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National Football League: Titanic battles on the way

By Declan Bogue

With the Allianz National Football League set to get under way this weekend, we look at the credentials of all the Ulster teams.

Some will see promotion in the league as their chief objective for the season, while others will have a different attitude entirely.

Either way, the league format and competitive edge never fails to produce a competition that enthrals from week to week and we'll be there to cover it all.

Antrim

Division: Four

Manager: Frankie Fitzsimons (1st year)

Captain: Justin Crozier

Key Man: Chris Kerr

Fixtures: Carlow (H) February 1, Longford (A) February 8, Leitrim (A) March 1, London (H) March 8, Waterford (A) March 15, Wicklow (H) March 29, Offaly (A) April 5

Assessment: Frankie Fitzsimons finds a side that desperately need a confidence boost. Their main ambition is to begin a rise through the rungs of the league. Every team in Division Four experiences the same level of discontent and Antrim are only now beginning to implement structures taken for granted in other counties. If they can get full commitment from those on the panel and integrate the likes of Mick McCann and Kevin Niblock as soon as possible, they should push for promotion.

Armagh

Division: Three

Manager: Kieran McGeeney (1st year)

Captain: Ciaran McKeever

Key Man: Jamie Clarke

Fixtures: Tipperary (H) February 1, Wexford (A) February 8, Limerick (A) March 1, Fermanagh (H) March 7, Clare (A) March 15, Louth (H) March 28, Sligo (A) April 5

Assessment: You might expect a quiet life in Division Three, away from the hustle and bustle of the top flight and the pesky notion of live television highlighting your shortcomings, but then again Kieran McGeeney has always been box office and Armagh are sure to draw some of the biggest ever crowds at this level. McGeeney will be given space to put his stamp on this team. If they can find a suitable system for Jamie Clarke, he could propel them to an expected promotion.

Cavan

Division: Two

Manager: Terry Hyland (5th year)

Captain: Damien O’Reilly

Key Man: Gearoid McKiernan

Fixtures: Roscommon (A) February 1, Laois (A) February 7, Down (H) February 28, Kildare (H) March 7, Galway (A) March 15, Westmeath (H) March 28, Meath (A) April 5

Assessment: Went up as the top team in Division Three with a 100% record, but when it came to the one-off league final they were a disappointment against Roscommon. Seemed unnerved by Armagh’s tactic of standing behind the Cavan flag ahead of their Ulster Championship opener and although they steamed in, it went against them. Upward swing was always going to hit the odd rocky patch. Realistic target is survival with only three home games.

Derry

Division: One

Manager: Brian McIver (3rd year)

Captain: Mark Lynch

Key Man: Eoin Bradley

Fixtures: Donegal (A) January 31, Kerry (H) February 8, Tyrone (A) February 28, Mayo (H) March 8, Monaghan (A) March 15, Dublin (A) March 28, Cork (H) April 5

Assessment: Hit the ground running last year, their experience in winning the O’Fiaich Cup in the depths of winter evident as they were unlucky not to beat Tyrone before a landmark victory away to Kerry. Steamed through the league but ground to a halt with a hammering by Dublin in final. Never really recovered in Ulster Championship after Fergal Doherty was put out of the Donegal game for questionable hits. Have different emphasis now, and much depends on Eoin Bradley.

Down

Division: Two

Manager: Jim McCorry (1st year)

Captain: Conor Laverty

Key Man: Mark Poland

Fixtures: Kildare (A) February 1, Roscommon (H) February 7, Cavan (A) February 28, Galway (H) March 8, Westmeath (A) March 15, Meath (H) March 28, Laois (H) April 5

Assessment: It’s hard to know if Down will suffer greatly with the departure of household names. Any squad losing the likes of Benny Coulter would be diminished. It would also appear we’ve seen the last of others such as Liam Doyle, Ambrose Rogers, Dan McCartan and Dan Gordon. The absence of Marty Clarke will continue to pain Down fans. However, Jim McCorry’s four home games all appear winnable. Might just surprise a few people.

Monaghan

Division: One

Manager: Malachy O’Rourke (3rd year)

Captain: Conor McManus

Key Man: Darren Hughes

Fixtures: Tyrone (A) January 31, Cork (H) February 8, Mayo (A) March 1, Donegal (A) March 8, Derry (H) March 15, Kerry (A) March 29, Dublin (H) April 5

Asssessment: Back in the top flight for the first time since 2011, Monaghan’s season was shaping up fine by the time they beat Donegal in the Division Two final last April. Defeat in the Ulster final and then having their patched-up squad lose heavily to Dublin in Croke Park put a bad look on things, but they remain a serious team with some of the finest managerial staff in the country. A lot depends on nursing Conor McManus through his hip injury. They should do enough to survive.

Donegal

Division: One

Manager: Rory Gallagher (1st year)

Captain: Michael Murphy

Key Man: Colm McFadden

Fixtures: Derry (H) January 31, Dublin (A) February 7, Cork (H) March 1, Monaghan (H) March 8, Kerry (A) March 15, Tyrone (H) March 29, Mayo (A) April 5

Assessment: If new manager Rory Gallagher wants to show the Jim McGuinness era is truly over, he can send out a signal by competing strongly in the league. McGuinness made no secret of his dislike for the league, due to the travel involved and other issues. While Rory Kavanagh is now gone, Donegal have serious talent coming through in the likes of Eoin McHugh, while his cousin Mark is also back. Donegal’s geographical isolation could be a strength with four home games.

Fermanagh

Division: Three

Manager: Pete McGrath (2nd year)

Captain: Eoin Donnelly

Key Man: Ryan McCluskey

Fixtures: Louth (H) January 31, Sligo (A) February 8, Tipperary (H) March 1, Armagh (A) March 7, Limerick (H) March 15, Wexford (A) March 29, Clare (A) April 5

Assessment: Having not been able to seal promotion last year with four home games, the task would seem harder for Fermanagh this time with only three games at Brewster Park. There is an air of optimism in the camp, built up through having more work done in pre-season than the previous year. Pete McGrath has a much greater idea of what he is working with now, and they can point to a reasonable January campaign. On the downside, threw away their last two matches.

Tyrone

Division: One

Manager: Mickey Harte (13th year)

Captain: Sean Cavanagh

Key Man: Sean Cavanagh

Fixtures: Monaghan (H) January 31, Mayo (A) February 8, Derry (H) February 28, Dublin (A) March 7, Cork (H) March 15, Donegal (A) March 29, Kerry (H) April 5

Assessment: In recent years, retired players such as Brian McGuigan and Owen Mulligan complained about some fringe players coasting along in the panel, ‘happy to have the tracksuit’, in Mulligan’s words. Mickey Harte has sacrificed some fairly big names in the past, such as Sean O’Neill and Aidan Cassidy, but his axing of Mark Donnelly and Kyle Coney seems calculated to instil a cut-throat atmosphere. Semi-final slot at the least.

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