We’ve had club football and pre-season competitions to keep us from going completely cold turkey, but the throw-in of the National League will still be a blessed relief to those football junkies who’ve been a little on edge since the final whistle last September. Forget New York and New England; here we examine five talking points as we tick off the last three days before Tyrone, Kildare, Kerry and Dublin get the real NFL back up and running.
THIS IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN MOST PEOPLE THINK
When you enter into any football discussion in the next three and a half months, you are likely to encounter a traditional species who’ll meet any analysis or enthusiasm with a pained expression as if you’re a halfwit and a declaration that “it’s only the league”. If you were having the conversation 10 years ago, he’d be within his rights, but the stats linking league to championship performances have moved beyond convincing.
Five of the last nine league champions have gone on to lift Sam Maguire in that season; in the 13 years before that, only one team completed the double. Aided by moving the competition to one calendar year, the secondary tournament has become a reliable form guide for the championship. It is no coincidence that Dublin finally stopped being hammered by the big boys in 2010 after an encouraging NFL that year. A stellar league last year led to ultimate honours. But if Cork win their third NFL in a row this spring, it’s time for the Dubs and other challengers to start worrying.
THE KERRY QUESTION
Kerry have worries of their own before they start fretting about the Rebels. It is a shame for Jack O’Connor that Colm Cooper is club-tied for Saturday’s opener, because with the ginger genius on board they would be almost certain to put an understrength Dublin side to the sword. The Kingdom could do with breaking their mini-losing streak against the boys in blue, but the central long-term question is whether you stand in the camp that believes their thirst for revenge will sweep all before them this year, or the camp that points to the age of some of their best men.
Doubters point out Tomás Ó Sé is 34 this year and 32-year-old Tom O’Sullivan is mulling over his future. Aidan O’Mahony and Eoin Brosnan are also the wrong side of a score and 10 summers. Kerry point out that all four were flying fit last summer and that there is no need to look at birth certs when assessing class footballers; but the doubters might respond that that’s what Tyrone said before they were dismembered by Dublin last year, which precipitated a string of retirements.
When Kerry look for new impetus, they speak of Paul Galvin returning to form. That very well may be, and we should remember that entering the last 10 minutes of the season they looked imperious as ever; we can only watch closely through the spring for signs of an answer to the central question in Gaelic football in 2012. Though we still believe that the biggest boost they could manufacture this year would be a flying visit from a certain young Mr Walsh who plays his football in Sydney.
TWO’S A CROWD
Speaking of how vital the league is, we should point out that teams in Division Two who also aspire to September football must make promotion a priority; no team operating outside the top flight has won Sam since Armagh in 2002 (and even then, they topped a division containing Kerry).
However, success in this division has led to superb championship performances in the past two years. Donegal lost only once on their way to the crown last year, while Down topped the division and lost the final in 2010 before reaching the All-Ireland final. Cork won it in 2009 and reached the All-Ireland final that year.
So with Tyrone, Kildare, Meath, Derry and Galway all counting themselves as counties capable of a big year, expect some humdingers, starting with Saturday’s Croker curtain-raiser, when Tyrone and Kildare, who have been taking the Dr McKenna and O’Byrne Cups quite seriously, go head to head. In Galway, Alan Mulholland may be talking prospects down, but the Tribesmen have pedigree at U-21 level that warrants more at senior level. Meath must wrestle with the conundrum of adding speed and cohesion to a team that looks potent on paper. Derry are the biggest underachievers of them all; with Paddy Bradley back in harness, Eoin set to follow in a couple of months’ time and Mark Lynch showing signs of a return to form in the Dr McKenna, they are once again out of excuses, though in fairness, John Brennan has never sought refuge in excuses anyway.
Louth, too, will be out to prove that 2010 was no fluke, having added experience to their backroom team and strengthened their squad, with the under-rated Brian White ready to play.
IMPORTS AND EXPORTS
Forget Seanie Johnston for now, the biggest ‘signing’ of the season in our book is the return of Colm O’Neill from injury for Cork. He ought to add excitement and goals to a forward line already brimming with potential. Cork have mown the opposition in a Kerry-less McGrath Cup, as you might expect, and their all-conquering U-21 sides keep producing players that lesser counties would be building their team around.
And Cavan are not the team worst-hit by players heading for the exit; that honour must go to Down, who will be hard-pressed to get any closer to Sam Maguire having lost Martin Clarke, Peter Fitzpatrick, Caolan Mooney and James Colgan, all to emigration in one form or another, while John Clarke has retired. That was followed by the bad news of an injury that will rule Paul McComiskey (in our book the Down forward with the biggest potential improvement within him) out of the first half of the league, even if the addition of 6ft 5in Armagh underage star Connor Gough and some decent Dr McKenna Cup showings will offer James McCartan hope.
THE DARK ARTS
With the year a month old, we already have (uncorroborated) allegations that range from testicle-grabbing in a major club match to (corroborated) awkward knee-first ‘falls’ into the back of a player’s head by Diarmuid Connolly, himself the victim of the darkest art of all last year, when Kevin Cassidy admitted feigning injury to get the inconsistent Dublin forward sent off. Expect a disciplinary crackdown in the first few rounds of the league, as there is every year, and expect it to be gone out the window come championship; this is the only regard in which league football bears no relation to the main event later this year.