Can Dubs change the habit of a generation?
With GAA pre-season activity in full swing and the start of the Allianz Leagues only three weeks away, thoughts are turning to the exciting campaigns which will fill the months up to September. Martin Breheny raises 50 questions, the answers to which will define the 2014 season in football and hurling
1. Will Dublin succeed where, with the exception of Cork (1990) and Kerry (2007), no All-Ireland champions have successfully defended the title over the last 25 years? Dublin have a whole lot running for them, but that's always the case with defending champions at the start of a new season. However, it doesn't always remain so as Dublin themselves discovered in 2012, when they never replicated the energy and creativity of the previous year.
2. Is there more in Mayo or have they run their personal best, only to discover it's not quite quick enough over the final stretch? They beat the defending All-Ireland champions in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 championships, but still came up marginally short later on. How confidence-sapping is that? Still, there are precedents for counties winning All-Ireland titles after losing the previous two finals, Galway hurlers in 1988, Cork footballers in 1989 and Kilkenny hurlers in 2000 being the most recent.
3. What now for Donegal? They started last year in Division 1 as All-Ireland and Ulster champions. They begin this year in Division 2 as Ulster runners-up and All-Ireland quarter-final flops. Circumstances conspired against them last summer when many of their players were carrying injuries, but seasonal results don't come with asterisks, which leaves their defeats by Monaghan and Mayo as the stark definition of their year. Jim McGuinness now faces the ultimate test of his persuasive powers in a county where the talent reservoir is relatively shallow once the top layer is removed.
4. What to make of Kerry? Opinion is divided between the view that they are somewhat similar to the late 1980s when, after a glory period, they drifted into a desert which entrapped them for a long time; and the claim that with a tiny slice of luck they could have beaten Dublin in last year's semi-final. After that, who knows what might have happened? Circumstances are different now to the 1980s and '90s, when a provincial defeat ended All-Ireland aspirations. Kerry have gaps to fill but, whatever the route, will almost certainly be in Croke Park in August.
5. Is the new Tyrone generation up to the job? Rebuilding a squad while remaining competitive at the top end of the market is difficult, but Mickey Harte has achieved it. However, there's a difference between that and powering on to the No 1 slot. A question: how many of the players who have come onto the Tyrone team over the last few years would have made the 2003 side? Probably none. And therein lies Tyrone's problem. They will continue to be serious contenders, but the younger generation needs to check videos of Sean Cavanagh as far back as 2003 when, as a 20-year-old, his hand was always in the air when it came to looking for responsibility.
6. How successful will the Cork transition be? They have a new manager in Brian Cuthbert, and following the departure of several long-time tenants in various jerseys, will be a much-changed team. There have been claims that Conor Counihan should have churned the panel much more aggressively at least two years ago but, presumably, he didn't believe the alternatives were good enough. This year will give an indication of whether he was right.
7. Who, what and where are Galway? They have suffered a whole series of identity crises over the last decade, with the lowest point being reached last May when Mayo demolished them in the Connacht championship. Credit to Alan Mulholland for relaunching them in the qualifiers, but now he faces the even bigger challenge of driving them forward to a level which befits a county which stands third on the senior All-Ireland title table.
8. Are Cavan on the verge of a power surge? They won the last three Ulster U-21 titles, a feat only previously achieved by Tyrone. And while Cavan didn't advance any of the Ulster successes into an All-Ireland title, it's still hugely encouraging.
9. How will Kildare fare, post-Kieran McGeeney? His supporters argue forcibly that he got the maximum out of the available talent over the past six seasons, while his critics contend that there was more there. This year should give an indication of which side is right.
10. What impact will McGeeney have on Armagh? Last year was a write-off for the Orchard men -- the only plus point was their late reprieve from relegation to Division 3. The impressive legacy of the Joe Kernan era appears to have been squandered.
11. What odds a real Royal revival? After a poor start to the league last year, Meath made good progress and ended the season on a fairly positive note, despite losing to Dublin and Tyrone in the championship. Many other counties would have suffered the same fate against that pair. Meath's graph appears to be on an upward gradient.
12. Is there a new Monaghan era on the way? They head into the 2014 season as Ulster senior and minor champions, a double success which has sent confidence soaring. Malachy O'Rourke is well-equipped to lead the seniors into an exciting period.
13. Will Derry make a break? They are heading into their 16th season without an Ulster senior crown, the longest barren spell since they won their first title in 1958.
14. Where's your pride, rest of Leinster? Meath's win in the 2010 semi-final -- achieved through a freakish goal rush -- was Dublin's only defeat in the Leinster championship over the past nine years.
15. Where's your pride, rest of Connacht? Your attempt to prevent Mayo winning the provincial title for a third successive time last year was pathetic.
16. Will the black card provide the biggest whinge-fest for managers in football history as they complain about how it is taking the manliness out of the game while at the same time claiming that they want to see an end to cynical fouling?
