DAYS before they beat Fermanagh in last year's Division 4 league final, the Wicklow footballers held a typical Harry Murphy training session.
"They were cutting lumps out of each other," Murphy recalls. "But every session had to be like that. We were trying to get out of the lowest division and we needed that cut. Training was so intense, but it showed everyone was up for the challenge."
On the night before that final, Murphy gathered his squad in a circle and pointed to Leighton Glynn, who has played for his country in two International Rules series, then to Ciarán Hyland and the now-retired Tony Hannon. Murphy said what a shame it was to have players like that in Division 4 and then he asked the others a question that cut to the core. "Do you really want to look back on your careers and see nothing but Division 4 football?"
They expected a battle against Fermanagh in the final but it never transpired. Turns out the war had been won against Clare in a nail-biting encounter two weeks earlier which had narrowly guaranteed promotion.
"That duel with Clare was like a winner-take-all championship game," Murphy admits. "It was a bloody great game to be involved in. We had to fight to the death to take promotion off them. It was the only pressure I felt all year – to get out of Division 4. If Wicklow wanted to progress as a county, we just needed to climb up the divisions."
That Clare game just about captures the enormity of the challenge in getting out of the bottom tier. Bar London, who can themselves win up to two games a season, any team in the division can feasibly beat another on a given day.
After losing to Waterford and Fermanagh early last spring, for example, Wicklow's promotion seemed most unlikely. But they got there in the end. Just when you reckon you have this division sussed it throws you another curve ball.
"Division 4 is a nightmare to get out of," says former Waterford manager John Kiely, who spent five years trying to achieve that goal, coming extremely close on three occasions.
"Just when you get a big win against the odds and you feel you've a shot, there's a sting in the tail. It's so competitive and it's only going to be worse next season. You have all these big names – Micko, Anthony Rainbow and you have the best player in Division 4 in Carlow's Brendan Murphy. Limerick and Tipp have been made favourites but I'm not sure I go along entirely with that. I think Limerick will have their work cut out. You're going to see a more exciting league than you have in ages. I think Division 4 will really stand out."
Wicklow's eventual progression meant that Micheál McDermott's Clare narrowly missed out on their promotion target. McDermott has since been succeeded by Mick O'Dwyer but he spelled out just how difficult it was to get out of that sector.
"Every year you must get on the phone and sell Clare football to certain fellas. Your success rate depends on how the year before went and when you're in Division 4 not everyone can see the point," he said.
"Some players decided that they weren't prepared to make those sacrifices and asked what there was to look forward to in Division 4, and I can understand that."
O'Dwyer's appointment caused a huge stir, and he has quickly targeted league promotion, but his work is cut out for him. Clare are still over-reliant on David Tubridy for scores and even though they improved under McDermott other counties have gone up a notch too.
Offaly, despite their dismal run in recent years, are an example. There has been a change in attitude since new manager Emmet McDonnell took over. They have been in training for the past two months.
Tipperary boss Peter Creedon has 38 players battling hard to make his squad.
The Carlow players raved about Anthony Rainbow's contribution as defensive coach in 2012 and now they are set to ramp up the gears as he takes full charge for 2013.
Limerick almost caused the shock of the last 10 years when they came within a few seconds of dumping Kildare from the championship and they, too, are restless in the lowest tier.
Under the joint management of Barney Breen and George Dugdale, Leitrim enjoyed their finest championship run for many a season and they have kept most of their players together.
Waterford have also been boosted by the arrival of high-profile former Kildare selector Niall Carew.
While all the attention will focus on Kildare and Donegal and Dublin versus Cork on the first week in February, it's reasonable to suggest that the bottom tier will be the most exciting and evenly-matched of the lot. The bookies have Limerick and Tipperary down as favourites for promotion but the margins are probably too tight for such a call to be made.
Breen and Dugdale are facing a second season at the helm, having presided over Leitrim's longest championship run (four games) in many years last summer, the highlight of which was a first-ever All-Ireland qualifier victory at Wicklow's expense.
They'll target a win in their first game, away to Limerick, to gain momentum. If they can do that, they have four home games within a reasonably quick timeframe.
After coming so close to a shock championship win over Laois last year, they will have taken huge heart. Crucially, they have kept most of the panel from 2012. "That is our only hope – that we could keep some of the lads because every new year, we start off missing four or five lads," said co-manager Breen.
The players rallied together for a fundraiser at Lough Rynn Castle in November and hopes are high that they can launch a sustained bid for promotion in the next couple of months.
Positive: Emlyn Mulligan has finally enjoyed an injury-free build-up to the NFL.
Negative: A small pick; and the danger of losing players mid-season through economic pressures constantly looms.
It probably took Maurice Horan some time to overcome the devastation of losing to Kildare in last year's All-Ireland qualifiers but such was the faith placed in him that his was the only name put forward for the job during the winter. His preparations began, however, with another search for a new coach after Brian Lacey stepped aside, citing a weekly 1,000km trek between Kildare and Rathkeale as the principal reason for his departure.
Horan and his selector Joe Lee began preparations some months ago by handing all players individualised gym programmes for the coming months. Trainer Andrew O'Neill oversaw their core strength and conditioning work which young players like Bobby O'Brien and Ian Corbett will have benefited from.
The key thing for Limerick is to develop consistency of results. They have three tough opening games against Leitrim, Offaly and Waterford so a shaky start will swiftly derail them.
They have proven themselves to be a top-eight championship team but to maintain serious progress they really need to get out of Division 4.
