There has been a common thread running through post-match interviews conducted with various county team managers in the Barrett Sports Lighting Dr McKenna Cup to date.
I have yet to hear any manager proclaim that he is totally focussed on winning the competition but I have most certainly listened to the oft-repeated desire to assemble the best possible starting line-up for the National Football League which swings into action on Saturday week.
Every team boss shares this goal — and with very good reason. It has become abundantly clear that, in one sense, there is a very thin line between what can be viewed as progress and failure in the second most important competition in the fixtures calendar.
A team that gets off on the right foot in the league invariably grows in confidence and, even should it incur the occasional blip, stands a very good chance of retaining its divisional slot. On the other hand, a side that struggles at the start and begins to be assailed by doubts can very quickly find itself mired in a relegation battle.
And this can have potentially disastrous consequences. First and foremost, it can impact adversely on squad morale in advance of the championship season. Supporters then become disgruntled, the county board coffers suffer because of disappointing gates, sponsors become wary and the blame game commences in earnest.
This being the case, it’s hardly surprising that every manager is hoping to get a couple of early wins under his belt irrespective of how his side have performed in their provincial competition during January.
The fact that 75 euro season tickets are now available means that more people will come out to watch National League games and I have no doubt that given the quality contained in the fixtures menu — certainly in the opening phase of the league — we will see some cracking games.
When Armagh won the National League in 2005, as their manager I was ecstatic. We beat Wexford in the final and I suppose you could say that it was maybe downplayed somewhat. There are people who will still claim that it is ‘only’ the league but ask any player in any county squad what he covets most after an All Ireland medal and he will tell you that it is a National League medal.
Yet success in the league does not guarantee championship glory. Derry has won the league title more times than any other Ulster county in the last two decades — they were particularly dominant in the 90s — yet they last lifted the Ulster Championship title in 1998. And they have not been regarded as a major threat in an All Ireland context since their memorable 1993 triumph.
When Donegal won the National League crown under Brian McIver for the first time three years ago, they were expected to take the championship by storm. Instead, they subsequently wallowed in anonymity.
No manager, of course, wants his side to peak too soon. Rather, he will seek consistency.
But all managers will most certainly crave a buoyant start to the league. It is an intense competition in that most teams will play at least seven games within a 10-week period during which some players will have to assist their university sides as well while others will also fulfil club commitments.
Several managers have had their hands strengthened for the National League.
Down’s James McCartan has watched Martin Clarke, Peter Fitzpatrick and Paul McComiskey flourish to date while Ronan McNabb, Peter Harte, Niall McKenna and Matthew Keenan have been impressive for Tyrone.
Michael Murphy is further underlining his immense potential with Donegal and Ryan Jones, Kieran Flaherty and Barry Mulrone are doing the business with Fermanagh. I expect to see Darren Hughes do well when he pulls on the Monaghan shirt following his superb form for UUJ.
It was disappointing to see Donegal and Fermanagh relegated in the league last year although this was perhaps counter-balanced by the success attained by Monaghan, Down and Antrim all of whom deservedly gained promotion.
Antrim now face into a Division Three itinerary that will test their mettle while Down confront potentially difficult challenges in what will undoubtedly be a hugely competitive Division Two.
Armagh, who may now look to UUJ duo Jamie Clarke and Stefan Forker to boost their attack, managed to retain their status in this sector while Monaghan will find the going difficult in Division One where they have been bracketed with teams like Tyrone, Dublin, Cork and, dare I say it, Galway.