The championship season is upon us once more and I’m delighted to welcome JPM back into the guest slot to preview the key provincial tussles that are in store in this year’s summer campaign.
One of the most notable features from this year’s League was the level of competitiveness that was apparent throughout the competition. The majority of matches were played at a phenomenal pace (coming close to championship level at some stages). As it wore on it became obvious that teams (in Division One anyway) were desperate to maintain their divisional status. But when you consider it why wouldn’t they? The top teams in Division One are all playing each other regularly, they know each other’s strengths and they are constantly trying to work out any perceived weaknesses. Every one of them has anticipations and for the most part it’s a day out in September that’s on the wish list.
However the question of overall glory remains for another day. Right now we have provincial titles to look forward to and they will certainly prove entertainment for the nation and for all that support their respective counties with passion and desire.
To begin with is Ulster and the current All-Ireland champions. For the record Donegal were relegated from Division One. And if they are to retain their Ulster crown they must do it the hard way. Their first championship game is a replay of last year’s Ulster semi-final, against a Tyrone team that had a superb League and were just pipped at the post in the final. Tyrone will be keen to get the result here. I remember watching last year’s match and I thought that they kicked it away. They had several opportunities but just couldn’t convert them. This is their chance at redemption. It is a top class fixture and a difficult one to call. But Donegal are still champions and Jim McGuiness’s side have always proven a tough nut to crack. At home in Balybofey it’s difficult to see them exiting, especially in the first round of the championship.
The victors here go on to meet the winners of Derry/Down in the semis. Down were relegated before the final round of the league and Derry won the Division Two title. So the nod must go to the Oak Leafers with their League success and home advantage in Celtic Park the decisive factors.
On the other side of the draw Monaghan are a good bet to reach the Ulster final. Opportunities do not appear very often for the lesser teams in Ulster and Monaghan’s hard won Division Three success over Meath embellishes their credentials. They must have desires now to push on from this. Also many of these fellas have been part of this current team for a significant period now. Players like Clerkin, Freeman, Gollogly and Paul Finlay must realise their opportunities are running out at this level and this should spur their desire. At 15/2 they are a good price to have a right crack at the Anglo-Celt Cup 2013.
In Leinster the provincial title already seems virtually done and dusted. Dublin set the League on fire this year, and are (currently) cited as the frontrunner for additional glory. Although the final itself was a close encounter it must be remembered that B Brogan had a very poor day. But still Dublin prevailed and this must be re-assuring to their fans as no longer do they appear to be a one-man-band up front. Plus the reward of early national silverware for a relatively young crop of players will only be of benefit to their overall confidence.
The question that surrounds Dublin is whether they can improve on their League performances into the championship. Certainly they appeared the fittest team around and throughout the park they are blessed with both pace and power. Introducing several U21s was a great success for Jim Gavin as the blend of youth and experience worked really well for them. In their way stand a variety of teams who must all visit Croke Park to play them. This particular fact (i.e. Dublin always having home advantage) is becoming very irritating now. It’s also damn unfair on the rest of the teams in Leinster. But the GAA masters have their own ideas on what’s necessary here and as such have decided Dublin at home is of benefit for the greater good. It sounds like ‘money talks’ to me.
Here are the Leinster provincial semi-final pairings as they stand:
- Westmeath/Carlow/Dublin V Offaly/Kildare
- Wicklow/Longford/Meath V Laois/Louth/Wexford.
On the face of it looks like Dublin V Kildare on one side and Meath have what appears to be a decent draw on the other. Wicklow and Longford were both relegated in 2013 and Meath’s experience and resilience will always be hard to overcome. Laois get the nod to meet them. Both they and Louth had solid campaigns in Division Two, finishing third and fourth respectively whereas Wexford ended up being relegated. But again home advantage reigns for the O’Moore men in their match-up with the Wee County.
Down South it is a pretty straightforward call. Both Kerry and Cork avoid each other right up to the final and if so it will be in Killarney. Cork’s recent record in Killarney is poor having not won there since 1995. Plus they been blighted all season by injury and although there is a likelihood of guys returning in time, it may not stop another Kerry victory. After a dismal league opening the Kingdom had to return to familiar old faces to maintain their divisional status. The fact that these guys can still produce it is a major bonus, although the question mark over their age hangs in the background with every begrudging cynic. Perhaps in the modern game with modern techniques guys can last longer and maintain standards through extended careers. Certainly it will be interesting to see the selections made in Munster by the new pairing of Fitzmaurice and O’Neill.
Perhaps though the most interesting of all campaigns will be fought out in our own province. After the draw our Mayo team now has to prove itself capable of managing the favourites tag. Everyone expects us to win and this is what they will be preaching both nationally and locally in the news. However favouritism is not something that has ever gone down especially well for us and history has shown that our team doesn’t carry this mantle with ease at all. Whether this current bunch of lads and management can handle this expectation remains to be seen.
The timing of the game against Galway is also probably a better one for them than us (considering our injuries). The Tribesmen must be delighted with our recent spate of trouble in this department. Also their recent U21 victories must give confidence to the team and management. They seem to have the skills required to negotiate big hurdles. For their part everyone is currently pretty quiet in Galway, however keeping a lid on this for the next week will be difficult. It will cetainly be interesting to read Ray Silke’s preview analysis of the match in this coming week’s Advertiser.
If we are to prevail then we must win the battle around the middle. And whoever is selected up front must be able to deliver. Recent championship matches between the sides have been close with just a kick of the ball between them. Losing the match would not be the end of the world for either team (what with a 6-week break to the qualifiers) but it would likely be the final nail in the coffin for any further glory at national level. The backdoor is not the way to go anymore for any teams aspiring for success in autumn.
Whoever comes through here will have to face the Rossies. Roscommon had a pretty good League and St. Brigids won the most exciting of club finals in recent history. But can this be extended to the inter-county championship level? It’s difficult to know however it would certainly be a shock if the winners of Mayo/Galway were to lose in the second round as whoever wins in Salthill will also have home advantage following it.
On the other side Leitrim are the quiet pick in the long grass to reach the Connacht final. Sligo have blown hot and cold for the past three years in Connacht. They had an indifferent League just about holding off relegation and they have a tricky enough fixture in London to overcome first. Leitrim have already coasted in NYC and have nothing to lose in this year’s championship. Their FBD success was a welcome boost to their stalwart supporters. In Carrick and if Emlyn Mulligan is on form they will be prove very difficult to beat.
Possibly supreme glory and Sam Maguire is in the back of every teams mind. But nearly all self proclaimed pundits expect the ultimate winner to arise from Division One so being here is key to counties’ ambitions of overall success. In fact in all provinces bar a couple of occasions, provincial winners have also invariably come from Division One. Furthermore it can be argued that the gulf in football class between Division One and lower levels is actually becoming wider and wider. And as a result the likelihood of any shock happening between divisions (with the exception of the back-door) will become more infrequent. As Mayo men we have already maintained our status here and we should be more than satisfied with that outcome.
Whether we can build on this enough to reach a higher peak remains to be seen. Certainly there are several teams that stand in the way. Most notable of these is next weekend and that is enough to be concentrating on for now. Further afield stand Dublin and their obvious strength in depth, but don’t rule out Kerry. If they sail through Munster this year they will certainly be a force.
However nothing in life ever runs completely to plan. In the heat of championship sun (and rain) surprises will still undoubtedly occur. Whether they affect us and the overall result remains to be seen. The championship is upon us folks and we must look forward to it in anticipation.