Positive: Some handy young players are coming through and they have appointed Donie Buckley as their underage director of football which will ensure that dividends continue to follow in the next few years.
Negative: Losing the services of coach Brian Lacey.
Clare endured another near miss last year but now they have some big games to look forward to and must make them count. The appointment of Mick O'Dwyer was nowhere near universally accepted. His latest incarnation comes at the age of 76 and there are fears that his ways and methods might not suit the modern style the Banner are trying to embrace.
This could be the most taxing challenge of O'Dwyer's career, and one wonders if he needs the hassle, but clearly the game of Gaelic football is like a drug to the Waterville man.
His predecessor Micheál McDermott had to coerce players into coming aboard but Micko's legend might persuade doubting Thomases to join up. It's been a while, however, since they had all their best men in tow.
"Some of their better players didn't always make themselves available, for one reason or another, over the years" says John Kiely. "And they are probably too dependent on David Tubridy for scores. But Micko will give them an almighty lift so again we'll have to wait and see."
They reached a Munster final and shipped a hefty beating to Cork, before getting another hammering at the hands of Kerry, so one wonders where they really stand.
Privately, a number of players reckon they've a better chance picking up a Munster medal with their clubs than with the county. Micko's enthusiasm is infectious; an easy enough McGrath Cup could help make an early dent in the season. Micko wouldn't be a huge man for league success, but he'll also have to change that outlook.
Positive: Highly-rated young trainer Michael Cahill is back on board and they boast a good midfield.
Negative: Need more quality up front.
ALTHOUGH enjoying massive success in the underage ranks, a pin has continually been taken to the Tipp football bubble with the desperate championship draws they've been handed in the past four years.
Yet, under Peter Creedon, Mick O'Loughlin and Gerry McGill, Tipperary showed their summer credentials with a fine run last season. Getting out of this division must be their number one target for 2013 and they have approached that task like men on a mission.
Players were met individually and 38 of them were invited onto an extended panel. Attackers Barry Grogan and Brian Jones are both back from their travels and by the looks of it there won't be any immediate rush to draft in the 2011 All-Ireland-winning minor team, which is no bad thing.
Tipperary may need to look for a new goalkeeper if Matthew O'Donnell decides to travel, but overall the team is working hard and set for a decent campaign. And unlike their championship draw (they meet Kerry), the league roster could have been a lot worse for them.
Positive: New regime which players have readily bought into.
Negative: Expectations are rising all the time for Tipperary football.
Emmet McDonnell, a Westmeath man who teaches in Edenderry, has already shown his commitment to blooding new talent since taking charge in the past few months.
McDonnell has no inter-county management experience, but brought All-Ireland colleges' glory to St Mary's of Edenderry last year and gets a shot on that basis. Sources say that the work McDonnell put into that competition was on a par with senior county preparation.
He has a strong, inside knowledge of underage football in the county and has reportedly worked very hard to get the best players in Offaly on board.
He held his first trial at Rhode on October 6 with a second try-out taking place just a day later. Like every other manager, McDonnell's main objective for 2013 will be secure promotion from Division 4, but with the game near an all-time low in the county that could be a difficult task. There has been a general apathy towards the team which the new manager will need to eradicate from the start.
Positive: Niall McNamee once again played a captain's role with Rhode this year and he is crucial to the Offaly cause.
Negative: Lack of firepower elsewhere and serious change of attitude needed within the county.
For most of last year's league Waterford were frail in defence, much less resilient than they had been in recent years. John Owens' side was unlucky not to stay in Division 3 when they were initially promoted and a year later they are well-versed in the grind of trying to get out of Division 4 once more.
"We are in a league where we could win or lose every game or lose every one by a point but we'll have to look at promotion," said Niall Carew upon his appointment.
"There are some big teams there. Look at Limerick. They were the better team when we met them with Kildare in the qualifiers. Limerick, Leitrim, Clare . . . there are no easy games."
They'll need everyone at the wheel – from Shane Briggs to Gary Hurney.
Positive: They have one of the best young free-takers in the land in Paul Whyte who is ready to make his entrance on the big stage.
Negative: Players' dual status will prove a massive headache for the new management – one that they won't have experienced in their time with Kildare.
AFTER Luke Dempsey's good work these past few years, and Anthony Rainbow's subsequent appointment, there's a good buzz in the Carlow camp. They have young players emerging who shouldn't be burdened with the failures of the past.
Rainbow enjoyed a long and extensive career with the Lilywhites, winning Leinster senior championship medals in 1998 and 2000 and the Carlow players didn't take long to warm to him and his methods.
The team showed huge improvement in their drawn game with Meath last season and if they can maintain that, better days may lie ahead. Rainbow is not out of the inter-county game too long. He has a real grasp of what's going on and that's a huge benefit.
Positive: Brendan Murphy is one of the finest all-round midfielders in the country.
Negative: Inconsistency over past five years.
London will not be allowed any special derogation from the Seánie Johnston ruling – that before a player can complete an inter-county transfer, he must have played in the local club championship first so it looks like manager Paul Coggins faces the prospect of lining out without 12 of his first team in the Connacht championship. Given the turnover of players in London, this is not going to help anyone.
Also, new players living and working in London would not be allowed represent the county unless they played in the county championship of the previous season.
London officials are still considering bringing their 2013 county championship forward to January so new players in the city can represent the side in the National League.
Positive: Recession has sent quality players across the water which means they are always capable of an upset in Ruislip.
Negative: Just as they are making progress, this league gets undeniably tougher.