Friday 9 December 2016

Armagh

Published 30/01/2012 | 05:00

Manager: Paddy O'Rourke (3rd season)

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2011 NFL: 6th Div 1: P7, W2, L5

2012: Home (3): Cork, Mayo, Down; Away (4): Kerry, Dublin, Laois, Donegal.

1st game: Next Sunday v Cork, Morgan Athletic Grounds.

Last Div 1 title: 2005

Odds: Title 28/1; Relegation 4/7.

The bookies have priced Armagh and Laois as favourites for relegation, which looks reasonable based on last year's returns.

Armagh only avoided the drop on the head-to-head rule in 2011 (they beat Monaghan, who also finished with two wins), having had four home games as opposed to three this season.

Four away assignments make their survival prospects all the more unlikely this time and if they lose their opener at home to Cork next Sunday it's very hard to see them dodging the drop.

Also, if Crossmaglen reach the All-Ireland club final on St Patrick's Day, Armagh will be well below full strength for the first five games, which is a severe handicap at a time when they need all available talent if they are to keep pace in the top flight.

An Ulster championship win over Down was Armagh's only real flash of inspiration last year and manager Paddy O'Rourke will be under intense pressure from the start.

It's all so different to a decade ago when Armagh were gearing up for their most successful season in history but, at 50/1 for this year's All-Ireland, they now have 11 rivals ahead of them, including Kildare, Galway, Tyrone, Derry and Meath, all of whom are in Division 2.

It's not exactly a vote of confidence in the Orchard boys.

Manager: Conor Counihan (5th season)

2011 NFL: Champions Div 1: P 8, W6, L2

2012: Home (4): Down, Laois, Kerry, Dublin; Away (3): Armagh, Donegal, Mayo.

1st game: Next Sunday v Armagh, Morgan Athletic Grounds.

Last Div 1 title: 2011

Odds: Title: 2/1; Relegation 20/1.

Cork have been the most consistent side in the league over the past three seasons, winning the Division 1 title for the past two years and the Division 2 crown in 2009.

However, no county has won an NFL three-in-a-row (Div 1) since Kerry in the early 1970s so, on that basis, Cork's odds don't look attractive.

However, Conor Counihan (below) will be extremely anxious to get them settled into a winning routine quickly as a loss of momentum would be damaging after three seasons of high-octane spring activity.

The mystery of their second-half collapse against Mayo in last year's All-Ireland quarter-final remained unsolved all through the winter so it's important for them to return to a consistent solidity as quickly as possible.

At the same time, Counihan will be anxious to slot in some new faces to freshen things up so it's difficult to predict how Cork will fare over the next three months.

However, they have four home games, which is a bonus, so it will be a surprise if they don't at least reach the semi-finals.

It's a big year for Cork as they set about ascertaining whether it was the injury blitz or something more fundamental -- and consequently more dangerous -- that undermined them last year.

Manager: Jim McGuinness (2nd season)

2011 NFL: Champions Div 2 (promoted): P8, W5, D2, L1.

2012: Home (4): Laois, Cork, Mayo, Armagh; Away (3): Down, Kerry, Dublin.

1st game: Next Saturday v Down, Newry.

Last Div 1 title: 2007

Odds: Title 12/1; Relegation 2/1.

Promoted to Division 1 last year, they built on the spring adventure and delivered their best summer campaign since 1992.

They finished the year with a league-championship return of 10 wins, two draws and two defeats from 14 games, a yield surpassed only by Dublin.

Their defensive systems helped them establish a championship record in terms of a low giveaway rate, so Jim McGuinness won't be changing much on that front.

However, he will need to devise a method of improving the strike rate which, excluding extra-time against Kildare in the All-Ireland quarter-final, averaged just 10.5 points in their last four games.

Their return dropped to just 0-6 against Dublin in the semi-final, yet remarkably, they lost by only two points, underlining just how secure their defensive strategy was.

Donegal will work hard to retain momentum in the league but Michael Murphy's absence will impact negatively on their capacity to pick up points from a schedule which sees them travelling to Down, Kerry and Dublin.

It suggests that they will have to be at their productive best at home if they are to get into the top four.

Their title odds of 12/1 look just about right in a year when everything will be geared to building on the championship progress they made last year.

Manager: James McCartan (3rd season)

2011 NFL: 4th Div 1: P7, W3, D1, L3.

2012: Home (3): Donegal, Kerry, Dublin; Away (4): Cork, Mayo, Armagh, Laois.

1st game: Next Saturday v Donegal, Newry.

Last Division 1 title: 1983

Odds: Title 12/1; Relegation 2/1.

After the highs of 2010, last year was a major disappointment.

Down finished fourth in Division 1 -- it would earn them a place in the semi-finals under the new system in operation this year -- but never warmed to the championship challenge, losing to Armagh in Ulster (five points) and to Cork (12 points) in the All-Ireland qualifiers.

Indeed, the fact that they survived to the fourth round of the qualifiers was down to the luck of the draw as they were paired with Clare, Leitrim and Antrim, all of whom would be rated well behind them. Even then, Clare ran them to a point.

They need to make a big impact this year to avoid losing all of the momentum they generated in 2010 but face a real challenge after losing Martin Clarke to Australian Rules.

Down were not over-endowed with productive forwards to start with but will now be even more reliant than ever on Benny Coulter (below).

Aidan O'Rourke, who was with Kildare in recent seasons, joins James McCartan on the management team but it's on the pitch that Down really need strengthening, especially down the middle of a side that lacks the commanding presence of several of their big rivals.

