National glory is the grand plan
With Christmas, the New Year and the Dr McKenna Cup all dealt with it can mean only one thing - the National Football League is upon us again! Our Gaelic Games correspondent Declan Bogue casts an expert eye over Ulster’s nine contenders in the four divisions, the ins and outs, and who will be the men to watch over the coming weeks.
Management: Frankie Fitzsimmons (2nd year), joined this year by Gearoid Adams
Games: Carlow (A) January 31st, Wexford (H) February 7th, Leitrim (H) February 28th, London (A), March 6th, Waterford (H) March 13th, Wicklow (A) March 27th, Louth (H) April 3rd.
Players in: Michael McCann, Brian Neeson, Kevin Niblock, Sean Burke, Kevin O’Boyle, John Carron all return after opting out last year, while other youngsters such as Domhnall Nugent show promise.
Players out: Tony Scullion and Michael Pollock are still out, although there is a suspicion they might come back for the league, while CJ McGourty has joined up with the hurlers.
Verdict: Antrim are surfing a wave of positivity, ushered in by additions to the football management, a fresh hurling management team, and a fresh county board, courtesy of the Saffron Vision group. How they harness that will be key.
Look out for: A tougher edge, following a comprehensive pre-season under former world boxing champion Brian Magee.
Key man: Michael McCann, can offer leadership.
Management: Kieran McGeeney (2nd year)
Games: Meath (A) January 31st, Laois (H) February 6th, Fermanagh (H) February 27th, Cavan (A) March 5th, Galway (H) March 13th, Tyrone (A) March 26th, Derry (H) April 3.
Players in: Rory Grugan is back, joined by the likes of Jemar Hall, Niall Grimley and Shea Heffron.
Players out: Caolan Rafferty is in Hong Kong working, Finian Moriarty has retired, Stephen Harold has opted out as has Jamie Clarke.
Verdict: McGeeney now finds himself with plenty to prove as manager of the county that made him a deity as a player and legendary captain, but he loves a challenge. The gameplan was thrown into disarray without the energy and play-making of Kevin Dyas ast year. Getting him fit will be crucial.
Look out for: Their ability to live at a higher level, and the chance for other players to come out of their shell now that Jamie Clarke will not be attracting all the attention.
Key man: Kevin Dyas, for all the reasons listed above — he is the key link man in their transition game.
Management: Terry Hyland (sixth year).
Games: Tyrone (A) January 31, Derry (H) February 6, Meath (A) February 28, Armagh (H) March 5, Fermanagh (A) March 12, Laois (H) March 27, Galway (H) April 3.
Players in: David Givney returns, as does goalkeeper Alan O’Mara, while none other than Seanie Johnston is back. Eugene Keating is a surprise late inclusion.
Players out: A bit of a clear-out with Martin Dunne, Mark McKeever, Ronan Flanagan, James McEnroe, Damien Reilly, Conor Gilsenan, Micheál Lyng and Paul Smith all gone.
Verdict: With prominent selector Anthony Forde and coach Liam McHale also departing, Cavan could be in for a difficult year and will do well to survive in this division.
Look out for: How the Cavan folk take Seanie Johnston back into their hearts. At 31, the Gaels player has little time left as a player, so it really is all or nothing for him and Hyland.
Key man: Gearoid McKiernan, beautifully balanced and a serious competitor who is Cavan’s new Dermot McCabe figure.
Management: Damian Barton (first year).
Games: Fermanagh (H) January 31, Cavan (A) February 6, Galway (H) February 28, Tyrone (A) March 5, Laois (A) March 13, Meath (H) March 27, Armagh (A) April 3.
Players in: Shane Heavron of Magherafelt comes in and joins the returning James Kielt, Gerard O’Kane and Ryan Bell, all of whom were not around last summer.
Players out: Fergal Doherty has reluctantly retired to the dismay of his many followers.
Verdict: So far, there can be no denying that Damian Barton’s touchline passion has not ignited something in the Derry psyche, while the ongoing rivalry with Tyrone can bring out the very best in them. Second favourites to go up, their composure might raise some concerns.
Look out for: Players and management have talked about a change of emphasis from defence to attack. How that manifests itself if they don’t get off to a winning start will be interesting.
Key man: Conor McAtamney has potential to be Derry’s next great flame-haired midfielder.
Management: Rory Gallagher (2nd year).
Games: Down (A) January 30th, Cork (H) February 7th, Mayo (H) February 28th, Kerry (A) March 6th, Roscommon (H) March 13th, Dublin (A) March 26th, Monaghan (A) April 3.
