Sunday 20 August 2017

Martin Breheny: How high are your county's ambitions?

Success is relative in the All-Ireland football championship but all contenders still need clear objectives

Philly McMahon of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Philly McMahon of Dublin celebrates with the Sam Maguire cup after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Final Replay match between Dublin and Mayo at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It starts in Gaelic Park tomorrow when New York host Sligo in the first round of the Connacht Championship and, barring a draw in the All-Ireland final, will end 19 weeks later in Croke Park.

In between, a total of 58 games are scheduled in a football championship where hopes and ambitions are thriving all over the country.

They come in a wide variety of forms, ranging from elite level where the season will only be a success if Sam Maguire is booked in as winter guest, to those for whom a provincial title would make it a successful year.

Some will get their satisfaction from a run in the qualifiers while at the lower end of the scale even two wins would represent a form of success.

And for the exiles in New York and London, a single victory would make their season.

So how high is the bar set for each of the 33 contenders?

Here's a rundown of what they would need to do achieve to deem the championship a success...

All-Ireland win

Dublin, Kerry, Mayo

The highest peaks are unforgiving territory so anything less than an All-Ireland win will be deemed a failure by this trio.

They all have added incentives this season, ranging from Dublin's attempt to win the county's first three-in-a-row since 1921-'22-'23 to Kerry's burning desire to supplant their great rivals at No 1.

And then there's Mayo's obsession to end the misery which, despite four attempts in All-Ireland finals (including a draw) in the last five seasons, still extends to 66 years.

Other than Kerry, no county has won the three-in-a-row since Galway in 1964-'65-'66, underlining just how difficult it really is.

Dublin are certainly well-equipped to take on the challenge, although the defeat by Kerry in the Allianz League final will make their fans nervous that the Kingdom in cranking up for a new and powerful charge.

It happened in 1978 when, after winning three of the four previous All-Ireland titles, Dublin were hit by a Kerry storm, which, with the exception of 1982, raged relentlessly for eight years.

Mayo will battle on with trademark resilience while Tyrone are advancing steadily too as Mickey Harte tries to build a new empire.

Jim Gavin tossed an early incendiary into the fascinating mix this week, querying whether referees are "being influenced by the narrative that we (Dublin) are a cynical team."

It's a strategy with longer-term aims and will, in all probability, be echoed in Kerry at some stage, following the publication of figures showing they have picked up most black cards of all counties over four seasons.

They will be worried that it might influence referees so expect a vigorous defence of their situation before they get into the big championship action.

Kerry's win over Dublin in the league final has raised the stakes in this enthralling rivalry which, if both win all their respective provincial titles, can't be re-enacted until the All-Ireland final.

It's Munster v Connacht and Ulster v Leinster in this year's semi-finals so if Kerry and Mayo proceed on the traditional route, they will meet in the semi-final.

Both Dublin and Kerry are in an ideal frame of mind going into the championship, but there has to be uncertainty in Mayo who again came up short in last year's All-Ireland final replay, just as they did in the 2012 and 2013 finals and the 2014 and 2015 semi-finals.

Their extraordinary durability is admirable but how long more can the same group of players push themselves to the limit of endurance, only to be slapped down close to the finish line?

"Last year's one (final defeat), I don't know if it hovered over more than the others or if it weighed heavier because you're a couple into them. I'm not sure. It was difficult to take and you don't move on from them.

"I lost with my club as well and I was kind of sick of football," said Aidan O'Shea this week.

Presumably, his team-mates felt the same, raising the question: can they lift themselves again for a championship where they aren't even defending Connacht champions, having been dethroned by Galway last year?

Mayo need an injection of fresh talent, which can make a big impact, but the signs are that they will again be relying essentially on the majority of last year's starting team.

This is against a background where winning Connacht or reaching an All-Ireland final is no longer enough to make it a successful season.

That's harsh on any group of players but it's the undeniable truth. It's Sam Maguire in Castlebar in September or the season will be a disappointment.

All-Ireland finalists

Tyrone

Who would have thought in 2008, when Tyrone won the All-Ireland for the third time in six seasons, that they would be waiting for their next appearance in the final nine years later?

They reached two semi-finals and a quarter-final in the last four seasons so qualifying for this year's final would represent significant progress.

The pressure is on to do that after a few seasons when supporters' expectations grew rapidly. That's positive but it also adds to the pressure to retain the Ulster title and make a bold bid for the biggest prize.

The recent Allianz League campaign raised some doubts as to whether the rate of progress was as reliable as supporters appear to think.

An excellent start, during which Tyrone took seven of a possible eight points (they drew with Dublin), left them well-placed after four games, but they dropped away after that, losing to Donegal, Mayo and Kerry, all of whom are high-powered championship rivals.

