The competition that's really in a league of its own
A few weeks ago some spring cleaning took place in 'the homeplace'.
Our home could be easily be the subject of a documentary on just how much detritus from your life you retain for fear it might come in use some day.
In among the old rowing machines, vintage beer mats and various children's toys that double as Chinese landfill was an old matchday ticket that unleashed some memories and prompted an involuntary jolt through the sciatic nerve that reminded your correspondent that he is reaching an age now that means it is unlikely he will play county.
Not even a miserable run in the league in the overcast days of October.
The National Leagues at that time were sponsored by Church and General and had an attitude all of their own. For one thing, you could buy your ticket through a missing block at the turnstiles. You could abuse the man behind that missing block for the price of tickets that were not set by him.
County teams all appeared to have a rustic set of jersies that were brought out specially for the winter stages of the league. That extra 15 inches of cloth were all-important in handling a greasy ball while back then, players favoured what our underage trainer called 'Big Pat Jennings Gloves'.
You know those stories about Micko using the league to pilfer the opposition's footballs? They weren't stolen in the winter, where O'Neill's finest were caked in a hard-wearing mud, the stitching hanging out of them and pen marks such as AN DÚN.
Back then of course, you could really hear the elders stating 'the league is only the league', and mean it - and be right - while you thawed out in the Brewster Park clubhouse, getting hopped up on the delicious combo of crisps and Coke.
Because the league is no longer the league, with the implication that even though thousands of us were putting in our afternoon watching this (sample quote from every single game from someone, somewhere; "Never, ever, have I seen worse"), it was ultimately futile in the greater scheme of things.
When the summer came, the minnows would be walloped. Tyrone fans would cheer every pass for the last twenty minutes and you knew your place.
Nowadays, the league is more than the Championship, for most.
What is the point of the Ulster Championship for Antrim, for example? Without a home ground, they never get to draw a big crowd for their big day in the sun.
They might do something against Down, but it would only delay the inevitable. Manager Lenny Harbinson will be keenly aware of it. For Antrim, their Championship begins this Sunday against Leitrim and everything else beyond that will look after itself.
To a large extent, the same goes for Armagh, Fermanagh and Derry, all looking to get back up to Division Two.
With teams all meeting each other at their own level, the league has become the best inter-county competition there is. Already, the Tyrone communications department have been swamped by demands to cover next weekend's oh-so glamorous meeting between them and Dublin, scheduled for Healy Park.
News on the league is hungrily devoured. Twitter has transformed the viewing experience. Now, even the six counties of Northern Ireland will have their games commentated on in a new web-based service from 'We Are Ulster.'
Last year, the greatest thing about the league was the fact that Dublin were beaten in the final, by Kerry.
However, that defeat, and the key reason being Dean Rock's late free swinging wide, was to have a profound effect on the season, with Rock being presented with a similar chance in the last couple of plays in the All-Ireland final against Mayo, and nailing it.
The league may still be the place to learn lessons for later in the year. But while it's on and even for the rest of the year, there is no better competition.
That is, until the Super 8s, with it's league element, kicks in.
Management: Former All-Ireland club winning manager Lenny Harbinson now gets his hands on the Saffrons eight years after landing the Andy Merrigan Cup. He brings Brendan Trainor of Augher as selector and Fintan Devlin of the Loup as conditioning coach
Form Guide: LWL — Taught a severe lesson by Tyrone in the first round of the McKenna Cup, beat Cavan before losing to St Mary’s.
Key Man: Conor John McGourty will be relied on for scores from dead ball and from play.
Captain: Cargin’s Kevin O’Boyle is back and brings his own leadership.
Big Loss: Injury has finished Kevin Niblock’s county career for now.
Bookie’s Odds: 9/2 to win Division Four, 11/10 for promotion.
VERDICT: Division Four is always tough, but Antrim have enough to get out of it this time.
Management: Damian McErlain comes in at senior level after three impressive seasons in charge of the minors. He brings Killian Conlon as selector.
Form Guide: WWL — Won two games in the McKenna Cup despite a callow squad.
Key Man: The Slaughtneil contingent will be welcomed back with open arms when their club commitments cease.
Captain: Enda Lynn. The Greenlough man is rewarded for his loyal service.
Big Loss: Niall Loughlin is on a pre-arranged year out travelling, but generally they have a fully-stocked squad.
Bookie’s Odds: 10/3 to win Division Three outright, 13/8 for promotion, 4/1 for the drop.
VERDICT: After two years of stagnation under Damian Barton, Derry will push hard for a place in the top flight. My favourite for the Division Two crown.
Management: The improbable return of Rory Gallagher to his home county caught many off guard. He brings a backroom of Ryan McMenamin, Ronan Gallagher, Shane McCabe and Leon Carters is retained as trainer.
Form Guide: WWWL — Beat Donegal, Monaghan and Queen’s and lost to Tyrone in McKenna Cup semi-final.
