With the All-Ireland SFC beginning this weekend, we examine the credentials of the 32 counties setting out on the Road to Croker …
Manager: Liam Bradley (4th season)
The pain of missing out on promotion to Division Two is tempered by the fact that the Ulster draw has been kind, raising hopes of repeating the provincial final appearance of 2009. Paddy Cunningham’s free-taking accuracy always gives them a chance, but their attack too often lacks creativity, and the fact that Kevin Niblock is studying in England and will be a sub but not a starter does not help, while CJ McGourty, though back from injury, is not in favour.
Three key men: Aodhan Gallagher, Thomas McCann, Paddy Cunningham
Verdict: Might have beaten Monaghan, except the game is in Clones. A short summer is in store.
Manager: Paddy O’Rourke (3rd season)
The lustre of an early-season draw with Cork and win in Tralee has long since faded. What is left is the fact that Armagh, with the core players of the 2004 U21 All-Ireland winning team supposedly at their peak, have woefully underperformed since their last Ulster title in 2008. All will be forgiven if they beat Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds on June 10, but they are more likely to be heading to the qualifiers, where they must show a greater appetite than in the past three years.
Three key men: Andy Mallon, Aaron Kernan, Jamie Clarke
Verdict: Can make last 12 via the qualifiers if they avoid the big guns.
Manager: Luke Dempsey (4th season)
In an effort to build on last year’s win against Louth, Dempsey recruited Anthony Rainbow as a selector, and the team have done some tough training, including hardship on the sand dunes at Curracloe. The county is also recording consistently respectable underage results, which should be a foundation for the future. None of this, however, makes you believe that a team that came seventh in Division Four will compete for long in a Leinster quarter-final clash where Meath are likely to form the opposition.
Three key men: Shane Redmond, Brendan Murphy, Daniel St Ledger
Verdict: Barring a kind home qualifier draw, two defeats beckon.
Manager: Terry Hyland (1st season)
How could Cavan not feel more comfortable in their own skin with Val Andrews gone, the uncertainty over Seanie Johnston dispelled, a second Ulster U-21 title on the trot tucked away, and the architect of that triumph at the helm? It will all make a Michael Murphy-less Donegal more wary of their trip to Breffni Park on Sunday than they would have been a few long weeks ago. However, the prevailing uncertainty is evident in that one of our ‘three key men’ below is U-21 star Kevin Tierney, who has only joined the panel since Terry Hyland assumed control and will not start the championship opener.
Three key men: Mark McKeever, Gearoid McKiernan, Kevin Tierney
Verdict: Expect the performance on Sunday to be markedly more determined and energetic than we’ve become used to; nevertheless, expect Donegal to win.
Manager: Michael McDermott (3rd season)
Jack Charlton would approve of Michael McDermott’s tireless hunt for second-generation patriots, but what odds a Euro 88-style shockwave through Munster this year? Well, Clare are showing signs of improvement. They were most unfortunate to remain in Division Four having recorded six wins, and were level entering the closing stages of the decisive match in Aughrim. That they begin their summer campaign just 70 minutes from a Munster final should temper their league hangover, and in Gary Brennan they have a midfielder that Waterford, Limerick and plenty more teams will fear.
Three key men: Gary Brennan, Shane McGrath, David Tubridy
Verdict: A narrow Munster semi-final defeat will leave them hoping for a home qualifier draw, where they would hope to go one better than last year’s bittersweet experience of running Down to a point.
Manager: Conor Counihan (5th season)
Earlier this season, Counihan bemoaned Cork’s erratic performance levels, but 30 other counties can only dream of the type of inconsistency that delivers league trophies four years running. The most recent league success – and the comfort of it – reminded us of their qualities. If they could add a creative foot-passer or two to half-back and midfield, they would be borderline unstoppable, for again, there are 30 counties that would take their forward line in a heartbeat. At their worst, Cork’s tendency to revert to ‘crab’ football means they must be five points better to win by two. Still, it is difficult to see them losing to anyone other than Kerry, and if the quarter-final draw allows it to be so, there is every chance the grand old neighbours could set up an All-Ireland decider that would be potentially the most epic and defining since 1982.
Three key men: Michael Shields, Aidan Walsh, Donncha O’Connor
Verdict: All-Ireland finalists.