Players in: With one eye undoubtedly on the future, Rory Gallagher brought in a dozen youngsters to sample the McKenna Cup. Most promising of these is possibly Michael Carroll.
Players out: Paul Durcan is in Qatar, while valued squad member Declan Walsh has opted out as he is doing a Masters. Darach O’Connor and Michael Boyle are both out with knee injuries.
Verdict: Donegal never put too much importance on the league. Having said that, they will aim to be safe before the last two games against Dublin and Monaghan, both of whom they will want to hold something back for in the summer.
Look out for: Danny Rogers and Mark Anthony McGinley will be vying for Durcan’s spot in goals. You can’t replace a legend.
Key man: Captain Michael Murphy will set the tone for those around him.
Management: Eamonn Burns (1st year).
Games: Donegal (H) January 30th, Monaghan (A) February 7th, Kerry (H) February 28th, Roscommon (A) March 6th, Dublin (H) March 12th, Cork (A) March 27th, Mayo (A) April 3rd.
Players in: Joe McDermott and Gareth Johnston come in from Tullylish, Michael Hughes and Cathal Doyle are also new faces, but most encouraging is the return of Benny Coulter.
Players out: Conor Laverty appears unlikely to be back, at least for the league. Work also needs to be done to encourage the odd experienced figure back like Dan Gordon.
Verdict: There is no doubt about it, this is an exceptionally tough gig for Eamonn Burns. With four away matches, his three home games are against Donegal, Kerry and Dublin, who have to be ranked in the top four teams in the country. At 1/3 to go down, we suspect the bookmakers might have this one priced up right.
Look out for: Marty Clarke is playing Sigerson and impressing with Queen’s. His progress will be under intense scrutiny.
Key man: Mark Poland
Management: Pete McGrath (3rd year).
Games: Derry (A) January 31st, Meath (H) February 7th, Armagh (A) February 27th, Laois (H) March 6th, Cavan (H) March 12th, Galway (A) March 27th, Tyrone (H) April 3rd.
Players in: Ryan Hanna moves over from being the strength and conditioning coach of the county hurlers to making the football panel, along with Tomás Clarke, Stephen McGullion and Finbar Gillen.
Players out: No retirements in a very settled panel, but former captain Ryan McCluskey has only returned to gym work and will not be available for the first couple of rounds.
Verdict: Their pressure now becomes self-imposed. A painful part of growing up. With four home games, three of them are definitely winnable. Six points should be enough to survive but they need to avoid injuries in a thin-enough panel.
Look out for: The emergence of Cian McManus, a MacRory Cup winner with St Pat’s Cavan last year.
Key man: As ever, the stylist Sean Quigley will be compelling viewing.
Management: Malachy O’Rourke (4th year).
Games: Roscommon (A) January 31st, Down (H) February 7th, Dublin (A) February 27th, Mayo (H) March 6th, Cork (A) March 13th, Kerry (H) March 27th, Donegal (H) April 3rd.
Players in: Ten new players in for January, as Malachy O’Rourke will be aware of the need to refresh things. Conor McCarthy from Scotstown could be the pick of them, but an unimpressive McKenna Cup showed up their lack of depth.
Players out: Although injury has forced the great Owen Lennon to finally bow out, O’Rourke’s charm has kept on the veterans of the squad such as Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay for another spin, and who knows where it might end.
Verdict: Few fancied them to survive in the top flight last year but they came closer than anyone to beating Dublin in the league semi. Have enough winnable home games that might save them.
Look out for: Jack McCarron was progressing, but has been held up by a hamstring twinge.
Key man: Dessie Mone has bundles of energy and inspiration.
Management: Mickey Harte (14th year).
Games: Cavan (H) January 31st, Galway (A) February 7th, Laois (H) February 28th, Derry (H) March 5th, Meath (A) March 13th, Armagh (H) March 26th, Fermanagh (A) April 3.
Players in: Brothers Hugh Pat and Kieran McGeary, Niall Sludden, Johnny Munroe, Padraig Hampsey and David Mulgrew all showed up well in January.
Players out: No retirements, although the likes of Sean Cavanagh will be used sparingly in January.
Verdict: Favourites to be promoted, their added depth in the panel makes it hard to present a case against this. If Darren McCurry and Connor McAliskey are the first choice forward pairing, then having Lee Brennan and Ronan O’Neill as back-up illustrates the strength of their panel. This is replicated throughout the other positions on the field.
Look out for: Richie Donnelly might be the answer to some long-term midfield difficulties, and Mark Bradley is continuing to mature.
Key man: Sean Cavanagh. Raises the performance of everyone around him.