Manager: Pat Gilroy (4th season)

2011 NFL: Beaten finalists Div 1: P8, W 6, D1, L1.

2012: Home (3): Kerry, Armagh, Donegal; Away (4): Mayo, Laois, Down, Cork.

1st game: Next Saturday v Kerry, Croke Park.

Last Div 1 title: 1993

Odds: Title 7/2; Relegation 9/1.

Dublin's approach to the league over the past two seasons played a significant part in their return to football's summit.

For years, they delivered erratic league campaigns and while they talked it away as being largely irrelevant, that was not the case. Consistency in spring is often followed by reliability in summer. So too is the reverse, as Dublin repeatedly discovered.

All changed for Dublin in 2010 when they made a big drive in the league and were unlucky not to reach the final -- the experience proved so valuable that they pressed on even more vigorously last season.

Then, they did reach the final and while they squandered a big lead and lost by a point to Cork, it showed that they were getting closer to a major breakthrough all the time.

The big question for Dublin now centres on how they will react to the pressure of being All-Ireland champions. They have become the scalp all opposition wants, which brings its own pressures.

However, the signs are good, not least because Pat Gilroy has built a squad, rather than a team, and can choose from a range of options in every line.

Book them down as certain semi-finalists and, after that, they could be on their way to a first Division 1 title since 1993.

Manager: Jack O'Connor (4th season, second term)

2011 NFL: 3rd Div 1: P 7, W5, L 2.

2012: Home (4): Armagh, Donegal, Laois; Mayo; Away (3): Dublin, Down, Cork.

1st game: Next Saturday v Dublin, Croke Park.

Last Div 1 title: 2009

Odds: Title 9/4; Relegation 20/1.

With four home games, Kerry look certain to reach the semi-finals, even if they lose to Dublin next Saturday night.

League titles don't count for much in Kerry but they still tend to do very well in the spring -- good players will prosper at any time of year. They were very unlucky not to reach the final last year, losing out to Cork on the head-to-head rule after finishing on the same number of points.

However, it's the memory of last year's All-Ireland final which still haunts Kerry. They feel it was a title they handed away, rather than having it prised from them, so a powerful backlash can be expected, not least in Croke Park next Saturday.

Predictions that Kerry would struggle last year after losing so many top names since 2010 proved unfounded and there's no reason to believe they won't be a major force this year too.

One possible area of concern is the defence, which has more than the usual quota of 30-somethings. It didn't make any difference last year, but one suspects that Jack O'Connor (right) would like to slot in some younger talent in order to reduce the average age. Of course it will only happen if the challengers are good enough to supplant the experienced set.

Manager: Justin McNulty (2nd season)

2011 NFL: Beaten Div 2 finalists (promoted): P 8, W5, L3.

2012: Home (4): Mayo, Dublin, Armagh, Down; Away (3): Donegal, Cork, Kerry.

1st game: Next Saturday v Mayo , Portlaoise.

Last Div 1 title: 1986

Odds: Title 28/1; Relegation 4/6.

Promoted last year, favourites for relegation this time. They ran an excellent league campaign in 2011, finishing ahead of Derry, Tyrone, Kildare and Meath, all of whom were hotter fancies in the early betting.

That run raised high hopes for the championship, only to be followed by a complete letdown as Laois produced an unambitious performance against Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final and a dismal effort Kildare in the qualifiers.

It left them uncertain as to their true merit, which is why this year's league is so important.

Avoiding relegation would be a significant achievement, a target helped by the schedule, which gives them four games in Portlaoise.

However, they will be away to Donegal, Cork and Kerry, three journeys which could prove fruitless.

Their best prospects for points are against Mayo, Armagh and Down in O'Moore Park but as ever with Laois, it depends on which side of their personality turns up.

The positive version helped them to five wins from seven games in Division 2 last year, but they're in more exalted company now and will find points extremely difficult to come by.

Manager: James Horan (2nd season)

2011 NFL: 5th Div 1: P7, W2, D1, L4

2012: Home (3): Dublin, Down, Cork; Away (4): Laois, Armagh, Donegal, Kerry.

1st game: Next Saturday v Laois, Portlaoise.

Last NFL title: 2001

Odds: Title 7/1; Relegation 10/3.

They picked up only five of a possible 14 points last year which, very often, wouldn't be enough to avoid relegation, but they were lucky that Monaghan and Galway fared even worse, with both finishing on four points.

With four away games, it could be another tough campaign for Mayo, especially if they lose the opening game against Laois next Saturday.

Still, they go into the new season with their confidence pretty high after winning the Connacht title last year before beating Cork in the All-Ireland quarter-final.

Mayo's graph is headed in the right direction but just how high it will eventually go remains to be seen.

They are fifth favourites behind Kerry, Dublin, Cork and Kildare for the All-Ireland title but that may be somewhat misleading as it's influenced by their direct access to the Connacht semi-final, where they play Leitrim or London.

The markets reckon they are certainties to reach the Connacht final -- hence their high ranking in the All-Ireland betting as many of their rivals elsewhere face a much tougher challenge to advance to provincial finals, which carries an automatic place in the last 12.

Mayo conceded an average of almost 17 points per game in last year's league and signed off in the championship after being hit for 1-20 by Kerry. It points to a need for tighter defensive security, the success -- or otherwise -- of which will come under scrutiny in four away league games.

Irish Independent

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