Manager: John Brennan (2nd season)
John Brennan cannot be accused of providing bland quotes. “I feel almost ashamed for Derry people,” he said after the abject last-day league defeat away to Westmeath.
Anyway, one of the bright spots of the league was the consistency of Cailean O’Boyle up front, even if he is only scheduled to return from a hamstring injury the week before the Ulster quarter-final. Paddy Bradley, meanwhile, assured all of Twitterdom last week that his knee has quit giving trouble, and Derry’s chances will rest on the fitness not only of that pair, but a host of others, including Gearoid O’Kane, Dermot McBride, Conleth Gilligan and Eoin Bradley. However that all pans out, it is impossible to back a side whose only league victories came against the two sides relegated from Division Two.
Three key men: Gearoid O’Kane, Cailean O’Boyle, Paddy Bradley
Verdict: Likely to lose to Donegal on June 16 and it’s hard to back them to make an impact on the qualifiers.
Manager: Jim McGuinness (2nd season)
A fresh twist on the difficult-second-album conundrum: isn’t it easier to repeat the trick when the sales were phenomenal, but the artistic merit panned by the critics?
It is hard not to see Donegal accounting for Cavan and beating Derry. It is also far from impossible to see them harassing Tyrone again until the Red Hands run out of ideas, which would open the door to a second Ulster title running. However, we reckon that second album would be easier to produce, except the hurtful schism between Jim McGuinness and Kevin Cassidy simply has to have affected morale. Don’t forget that Cassidy kicked the winner as part of his superb performance against Kildare. In a game of milimetres, his loss is worth at least an inch.
Three key men: Neil McGee, Karl Lacey, Michael Murphy
Verdict: Ulster semi-finalists, All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: James McCartan (3rd season)
If all had gone to plan, Down would have accounted for Fermanagh and Monaghan or Antrim with a bit to spare and left themselves 70 minutes from a first Ulster title since 1994. In light of how badly they were hit by injuries and emigration at the start of the year, James McCartan was determined to use Benny Coulter wisely, resting him for some games, but to no avail; Coulter will miss the Ulster campaign after an injury sustained in action for Mayobridge. In further bad news, Dan Gordon will miss the June 3 opener with Fermanagh, which now looks an even trickier tie than it already did. They will hope that Danny Hughes can recapture his 2010 form to make up the shortfall, but it’s hard to resist the feeling that the fates have conspired to ensure the 18-year famine – by far the longest since their 1959 breakthrough – will continue.
Three key men: Kevin McKernan, Mark Poland, Danny Hughes.
Verdict: Ulster finalists, last 12 exit.
Manager: Pat Gilroy (4th season)
In Wexford and Kildare they observe Dublin’s patchy league form, note the fact that the past two footballers of the year have precious little game time under their belts, and speak of a long overdue uprising in the east. Pat Gilroy’s worry must be that if Brogan major or Brogan minor are not at full tilt, he may be left relying on Diarmuid Connolly to provide the spark. Connolly proved again in the league that he can produce stunning inspiration, but also stunning stupidity. Against all that, a second All-Ireland U-21 title in three years suggests that the much-anticipated ‘blue wave’ has at least worked up to be an ominous swell. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) they reproduce last year’s hunger and work-rate, there are only two teams you would back to beat them in September, and neither reside in Leinster.
Three key men: Stephen Cluxton, Paul Flynn, Alan Brogan
Verdict: All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Manager: Peter Canavan (1st season)
There is a theory that Peter Canavan did not send his troops out at full tilt in the Division Four decider at Croke Park in an effort to dampen the hype over a possible upset against Down in the Ulster quarter-final. However, we find it hard to believe such a logical and driven man would have time for such hocus-pocus, and choose to see their eight-point defeat to Wicklow as a sign that although Canavan has achieved immediate improvement, there is still a long way to go. They will rattle weakened Down, but with a four-division gap in the standards the two sides operated at this spring, we can’t see Fermanagh actually winning the game.
Three key men: Barry Owens, Ryan McCluskey, Seamus Quigley
Verdict: Narrow Ulster quarter-final defeat followed by one or two qualifier wins, depending on the draw.
