Few sporting competitions in this country can rival the appeal of the All Ireland Football Championship.
Down through the decades the Championship has retained its appeal amid drama, glamour, passion and controversy.
But when this year’s series is launched on Sunday with the meeting of Mayo and New York in Galway, it will be against a backcloth of rather more uncertainty, apprehension and indeed fear than usual.
And the reasons for this are not hard to guess. The declining attendances at recent National League games, the marked impact of the recession and the belief in many quarters that the quest for the Sam Maguire Cup could be only a three-horse race could conceivably serve to dilute some of the traditional allure of the competition.
Yet in absolutely appalling weather last August we had some of the most memorable games in the history of the All Ireland Championship that paved the way for an enthralling final which was deservedly won by Tyrone.
Their manager Mickey Harte has already nailed his colours firmly to the mast — he wants back-to-back titles for the first time in the county’s history.
The Red Hands may have reigned supreme in 2003, 2005 and 2008 but Mickey has, with considerable justification, intimated that retaining ‘Sam’ this year would see the label ‘great’ appended to his side — and he would certainly be right there.
So, what are the prospects of Tyrone emerging as kingpins for the fourth time since the dawn of the new Millennium? And which teams represent the greatest threat to their current supremacy?
I’ll put my head on the chopping block and opt for the following teams, in alphabetical order, to make it into the last eight come August:
CORK: DURING the recent National League, Cork revealed a greater level of focus and cohesion than of late. Manager Conor Counihan appears to have moulded a side that is an amalgam of old heads and youthful exuberance. In the past, lack of a killer instinct has proven Cork’s Achilles heel but there is a suggestion that they could not only make the last eight but perhaps go further. They are a side who will automatically garner respect from opponents.
DERRY: HIS side may have surrendered their National League title but Oak Leaf boss Damian Cassidy is certainly not fazed by this. He has made it abundantly clear from the outset that Championship success is his prime goal. Experience, physicality and finishing power are Derry’s chief assets while Cassidy’s tactical nous will undoubtedly stand them in good stead. An Ulster title would be viewed as a big bonus but Cassidy will have his sights firmly focussed on the ‘big one’.
DUBLIN: FOR manager Pat Gilroy, this will be his first season in the white-hot atmosphere of Championship football. He may have tasted success at club level but he will now be confronted by additional pressures at the higher level. The Dubs had an indifferent National League programme but new faces have come into the side and provided cause for optimism. They are still rather vulnerable in defence and continue to rely on old warrior Ciaran Whelan at midfield. But they have quality forwards in Alan Brogan, Conal Keaney and Mark Vaughan who could help them to enjoy a lengthy tenure in the Championship overall.
GALWAY: LIAM Sammon would appear to have the Tribesmen playing to a more direct, forceful pattern with a steely edge to their defence, an abrasive midfield and potent forwards in Michael Meehan and Sean Armstrong. They will be favourites to win the Connacht title and indeed will be the dark horses in the eyes of many to take delivery of ‘Sam’. They were impressive in the National League and would appear to have much more in the tank.
KERRY: LEFT licking their psychological wounds in the aftermath of last year’s All Ireland final defeat by Tyrone, Kerry will enter the Championship fray with the restoration of what they perceive to be the status quo as their main goal i.e. ‘Sam’ residing in the Kingdom once again. New manager Jack O’Connor, in his second term in charge, may already have taken the side to the National League title but that means precisely nothing in the Kingdom. They could find themselves pushed hard by Cork in Munster, though, but given their enviable strength in depth, rich tradition and marvellous individual talents — Tommy Walsh and ‘Gooch’ Cooper in particular are irrepressible — they simply must be in the odds-on bracket to triumph come September.
KILDARE: WHEN Kieran McGeeney was appointed manager of Kildare, there were many who doubted the wisdom of this decision. But ‘Geezer’ showed his strength of character and tactical awareness by steering Kildare though to the closing stages of last year’s All Ireland series before overseeing a useful National League campaign. Indeed, Kildare have done enough of late to suggest that they should be regarded as strong candidates to land the Leinster title. Whether they achieve this distinction or not, I still think they have the ammunition to blast their way into the All Ireland quarter-finals.
MAYO: JOHN O’Mahony’s side have the honour of opening the All Ireland Championship against New York on Sunday. What they really crave is the honour of closing it by mounting the winners’ podium on the third Sunday in September in Croke Park. It is uncertain, though, if they have the all-round strength and guile to go the full distance. While several of their players have grown up very quickly, they may find the demands made upon them at the business end of the season rather too much.
TYRONE: AS reigning champions, Mickey Harte’s boys are up there to be knocked down. And you can be sure that teams they meet will be doing everything in their power to do just that. Yet it won’t be easily achieved. The Red Hands have a vast reservoir of strength, experience and guile that has stood the test of time — and in addition they have the confidence and poise that are by-products of a protracted stay at the top. Tyrone have made no secret of their yearning to land back-to-back All Ireland titles and they certainly have the resources to reach this goal. Rule them out at your peril!
PS. Want the names of two sides to look out for as outside bets? Then focus on Armagh and Tipperary.
The orchard county may have had their problems of late but they will be difficult to beat — not many sides will fancy meeting them. And Tipperary can continue to blossom under their personable manager John Evans although they will find the Championship environment rather different to that of the National League.