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Ulster teams poised to hit top gear in quest for league success



Quality: Armagh’s Aidan Forker (right) can deploy his vast experience to good effect against Cavan in tonight’s opening Division Two clash at the Athletic Grounds

Quality: Armagh’s Aidan Forker (right) can deploy his vast experience to good effect against Cavan in tonight’s opening Division Two clash at the Athletic Grounds

Rory Gallagher

Rory Gallagher

Quality: Armagh’s Aidan Forker (right) can deploy his vast experience to good effect against Cavan in tonight’s opening Division Two clash at the Athletic Grounds

The Allianz Football League roars into action tonight with a clash between the traditional heavyweights Dublin and Kerry at Croke Park.

There could hardly be a more attractive appetiser to the second most important competition on the annual fixtures calendar with both teams keen to make a convincing start.

With the league having assumed added status and teams in the lower bracket understandably wary of their possible participation in the inaugural Tier Two All-Ireland series, there will be added pressure in most camps.

Survival is a priority for most teams, certainly those who may feel at risk of relegation which now comes with added complications from Division Two down.

Not so long ago, teams could ease themselves into the league perhaps only stepping on the accelerator a little more when the possibility of dropping to a lower division loomed.

For Ulster teams spread as they are across all four divisions, the league holds the promise of intensely competitive action, the possibility of taking a step upwards and the appeal of seeing new players flourish at elite level.

While there is no doubt that the cream will eventually come to the top, the opportunity is there for teams to set down a marker in relation to their championship aspirations and signpost their intentions of making a strong push for glory.

Ulster has three teams in Division One, three in Division Two, two in Division Three and one in Division Four.

Division One: Tyrone, Monaghan and Donegal represent the province in the top division and all three are prepared for torrid campaigns.

Tyrone have already shown over the course of the Dr McKenna Cup that they have been able to plug the gaps left by the absence of Mattie Donnelly, Cathal McShane, Connor McAliskey, Mark Bradley, Padraig Hampsey and Richie Donnelly and this augurs well for the immediate future. They commence their campaign against Meath tomorrow and the fact that they have home advantage should help the side get an early bonus.

Donegal, meanwhile, are also at home against a much-changed Mayo side at Ballybofey tonight. If Declan Bonner's side were to claim the westerners' scalp, this would be a considerable early bonus for them.

When they move up to full strength with the return of several players who are currently missing, Donegal could potentially figure in the race to the title.

Monaghan on the other hand will do well to survive in Division One. They face a tough trip to Galway tomorrow and do not quite appear to have the strength in depth necessary to mount a real challenge at this point in time.

The loss of Colin Walshe is a blow while the retirements of Vinny Corey and Dessie Mone strip the side of a layer of experience.

Manager Seamus McEnaney will look to a few new faces to produce the goods against a Galway side that will seek to flourish under new manager and former player Padraic Joyce.

Division Two: Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan are bedfellows in this sector but with rather contrasting aspirations. Armagh will be expected to mount a robust push for promotion because of the experience of the likes of Aidan Forker and the quality that relative newcomers such as Jarlath Og Burns, Rian McConville and Cian McConville bring to the side.

Fermanagh slipped up over the final furlong in their bid to join the top sector last year but under the watchful eye of new boss Ryan McMenamin they should not be found wanting. They may be taking a little bit of time to get into their stride but the team has potential. They face a tricky start against Kildare today but if they get over this hurdle then anything might be possible.

Cavan have been badly hit by defections of key players which has rendered manager Mickey Graham's task all the more difficult. They must make the trip to the Athletic Grounds today with four debutants in their ranks knowing that their chances of getting off to a good start are slim and conscious that they could find themselves battling against relegation before the league has reached the half-way stage.

Division Three: Derry and Down are ensconced in this division where the going will be much more demanding than most people think. Derry took the step up from Division Four last year and with Rory Gallagher cracking the whip now, they will be seeking to make it back-to-back promotions. Gallagher has certainly been doing his homework and the first real test of his labour comes against Leitrim tonight. Anything other than a Derry win would be regarded as a seismic shock so the side must stand up and deliver.

Down flattered to deceive in the league last year and must seek much greater consistency this time round. Manager Paddy Tally has brought in some new faces and may turn to his Kilcoo brigade at some point along the way. In the meantime, two points at Tipperary's expense tomorrow would be an early tonic.

The fact that Tipperary will be missing several regular players because of injury could weigh in the Mourne county's favour.

Division Four: Antrim are marooned in the basement division but manager Lenny Harbinson and skipper Declan Lynch are united in their belief that there is sufficient talent within the squad to drive a promotion surge.

Faced with the certainty of Tier Two All-Ireland action and aware that they must undertake some tricky missions on the road in the coming weeks, Antrim will need all the help they can get if they are to ease their way out of Division Four.

Harbinson, though, has successfully blooded some young players over the course of the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup and believes that they can come good in the county colours. If they do, a promotion bid could ensue.

Belfast Telegraph