Manager: Alan Mulholland (1st season)
The news that Sean Armstrong, Michael Meehan and Padraig Joyce will all be under consideration for the clash with Roscommon on Sunday shows that Alan Mulholland is leading a revolution minus the ‘r’. That Joyce was so instrumental in leading the fight back against Kildare is both testament to his stature as one of the finest footballers any of us have seen, and an indication that Galway’s youngsters, if highly promising, can’t do without him just yet. Enough progress has been made to suggest that they will quiet the natives at Dr Hyde Park and avoid a slip-up against Sligo, but their evolution is behind Mayo’s, and also not advanced enough to bring them beyond Ireland’s last eight.
Three key men: Finian Hanley, Gareth Bradshaw, Padraig Joyce
Verdict: Connacht finalists, All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: Jack O’Connor (4th season)
There is so much to question: a defence that isn’t getting younger, key players who can’t be trusted not to get sent off, a flicker of controversy in Donie Buckley’s departure, a vulnerability to ambush in All-Ireland quarter-finals, and, just recently, doubts about winning already-won games in Croke Park. No matter; the positives still dominate the scales. They include a shrewd manager, the hardiest and classiest wing-back in living memory, a burgeoning midfield partnership that includes the country’s in-form footballer, and a forward line that they would not swap with anyone and which has the welcome addition of Patrick Curtin. Most crucially – and it is the reason we give the verdict below that we do – they have Colm Cooper who, when in form, is simply the most dangerous corner-forward ever to take a football field.
Three key men: Bryan Sheehan, Declan O’Sullivan, Colm Cooper
Verdict: All-Ireland champions.
Manager: Kieran McGeeney (5th season)
While all this ‘now or never’ talk is overblown – take out Johnny Doyle and Dermot Earley and they are still a young side – Kildare must feel the stars are aligning to cast their glow over a memorable summer. They are in the rare situation of having no significant injuries: Peter Kelly is back, Darryl Flynn on the way, and Dermot Earley came through a full match last week. If the anticipated Leinster final clash with Dublin comes to pass, they would go in as only slight underdogs; and a win would unleash 1998-levels of belief. However, we all know what ultimately happened that year, and though they have better forwards than the lazier pundits would have you believe, there is no Colm Cooper – or even Colm O’Neill – type of inspiration inside, which makes it hard to believe their 84 years of waiting and wishing will not stretch to 85.
Three key men: Emmet Bolton, Darryl Flynn, Mikey Conway
Verdict: All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Manager: Justin McNulty (2nd season)
You can’t escape the feeling that McNulty’s men are less than the sum of their parts, that he is trying to mould these players into something they are not. The experiment of fielding Padraig Clancy at full-forward has worked only in patches. Meanwhile, the good form of Cahir Healy and John O’Loughlin represents an exception in a team low on confidence, and they somehow manage to play a massed defence while still leaking too many scores.
Three key men: Cahir Healy, John O’Loughlin, Ross Munnelly
Verdict: Disaster looms in Pearse Park.
Manager: Barney Breen and George Dugdale (1st season)
Understrength and coming off a mediocre league campaign, Leitrim look to be there for the taking at Ruislip on June 3. They would feel more comfortable about the trip if Thomas Beirne were part of the panel, but work commitments have ruled him out. Still, they recorded three more wins in Division Four than London did, and there is enough about them to suggest that they can survive the journey.
Three key men: Paddy Maguire, Wayne McKeon, Emlyn Mulligan
Verdict: Connacht semi-finalists.
Manager: Maurice Horan (2nd season)
It is surely one of Irish sport’s most heart-breaking stories of the year. In a season when the Munster draw has separated his team from Cork and Kerry, John Galvin, that warrior of a midfielder, successfully completed 11 months of single-minded rehabilitation, only to suffer a recurrence in April. There is no doubt they will be vulnerable in midfield and vulnerable in general against Waterford and Clare sides that they lost to this spring, but we suspect the old fighting spirit lives on, even if this team are past their best.
Three key men: Johnny McCarthy, Stephen Lavin, Ian Ryan
Verdict: Munster finalists.