Key Man: Tomás Corrigan is the key to their attack functioning.
Captain: Once more, Eoin Donnelly is granted the role for the fifth consecutive season.
Big Loss: Fermanagh have no retirements, and now have the longest-serving county player in Ryan McCluskey.
Bookie’s Odds: 9/2 to win Division Three, 7/4 to go up and 7/2 for relegation.
VERDICT: With four home games, two of them against Derry and Armagh, they should reach the top two by the end.
Management: Kieran McGeeney is in his fourth year as of his five year term. This year, Jim McCorry has been added to the coaching ticket that also includes Paddy McKeever, John Toal and Denis Hollywood.
Form Guide: WDWL — Made McKenna Cup semis.
Key Man: In the absence of Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell, along with Oisin O’Neill not present, a lot of attention turns to the returning Eugene McVerry.
Captain: Rory Grugan has taken over from Ciaran McKeever.
Big Loss: Jamie Clarke taking his talents to New York is a serious blow.
Bookie’s Odds: 11/4 outright in Division Three, 11/8 for promotion, 6/1 for relegation.
VERDICT: They have shipped a lot of absences, but should be in with a shout of promotion.
Management: Declan Bonner takes up the reins for the second time in his life and he has brought up a generation of successful underage stars with him. Paul McGonigle returns as selector.
Form Guide: WLWW — Made the upcoming McKenna Cup final.
Key Man: The addition of Nathan Mullins is hugely significant as it may free up Michael Murphy from heavy work around the middle.
Captain: The same Murphy is now in his eighth season as Donegal captain, and it’s not hard to see why.
Big Loss: Former Player of the Year Karl Lacey finally called it a day.
Bookie’s Odds: 12/1 to win a Division One title, and 15/8 to fall through the trapdoor.
VERDICT: Historically, Donegal have shown little appetite for the league as their panel assembles. Will look to win home games and stay up.
Management: Malachy O’Rourke enters his sixth season in charge of his neighbouring county. As ever, his coaching staff includes Leo McBride and Ryan Porter, along with Eoin Lennon as selector.
Form Guide: LWL — Had a look at a few promising players in the McKenna Cup.
Key Man: Without Conor McManus, Monaghan are just a middling outfit. With him, they are always a threat.
Captain: McManus again is handed the responsibility. His slender shoulders handle it well.
Big Loss: Stephen Gollogly brought 13 years of county service to an end.
Bookie’s Odds: 12/1 to win the Division One title, and 15/8 to suffer relegation.
VERDICT: Constantly working miracles and claiming big scalps in the league, they might relax that this year in hope of a bigger summer. Need to be careful.
Management: Mattie McGleenan has been forced to improvise this winter after a disappointing number of players have decided to opt out for the 2018 season.
Form Guide: WLL — Beat St Mary’s, before losing to Antrim and then Tyrone in the McKenna Cup.
Key Man: Gearoid McKiernan has been the heartbeat of the county for years now.
Captain: The responsibility had been thrust onto all-out action dynamo Dara McVeety, much under-rated outside his county.
Big Loss: A host of men including David Givney and Eugene Keating.
Bookie’s Odds: 13/2 for outright in Division Two, 11/4 for promotion while a rather tight-looking 9/4 for the drop.
VERDICT: Will find life difficult even allowing for last year’s experience. Mid-table beckons.
Management: Eamonn Burns goes into season three, with an impressive Championship behind him, and has Gearoid Adams on the line for company as a new selector.
Form Guide: LLW — Weren’t much fussed on the McKenna Cup.
Key Man: Connaire Harrison was unloved by previous managements, but the full-forward showed enough last season that he can be a major player in big games.
Captain: Darren O’Hagan will resume responsibilities from last year.
Big Loss: Aidan Carr and Mark Poland both announced their retirements and their experience will be missed.
Bookie’s Odds: 7/1 to win Division Two, 5/2 to secure promotion, and 11/4 to fall into the third tier.
VERDICT: With a lot of big performers sitting out this season such as Jerome Johnston, they might find the league campaign trying.
Management: It’s the 16th season for the evergreen Mickey Harte. Gavin Devlin remains as assistant, while Stephen O’Neill had been added to the brains trust.
Form Guide: WWWW — The usual remorseless January march to the McKenna Cup final.
Key Man: Colm Cavanagh being away on club duty for the Moy will rob Tyrone of an influential figure.
Captain: Matthew Donnelly takes over as leader, with Peter Harte vice-captain.
Big Loss: Sean Cavanagh departed the inter-county stage after last summer’s involvement.
Bookie’s Odds: 15/2 to win Division One, while 5/1 for the drop is probably realistic.
VERDICT: It’s been some years since Tyrone have put together a big push for the league. It isn’t likely in 2018 as they try out some formulations and different styles with an eye on the summer.