Joe Kernan: Down have the strength to face most challenges
The flame of ambition burns brightly in every Ulster county just now as the Allianz National Football League, the second most important competition in the overall fixtures calendar, looms.
But will the hopes of all nine sides be met in what promises to be one of the most competitive and intense league campaigns for some time?
I doubt it — and that’s not being uncharitable. It is merely taking stock of the very thin line dividing Divisions One and Two, acknowledging that Cavan may well still find the going tough in Division Three and being conscious that Fermanagh’s prospects of bouncing straight back out of Division Four again are far from rosy.
Three Ulster sides — Down, Armagh and Monaghan — are in the top bracket while no fewer than four — Tyrone, Derry, Donegal and Antrim — are in Division Two.
Last term Tyrone and Derry made the drop from Division One and this underlines just how hard it is to pick up points in the top tier.
Just how newly-promoted Down and Armagh fare remains to be seen while on the basis of form shown to date in the Dr McKenna Cup, Monaghan could struggle to avoid the drop unless they are quickly cushioned by an influx of their more experienced players, currently conspicuous by their absence.
Down’s surge into last year’s All Ireland final will certainly have done their confidence no harm and in Daniel Hughes, Martin Clarke, Benny Coulter, Kevin McKernan and Dan Gordon they clearly have experienced players who thrive in pressure situations.
I have a notion that James McCartan’s side could give a good account of themselves, particularly if they take maximum points from their away trip to Mayo in their opening game.
They have the style and the panache as well as the steel to cope with the challenges that they will face but they will need to show consistency.
Armagh have yet to reveal their full hand in selection terms and that’s understandable, given the number of players absent of late because of university commitments and Crossmaglen’s ongoing involvement in the All Ireland Club series.
The Orchard county’s opener against Dublin in the Athletic Grounds on Saturday week promises to be a cracker and if Paddy O’Rourke’s boys can post a win here, it will surely bode well for their league campaign overall.
Players like Brendan Donaghy, Ciaran McKeever (if fit), Steven McDonnell, Paul Duffy, James Lavery and impressive newcomer Rory Grugan can set the tone for them.
I expect Tyrone and Derry to make very strong bids to extricate themselves from Division Two at the first time of asking.
A combination of circumstances saw both sides make the drop last year but new Derry manager John Brennan and Red Hands boss Mickey Harte won’t be content until they are rubbing shoulders with the elite again.
Antrim could find themselves facing a hazardous route — don’t forget very capable teams like Kildare, Meath and Laois are in Division Two — while Donegal manager Jim McGuinness is desperately hoping that he will have his full squad from which to choose, from the outset, otherwise his team could concede valuable ground much too early in the competition.
This brings us to Cavan in Division Three — they struggled there last year and unless new manager Val Andrews can bring his fine motivational skills into play, they may not make their desired speedy leap into Division Two.
They have fine players in Ray Cullivan, Ger Pierson, Sean Johnston, Michael Brennan, Keith Fannin and Michael Reilly but they need to get into their stride early.
Similarly, Fermanagh find themselves in the ignominious position of being the only Ulster side in Division Four.
A quick glance at their surroundings will show them that teams like Wicklow, Clare, Roscommon and Leitrim, who are managed by former Derry, Donegal and Sligo boss Mickey Moran, are in their company and sides like these are never easily beaten, especially when they get on a roll.
Quite rightly, Ulster teams will embark on their league voyage filled with optimism. But something tells me that some of them at least could be destined for disappointment.
Who precisely? Monaghan, Antrim, Donegal and Cavan.