Manager: Paul Coggins (2nd season)
The fallout from the ‘Seanie Johnston rule’ sage has not hampered London’s build-up as much as you might expect; they kicked 0-17 against Wicklow last weekend in a challenge game, by far their best total of the year against a team that is not Kilkenny. Also, a round of championship matches before the Leitrim game on June 3 will sharpen the panel further, even if there is a risk of an injury or two. Still, when it comes to the Connacht Championship, the cold facts are Leitrim have won four league games this year, including a victory over London in Carrick-On-Shannon. Expect London to show a huge improvement on their early-season form, but it’s hard to back against Leitrim.
Three key men: Lorcan Mulvey, Mark Gottsche, Sean McVeigh
Verdict: Narrow defeat to Leitrim
Manager: Glenn Ryan (4th season)
Longford are one of only two or three counties who could have a bad championship and still consider 2012 a success. Glenn Ryan will not see it that way though, and they have so many big players on form, defend so well and attack so directly that it is hard not to see them dispatching Laois, hitherto their bogey team. Whenever they do join the qualifiers, they will be one of the teams no-one wants to draw.
Three key men: Michael Quinn, Paul Barden, Brian Kavanagh
Verdict: Leinster quarter-finalists.
Manager: Peter Fitzpatrick (3rd season)
The Wee county have a slightly different make-up than during the bittersweet summer in 2010, with Derek Maguire now the chief threat inside and Ronan Carroll bolstering the presence of Paddy Keenan in midfield. Peter Fitzpatrick was secure enough to add big names to his backroom team over the winter in Brian McEniff and John O’Leary, and that nous may just see them past Westmeath. However, they leak too many scores to worry Dublin for a full 70 minutes.
Three key men: Paddy Keenan, Ronan Carroll, Derek Maguire
Verdict: Leinster quarter-finalists.
Manager: James Horan (2nd season)
The problem James Horan will eventually face is that he will be considered a failure if he does not deliver an All-Ireland title that Mayo may simply not be quite good enough to win. Nonetheless, they are a fine side now. They are tougher to break down than the league final suggested; had Aidan O’Shea been fit, that game would have been closer. We list them as quarter-finalists, but only because we can’t pick five semi-finalists, and we do believe that at the time of writing, Mayo are the fourth-best team in the country. One weakness is a lack of a killer full-forward line, but moving Andy Moran back inside might add the requisite potency.
Three key men: Donal Vaughan, Aidan O’Shea, Andy Moran
Verdict: All-Ireland quarter-finalists
Manager: Seamus McEnaney (2nd season)
Trevor Giles wrote a fine piece in the Irish Examiner recently which suggested that the main thing Meath lack is confidence, and we firmly believe that they will dispatch Wicklow and Carlow more convincingly that you might expect. If a Leinster semi-final with Kildare comes to pass they will summon all their pride and make things at least as uncomfortable for the Lilies as they did in Navan last year. Still, ultimately, they lack mobility as such big games open up late on; Joe Brolly put it more directly when he concluded that they are too big and slow.
Three key men: Kevin Reilly, Stephen Bray, Paddy Gilsenan
Verdict: Leinster semi-finalists.
Manager: Eamonn McEneaney (2nd season)
It is less than two years ago that this county was in a state of high excitement ahead of an Ulster final. A kind draw this year will have raised hopes of a return trip to the nothern decider, except poor form and injuries are mounting to the point where Murphy’s Law might be renamed Monaghan’s law. Eoin Lennon, struggling with an ankle injury, is the most important of the wounded.
Three key men: Darren Hughes, Dick Clerkin, Paul Finlay
Verdict: Home advantage might swing it against Antrim, but that also might be as good as the championship gets for the Farney.
Manager: Tom Coffey (1st season)
A sign of how bad things have become? You can get 8/1 on Offaly to beat Kildare in their Leinster quarter-final clash. This year is simply a write-off now, particularly as Niall McNamee will not be ready to start the opening game. What is probably more important is that the Faithful move quickly to establish a full-time manager after the championship, as opposed to what happened last time, and hope that graduates from this year’s decent U21 side inject a fresh energy to proceedings in 2013.
Three key men: Richie Dalton, Niall Smith, Anton Sullivan
Verdict: Two games, two losses.