All-Ireland semi-finalists

Galway, Monaghan, Donegal

Galway haven't been in an All-Ireland semi-final since 2001; Monaghan were last there in 1988, while Donegal's last appearance was three years ago when they beat Dublin.

All three have high ambitions, starting with provincial title aspirations which, if realised, would be an important milestone. On a broader scale, a top-four finish is also very much on their radar.

Galway's implosion against Tipperary in last year's quarter-final has been filed under a 'one-off aberration' heading and, in fairness, they have started this year well, topping Division 2 and winning the title. Whether it's through the retention of the Connacht title or, via the qualifiers, Galway's first target has to be a quarter-final place.

But even that wouldn't represent real progress, since they have gone that far in two of the last three seasons. They need to make it to the top four this year.

Given its size and population, Monaghan has been punching about its weight in recent times, but Malachy O'Rourke and his squad won't be happy with being classified as genuine Ulster Championship contenders, who don't deliver in Croke Park. They won the Ulster title in 2013 and 2015 but lost the quarter-final to Tyrone on both occasions, which detracted somewhat from their earlier successes.

Monaghan beat Mayo and Kerry (both away) and were unlucky to lose to Dublin in the league so that's the standard by which they judge themselves nowadays.

Winning Ulster would still be a massive success for Monaghan, but having been in two All-Ireland quarter-finals recently, their target has to be geared around a semi-final appearance.

All-Ireland quarter-finalists

Cork, Kildare, Meath, Roscommon, Cavan

Reaching the All-Ireland quarter-finals used to be the minimum requirement for Cork, but now it would be regarded as a really good prize, especially if achieved as Munster champions. Kerry's 2013-2016 Munster four-in-a-row was their first since the 1980s, underlining how far Cork have slipped.

The slump was further underlined by a fourth-place finish in Division 2 this year, three points outside the promotion zone. Whatever route they take, Cork need to reach the last eight to halt the decline.

A place in the Leinster final is the first target for Kildare and Meath, who are on the same side of the draw. Next up is the challenge of putting real pressure on Dublin, who are almost certain to await them.

After that, it's a question of winning a Round 4 qualifier and reaching the quarter-finals.

Alternatively, the last eight could be reached via earlier entry to the qualifiers but, either way, that has to be target for the Lilywhites and the Royals.

If Roscommon's league form were the yardstick, they would appear to have little chance of reaching the quarter-finals but the luck of the Connacht draw gives them a decent chance.

A win over Leitrim or London in Dr Hyde Park would take them into the provincial final.

Even if they lost there, they would be only one qualifier win away from the quarter-finals.

Cavan joined Roscommon in the relegation chute out of Division 1 but got three good results when beating Mayo and drawing with Kerry and Monaghan.

They are still adjusting to Mattie McGleenan's approach but have the potential to make progress. A quarter-final place might look ambitious but that's the level they need to aim at.

Win three games

Down, Armagh, Derry, Louth, Clare, Tipperary, Westmeath, Laois, Fermanagh, Longford, Sligo, Offaly, Wexford

After reaching the All-Ireland semi-final and quarter-final respectively last year, Tipperary and Clare are taking high hopes into this championship season, but they are going to be very difficult to fulfil.

Clare face Limerick in the Munster quarter-final, with Kerry awaiting the winners and while Tipperary got a bye to the semi-finals, they will almost certainly be playing Cork in Páirc Uí Rinn.

Either Clare or Limerick will join the qualifiers in Round 1, with the other almost certainly following in round two.

Clare and Tipperary each won four games last year but might not reach that target this time.

Of the other above-named 13, Derry and Laois were the only counties to win three games in 2016.

On the basis of their Division 2 campaign where they were relegated, that's probably the best Derry can hope for again, even if they do have a good record in the qualifiers.

It's just as well for them, as their Ulster ambitions are likely to end against Tyrone in Celtic Park on May 28.

Two of Laois' wins last year were against Armagh (a re-fixture was ordered in the Round 1 qualifiers after the midlanders played too many subs).

They are in a tailspin after dropping out of Division 3 last month and will do well to win three games this summer.

Fermanagh, Westmeath, Offaly, Longford and Sligo all won two games each in 2016 - hence the reason why a third success would represent progress.

It would be an even bigger step up for Armagh and Down, neither of whom won any game last year. Down drew a blank in 2015 also.

It's some fall for grace for Armagh, who won six Ulster titles in 1999-2008 and for Down, who were All-Ireland runners-up in 2010.

Win two games

Wicklow, Carlow, Antrim, Leitrim, Limerick

Carlow, Leitrim and Limerick managed one win each last year. Two would be a step up but it will be beyond some of them unless they get lucky in the qualifiers.

Win one game

Waterford, London, New York

Even with the qualifiers, one win is probably the best London and Waterford can hope for.

Can New York spring a major surprise against Sligo tomorrow?

It would the story of the championship even before the other 31 contenders started.

Irish Independent

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