Spring fever injects heat into summer
As Kerry have proved in past, league success can provide launch pad for All-Ireland bid
FIVE wins for a place in the final; three wins to guarantee survival. That's the broad outline of the challenge facing Division 1 teams in the Allianz Football League which gets under way this weekend.
Derry reached last year's final with nine points but it took 10 points to finish in the top two the previous year. Given the quality of the teams in the group (All-Ireland champions Kerry plus all four 2009 provincial champions are there as well as Galway, Derry and Monaghan) 10 points will almost certainly be enough to win a place in the final.
Six points were enough for Dublin to avoid relegation last year, while five points was enough to keep Mayo in the top flight in '08. And 11 points saw Monaghan and Cork promoted from Division 2 last year, while Laois and Meath avoided relegation on six.
Ten points were sufficient to clinch promotion from Division 3 for Down and Tipperary, while 12 points was the total for Antrim and Sligo on their way out of Division 4. The target is higher in this group because each county has eight games, as opposed to seven in the three top divisions.
Division 1: Spring form doesn't lie
Counties who struggle in the league like to give the impression that their failure is part of a wider plan designed to reach a whole new level of excellence in the championship, while those who play well in spring chalk it down as no big deal.
Here's a question then: if the league is so immaterial to championship prospects, how come Kerry, Tyrone and Armagh -- who between them claimed nine All-Ireland titles in the last decade -- also won six league crowns?
And is it pure coincidence that Dublin, who made no impact outside of Leinster in the championship, struggled consistently in the league? There was a time when they were almost always involved in the chase for the league title but that has changed and now they are seeking to close a 17-year gap, having failed to take the crown since 1993.
According to the bookies, Dublin are more likely to be battling against relegation than winning the title, although that seems a harsh assessment of their prospects in a group where there's uncertainty about all the contenders. Indeed, if Dublin could kick-start their campaign with a win over Kerry in Killarney tomorrow, they might well enjoy a productive run. But they head south with only five of the team that started against Kerry in last August's All-Ireland quarter-final.
It's a risk but clearly one that Pat Gilroy believes must be taken. Kerry have perfected the art of being ultra-competitive in the league without actually looking as if they are trying too hard, but then that's a luxury available to a county with outstanding players.
Tyrone weren't as reliable in the league in the second half of the last decade as they had been earlier on but, with Mickey Harte having publicly warned his players in his book that they would all need to make convincing cases for themselves this year, there's likely to be a high level of intensity from them.
Cork need to do well to maintain momentum. It's all very well being regarded as serious All-Ireland contenders, but it's a status that must be underpinned with consistent quality throughout the year. Cork were in Division 2 last year so they are stepping up in class now. And how they cope over seven games will present a significant pointer to whether they're really developing into a title-winning force.
Joe Kernan's arrival in Galway has re-awakened hopes of better days for the county, particularly at Croke Park, but there's a limit to what he can do. The truth is that Galway have flunked several big tests in recent years and whether Kernan can sort that out remains to be seen. Or will he discover that there are inherent deep-rooted problems which can't be sorted out in the short term?
Derry have done well in the league in recent years and are likely to be in the mix again in April. Mayo's campaign will be heavily influenced by how they do against Galway tomorrow. A win would set them up for a decent campaign, but a defeat would apply heavy early pressure, with Tyrone and Dublin next up.
Monaghan -- who were promoted with Cork last year -- are favourites for relegation and, with their last two games away to Mayo and Kerry, they will need to do well early on if they are to survive at the highest level. But they are a dogged lot who will relish their outsiders' billing.
Last year: 1 Kerry (champions); 2 Derry; 3 Galway; 4 Mayo; 5 Tyrone; 6 Dublin;7 Donegal (relegated); 8 Westmeath (relegated).
Ladbrokes odds: Cork, Tyrone 3/1; Kerry 7/2; Galway 15/2; Derry 8/1; Dublin, Mayo 10/1; Monaghan 16/1.
Division 2: Westmeath's decline to continue?
Will Westmeath make the drop from Division 1 to Division 3 in successive seasons? That's one of the intriguing questions in a very competitive group, where there is unlikely to be a clear winner.
Westmeath had one of the tightest defences in the country in '08 but they caved in completely last year, conceding an average of almost 20 points per game in the league en route to relegation. They were later hit for 4-26 by Dublin in the Leinster championship.