Manager: Des Newton (1st season)
We stand by our gut feeling that Roscommon are more than a little over-rated – when was the last time they actually beat a top-12 side in championship? However, if they speak of a ‘blue wave’ of underage success in Dublin, Rossies could perhaps talk of a primrose-and-blue wave out west, and it will not be too long before the Sheepstealers’ abilities catch up to some people’s perceptions. Their clash with Galway should get the championship off to an absolute flyer and it will be a mightily close game; but there is something unconvincing about how the first season under Des Newton has gone, particularly when you look at their three NFL reverses.
Three key men: Cathal Cregg, Senan Kilbride, Donie Shine
Verdict: The revolution is coming, but not on Sunday, and not this year.
Manager: Kevin Walsh (4th season)
In the end, Sligo’s league campaign was not to be sniffed at, as they claimed third place in a division three campaign that included victories over Wexford and Roscommon. Those anticipating a Connacht semi-final upset will gloss over doubts about the midfield and point out that Kevin Walsh may yet be able to add David Kelly to a forward line where Stephen Coen, Adrian Marren and Mark Breheny are already capable of producing carnage. Still, with Mayo out of the doldrums and Galway and Roscommon emerging from them, Sligo might be left rueing the Connacht final of 2010 for a long time to come.
Three key men: Ross Donovan, Stephen Coen, Adrian Marren
Verdict: Connacht semi-finalists.
Manager: Peter Creedon (1st season)
Tipp have an ideal man to steady the ship, as Cork man Peter Creedon is embedded in the fabric of the county’s football scene. A pity, then, that the Munster draw places them alongside the two best teams in the game, an injury to add to the insult of relegation to the league’s bottom tier. The loss of midfielder Brian Jones and Barry Grogan, the heir to Declan Browne’s throne, is the most crippling body-blow of all, as both will be playing their football across the Atlantic this summer.
Three key men: Robbie Costigan, Hugh Coghlan, Philip Austin
Verdict: Reaping the benefits of their superb underage work will have to wait another year.
Manager: Mickey Harte (10th season)
Just when Mickey Harte seemed set to unleash Tyrone 3.0, injuries have yet again struck. Still, they retain an impressive depth of talent, but there are too many question marks to back them for All-Ireland glory; Conor Gormley, for instance, is a warrior of a footballer, but just does not seem comfortable at full-back, while the debate over the best positioning of Sean Cavanagh goes on (full-forward, if you’re asking us). Despite the uncertainty, they are the best football team in Ulster.
Three key men: Peter Harte, Sean Cavanagh, Mark Donnelly
Verdict: Ulster champions, All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: John Owens (3rd season)
Victory over Limerick in the league raised hopes that Waterford might make a Munster final, especially when coupled with a similar success in Aughrim. However, other league results were not nearly as impressive, and the broken jaw sustained by captain and ultimate key man Gary Hurney will have tempered expectations further.
Three key men: Shane Ahearne, Patrick Hurney, Mark Ferncombe
Verdict: Narrow defeat to Limerick, quick qualifier exit.
Manager: Pat Flanagan (3rd season)
Talk of a return by Dessie Dolan – he’s still just 32 after all – seems to have come to nought, yet Westmeath still find themselves in surprisingly rude health. Any team that can beat Derry 1-15 to 0-10 in an important game is a team to be reckoned with. The match with Louth is probably 50-50, but even if that goes against Westmeath, there is enough about them to suggest a prolonged qualifier run.
Three key men: Paul Sharry, John Heslin, Dennis Glennon
Verdict: Could be the qualifier surprise package.
Manager: Jason Ryan (5th season)
Notwithstanding their awful first half in the division three decider, this is Leinster’s third best team, and the only one’s on Dublin’s side of the draw that will believe they can beat the All-Ireland champions. Their problem is a defence that leaks too much when the opposition are on top. They have enough forward power, however, to account for either Longford or Laois, and to ensure that Pat Gilroy will treat the semi-final challenge with the utmost of respect.
Three key men: Redmond Barry, Ben Brosnan, Ciaran Lyng
Verdict: Leinster semi-finalists.
Manager: Harry Murphy (1st season)
Harry Murphy has managed a fine transition, but we simply don’t believe that Wicklow have the ball-winning power to get the better of Meath, and thereafter, a realistic target would be to produce a performance similar to the away draw with Armagh last year.
Three key men: Ciaran Hyland, Leighton Glynn, Seanie Furlong
Verdict: Will lose to Meath, but be a danger in the qualifiers.