Connacht to be poor relations once more
IT'S NEVER popular to quote Oliver Cromwell's 'to hell or to Connacht' phrase on this island but Western football fans surely cannot escape the notion that their footballers are the nation's poor relations at present.
By the end of this year's Allianz Leagues just one Connacht team (Mayo) remained in Division 1 and a quick review of last summer's action saw some shocking implosions by some of the province's so-called blue-bloods.
Mayo, 42-time Connacht champions and the province's most recent All-Ireland finalists (2006), failed to recover their composure after a Division 1 league final mauling by Cork last year.
They bowed out to Sligo in their provincial opener and, worse still, went out in the first round of the qualifiers to Longford.
Galway (44 Connacht senior titles) gave Sligo a better fight at least but they too succumbed and immediately went out to Wexford in their first outing in the qualifiers.
Close inspection of round three of the qualifiers provided a particularly telling barometer of the province's current football malaise. Leinster still had four teams involved (Dublin, Kildare, Wexford and Offaly), Ulster still had three (Down, Armagh and Derry) and Munster still had one (eventual champions Cork).
Connacht? Not a sausage! Not one of the province's early fallers could even make it that far, an unprecedented statistic in the history of the four-round qualifiers and a really ominous one.
There was one good feel-good story of course; Roscommon's first Connacht title in nine years, which came when they ambushed Sligo, who had knocked out Mayo and Galway to get there.
But the fact that both the winners and runners-up were subsequently dispatched without barely a whimper by eventual All-Ireland finalists -- Cork and Down respectively -- indicated that success on a provincial level was the summit of both counties' abilities.
Things don't look to have improved radically since. All appeared promising for defending champions Roscommon, bolstered by St Brigid's' great club run, when they reached the Division 4 league final with an unbeaten record.
But then came that disastrous defeat to Longford, where they could only muster 1-8. It was argued that they'd already got one eye on the New York game eight days later and they had been without two of last year's starters -- David O'Gara and David Casey -- all season.
Still, they made sure they avoided the banana skin in the Bronx, easing to a 3-21 to 1-11 victory over New York.
The Rossies' brittle league final performance immediately hardened Mayo's place as the bookies' favourites for summer glory, largely on the basis of their Division 1 status and the arrival of new boss James Horan.
Any first-year manager brings new impetus and Horan hasn't been afraid to ring the changes, dropping the likes of Tom Parsons, Mark Ronaldson and Barry Moran and giving starting spots to the Feeney brothers from Castlebar and unearthing a fabulous goal-sniffer in Jason Doherty.
Yet they mixed the sublime with the ridiculous at times in the league; beating Cork, drawing with Down and doing well against Kerry but losing to Monaghan and Armagh, not to mention that bizarre goalfest against Dublin.
Given that only Kilkenny's footballers let in more goals than Mayo's 11 in the league, their defence is going to have to improve radically if they're to live up to their favourites' tag.
Despite their drastic fall from grace in the last two seasons you still can't rule out Galway.
Joe Kernan got a swift P45 after just a year in charge and it wasn't long before rumours abounded that his replacement Tomas O Flatharta wouldn't even last that long after five consecutive league losses, including a thumping by Mayo in Tuam.
Yet despite relegation, some green shoots emerged towards the end of the league.
It's no surprise that their decent last three results -- a three-point loss to Cork, victory over Armagh and a draw with Dublin -- coincided with Padraic Joyce's return and their dependency on the great veteran is worrying.
They've also been without Michael Meehan all season and Sean Armstrong was an absentee in the latter stages so their ridiculously late entry (June 26 against Mayo/London) is helpful but a worrying amount hangs on that duo's return.
Tomas Fahy, Mark Hehir, defenders Colin Forde and Jonathan Duane and especially midfielder Thomas Flynn (from Athenry) led their U-21s to an impressive All-Ireland title but it's too early yet for them to become their senior saviours.
Sligo were Connacht's form team last season, coming into the championship off consecutive league titles and promotion. They looked to be the real deal when beating the province's only Division 1 sides -- Mayo and Galway (after a replay) -- but then came that shock Connacht final defeat. Since then their only victory in Division 2 was over Antrim, who were also relegated.
In fairness, Sligo came close to surviving, only losing to Kildare by a point in the last round and only taking the drop on their head-to-head result with Meath.
But failure to put away 14 men a few times and losing an eight-point lead to Donegal in their opener came back to haunt them.
An inability to put away their scoring chances is not helped by the expected injury absence of corner-forward David Kelly (ankle) against Leitrim but Noel McGuire is expected to be fit.
Home advantage should get Sligo through to set up a fascinating re-match with the Rossies, where revenge could be the deciding factor.
It is hard to see Leitrim causing a surprise because they're particularly transitional after their traumatic and emotional 2010. Regulars like Declan Maxwell, Shane and Michael Foley and Colin Regan are all gone now and David O'Connor was lost to emigration.
Dermot Reynolds has been persuaded out of retirement, John McKeon is on the way back from injury and Tomas Beirne has been a good addition, but only London and Kilkenny finished below them in Division 4.
They haven't beaten anybody outside London or New York in Connacht since beating Sligo in 2005 and having to go to Markievicz Park doesn't make a repeat likely.
London also have had a bit of an overhaul this year. They've lost the likes of Conor Beirne, Eamonn O'Cuiv and Derek Hayden and will likely also be without Paul Geraghty and Johnny Niblock because of work commitments.
They'll depend on regulars like Barry Comer, Killian Phair and Sean McVeigh, feature home-grown talent in Liam Gavaghan and Tom Waters and have picked up two useful Galway men in Mark Gottsche and John McGrath.
London may unveil a few more new signings before facing Mayo (they're rumoured to be chasing Niall Corkery of Kilmacud and Dublin) but new boss Paul Coggins (who successfully managed Tir Chonaill Gaels) stresses that they're currently rebuilding for the future.