuala player has already made an impression in the minor ranks and again shone, this time in the senior jersey, in the Dubs' three O’Byrne Cup games. It will be interesting to see whether Jim Gavin gives him game time in the weeks ahead to stake a place on a Sky Blue inside forward line that is already brimming with talent.
Conor O’Shea (Mayo)
The youngest of the O’Shea brothers will be looking to make his mark in the Mayo jersey after a 2015 season blighted with injury. The FBD campaign saw him excel at midfield for NUIG and with the Green and Red shorn of some key players for the start of the league, the 22-year-old will be keen to lay down a marker if given the chance.
Ciaran Thompson (Donegal)
Rory Gallagher has cast the net to find new blood as the 2012 All-Ireland winners look to stay near the top of the football pecking order. Thompson, the younger brother of Anthony and Leon, is another option at midfield alongside Neil Gallagher, Christy Toye, Martin McElhinney and Michael Murphy. Thompson is still eligible to play U-21 so a busy spring could be in the offing for the Glenties player.
Brian Begley (Kerry)
A key player at number three and number six on winning Kerry minor and colleges teams, Begley could provide extra in an area where the Kingdom are vulnerable.
Lee Brennan (Tyrone)
The Red Hand will no doubt have their sights on a return to Division 1 and among those called into Mickey Harte’s squad is Trillick’s Lee Brennan. Along with winning a county title, Brennan also tasted All-Ireland success with his county at U-21 level in 2015.
His accuracy from play and from placed balls was noticeable in Tyrone’s march to another McKenna Cup title.
Listen to Dublin v Kerry live on RTÉ Radio 1 from 6.55pm on Saturday and watch highlights from the first round of Allianz Football League action on 'League Sunday' at 7.30pm on RTÉ2 and RTÉ Player.