Joe Kernan: Down on mission to silence cynics
It's tough at the top. How often have we heard that sentiment expressed in a sporting context? Getting to the top can be difficult but remaining there can present a team in any sport with an even bigger challenge.
More often than not the elite teams invariably find themselves jostling for trophies although there is always the prospect that a surprise packet can emerge to add a fresh dimension to any competition.
When the Allianz Football League swings into action on Saturday week, the composition of Division One will be positively intimidating.
No fewer than five of the eight teams — Donegal, Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Tyrone — are the most recent winners of the All-Ireland championship title while the other three teams — Down, Mayo and Kildare — have all been in at the death when the destination of ‘Sam’ was being decided in each of the past three years.
This surely represents the strongest Division One for quite some time with little to choose between the sides.
The target now for all managers in every division is to accumulate points as quickly as possible in order to secure their team’s divisional slot and perhaps gain a place in the play-offs.
Nowhere is there a greater frenzy for points than in the top bracket. Tyrone and Kildare gained promotion last year and will be very anxious to remain in their new-found lofty environment while Down manager James McCartan has already conceded that his side could be earmarked for relegation although he is hoping that they can provide the cynics with their best possible answer.
Cork have won the league title for the past three years and as such will be in pole position to remain the dominant force in the competition.
But I suspect that manager Conor Counihan would happily accept relegation if it meant winning the All-Ireland title.
Yet the battle for the league crown will be much more intense this year as the teams who have shared ownership of the Sam Maguire Cup over recent years will be keen to lay down a marker for the championship.
And in this context I expect both Donegal and Tyrone to make a big impact. Jim McGuinness has kept his All-Ireland winning side under wraps to date but he will unleash them against Kildare on Saturday week anxious to garner a brace of points that could set the tone for his their league itinerary.
Donegal’s prime goal may be a successful defence of their All-Ireland title but somehow I think that McGuinness would relish the chance of winning the league title and ‘Sam’ in the same year.
Kildare boss Kieran McGeeney now has former Cavan ace Seanie Johnston in his attack and having amended his side, he will closely monitor their progress in the league.
Mickey Harte, too, will be very single-minded in his approach to the league. I have no doubt that he will view the prospect of meeting the top teams with considerable delight knowing that this will form a perfect programme of preparation for the championship.
Tyrone are viewed as the team best-equipped to wrest the Ulster title away from Donegal and Harte is hoping to have players like Colm Cavanagh, Kyle Coney and Ronan O’Neill all of whom are missing because of injuries at present back in his squad for the latter stages of the league.
Of course players such as these will be invaluable assets for the championship and Harte is already showing a marked appetite for getting his side back to the top again.
Dublin and Kerry will be very much to the fore in the league, I imagine. Under Jim Gavin, the Dubs have been working hard since the start of the year and given the size of his panel, I am certain that competition for places is razor-keen.
Gavin’s biggest task perhaps will lie in whittling down his panel while new Kerry boss Eamon Fitzmaurice faces a similar problem.
Down and Mayo face into difficult league journeys. Ambrose Rogers, Dan Gordon and Danny Hughes will not be available until the “latter stages” of the competition, if at all.
From the weekend after next until mid-April the league will be a gruelling campaign in Division One and it won’t be a tea-party in any of the other divisions either.
Indeed four Ulster sides — Cavan, Antrim, Fermanagh and Monaghan — are locked together in Division Three so the promotion race could be extremely interesting. Watch this space!