Clearly, new manager, Brendan Hackett has a lot to correct as Westmeath head out on what could be a very difficult season. Laois' rating has dropped considerably too but, despite the odds, they are good enough to avoid relegation. It's very tight at the top end of the market with Kildare, Meath, Armagh, Donegal and Down all priced as potential winners.
Kildare finished third in the group last year behind Monaghan and Cork, who have now been replaced by Westmeath and Donegal. Donegal will be promotion contenders but Westmeath are not as good as Cork or Monaghan, so Kildare will regard this as a chance to build on the progress of '09 where they lost just three of 12 league and championship games.
Paddy O'Rourke will be at the Armagh controls at what is a crucial period. They lost a lot of ground last year and badly need a boost in the form of a concerted drive for promotion. Donegal have started the season well, winning the McKenna Cup. It's encouraging but should come with a health warning as January form doesn't always carry into the league. Meath have been notoriously unpredictable for a long time but if they can inject a degree of consistency into their game, they are good enough to be in the promotion push in April.
Tipperary are trying to win promotion for a third successive year, a target that's probably beyond them. Indeed, they will do well to avoid the drop because, despite their undoubted improvement, they are now moving into a zone which is new to them. What's more, it's ultra-competitive.
Last year: 1 Monaghan (promoted); 2 Cork (promoted - champions); 3 Kildare; 4 Armagh; 5 Meath; 6 Laois;7 Fermanagh (relegated); 8 Wexford (relegated).
Ladbrokes odds: Kildare 11/4; Meath, Armagh, Donegal 4/1; Down 5/1; Westmeath, Laois 16/1; Tipperary 20/1.
Division 3: Tightest
group of all?
Louth have reached the O'Byrne Cup final, yet still find themselves joint bottom of the Division 3 betting lists. Still, the fact that the favourites are 4/1 with the bottom pair at 10/1 indicates just how close this group is likely to be. Fermanagh and Wexford were promoted in '08 but dropped back down last year. Wexford won just one competitive game last year (v Offaly in the All-Ireland qualifiers) in what was an alarming decline from the peaks of '08.
They received a boost last weekend when they beat Westmeath in the O'Byrne Shield, but whether they can use that to begin the process of restoring the zest of two years ago remains to be seen.
Sligo are rated highly after coming up from Division 4 last season but this is a much tougher group -- indeed it could well produce more draws than any other division. Antrim are coming in off an excellent run in '09 but are now moving into tougher league territory; Offaly are more stable now that manager Tom Cribbin has had plenty time to work with them, while Roscommon are something of an unknown quantity in that nobody can predict which side will turn up on a given day. At their best they would be promotion contenders, but they also tend to have inexplicably bad days.
Cavan manager Tommy Carr knows that a good start is vital after having to survive a confidence motion before being re-appointed. Cavan play Roscommon and Antrim in two early games where they must take at least two points to quell restlessness in the county.
Last year: 1 Down (promoted); 2 Tipperary (promoted -- champions); 3 Offaly; 4 Louth; 5 Cavan; 6 Roscommon; 7 Limerick (relegated); 8 Longford (relegated).
Ladbrokes odds: Fermanagh 4/1; Sligo 9/2; Wexford, Offaly, Cavan 5/1; Antrim 6/1; Roscommon, Louth 10/1.
Division 4: Limerick and Longford for quick return?
Limerick and Longford were unlucky to be relegated last year, which explains why they are now top fancies for a return to Division 3. Limerick finished on six points with Roscommon, Cavan and Louth but lost out due to an inferior scoring difference.
Longford finished on five points but lost two games by a point and two points respectively, such are the tight margins which decide important issues in all four divisions. Wicklow's excellent championship runs against sides from higher divisions suggest they should be in promotion contention, but they head into this league without several key players, which could prove too much of a handicap. The back-up forces aren't all that strong once Micko is forced to dip outside the top 15.
Leitrim, Waterford, Clare and Carlow would be hoping to stay in promotion contention, but the two slots are likely to go to Limerick and Longford.
Last year: 1 Antrim (promoted); 2 Sligo (promoted -- champions); 3 Leitrim; 4 Waterford; 5 Wicklow; 6 Clare; 7 Carlow; 8 London 9 Kilkenny.
Ladbrokes odds: Limerick 6/4; Longford 3/1; Wicklow 4/1; Leitrim 7/1; Waterford 12/1; Clare 12/1; Carlow 16/1; London 50/1; Kilkenny 250/1.