17. When the will first row emerge over the number of subs used? Six are allowed, following the introduction of the black card sanction. Combined with the ambiguity over blood subs, it's only a matter of time before a major controversy emerges.
18. Will referees clamp down on goalkeepers dashing off the goal line for penalty kicks? The attackers were given an advantage when the penalty spot was brought closer to goal a few years ago, but goalkeepers have responded by rushing forward to narrow the angle.
19. Will Seanie Johnston play for Cavan? Whatever about the wisdom of his move to Kildare, he is still a very good forward. What's more, he has a lot to prove back home in Breffni-land.
20. When will the advantage rule become contentious? Allowing play to develop for a few seconds to decide if a fouled player gains an advantage has a clear logic, but stand by for rows over how long the referee takes to make a decision.
21. Will the clock/hooter work as smoothly as it should? It's inevitable that a dispute will arise over whether a match-winning/saving score was kicked a millisecond after the hooter sounded.
22. Will it be a season of high attrition for managers? There's often one casualty even before the championship starts. Who will it be?
23. Can Westmeath defy the odds which suggest that they are certainties to drop out of Division 1? Their programme (away to Cork, Derry, Tyrone, Kildare; home to Dublin, Mayo, Kerry) looks ominous.
24. Will one -- or indeed more -- of the three odds-on favourites to win the Leinster (Dublin 1/6), Connacht (Mayo 2/9) and Munster (Kerry 8/13) titles be stopped?
25. Will the All-Ireland winners emerge through the back door? It hasn't happened since 2010, so it must be due again. Six of the 13 All-Ireland winners have come through the qualifiers since the new system was introduced in 2001.
1. Will Henry Shefflin create a record by becoming the first player to win 10 All-Ireland senior hurling medals? Unlike previous years when he spent much of the first half of the year recovering from injury, he begins 2014 in good shape. He celebrates his 35th birthday today so this could well be his last season. Finishing his career with a title haul that's unlikely to be beaten is a powerful incentive.
2. How will Kilkenny react to last year? Obviously, Shefflin's prospects of winning his 10th All-Ireland medal are linked to the broader question of Kilkenny's response to being deposed as All-Ireland and Leinster champions last year. Clearly, Kilkenny are heading for transition, but it's a process which Brian Cody managed successfully twice before in 2002 and 2006 after championship defeats in previous seasons had raised doubts.
3. Are Clare poised to be the new Kilkenny? They have a young squad, many of whom have enjoyed All-Ireland success at senior and U-21 level, resulting in a confidence surge which will be invaluable. However, they are heading into new and harshly demanding territory this year as beating them will be regarded as a coveted scalp, whether in pre-season, Allianz League or championship. That will be difficult to cope with.
4. Will Tipperary prove that last year was a one-off aberration? A dire performance in the final 20 minutes of the Munster semi-final against Limerick effectively torpedoed their championship season, so it's all about absorbing the lessons and moving on. Several of the players who looked poised to lead Tipperary into a glory era after the 2010 All-Ireland win now have big question marks hanging over them.
5. Which Galway will turn up? The exciting outfit which came so close to winning the 2012 All-Ireland title or the lethargic group who were fortunate to beat Laois in the Leinster semi-final last June? The difference over two seasons could not have been more stark.
6. Which Dublin will turn up? The driven adventurers who did so well in 2011 and even better last year or the listless squad which brought no real substance to the 2012 campaign? There's no reason to believe that they won't be as good as last year, but a nagging doubt remains after the 2012 experience and they must prove that 2011 and 2013 was the real Dublin.
7. Is there a lot more to Cork than they are being given credit for? They came within seconds of winning last year's All-Ireland title, but, strangely, are not gaining much support in this season's predictions. Yet, if Clare hadn't snatched the late equaliser last September, Cork would now be All-Ireland champions and, presumably, quite well-fancied for this year. All very odd. It has, no doubt, increased the motivation quota within the camp.
8. What impact will the close calls with Dublin and Clare last year have on Wexford? They drew with Dublin in the Leinster quarter-final and with Clare (in normal time) in the qualifiers, but were beaten in the replay and extra-time before watching their conquerors take two major titles.
9. Will Donal O'Grady further advance the Limerick cause? He has certainly taken on a big challenge considering Limerick supporters are now looking towards All-Ireland glory after ending the 17-year wait for a Munster title last year. Limerick made the most of the Munster draw last year, hosting Tipperary and Cork in the Gaelic Grounds, so there will be no home comforts this year. Still, O'Grady clearly believes there's scope for further development, via whatever route is required.
10. Is Millennium Man ready to inspire Offaly? Brian Whelahan did it over many years as a player and is now moving into new territory as the sideline orchestrator. As his former colleague Michael Duignan remarked this week, Offaly's low return at underage level in recent years has left a deficit at senior level. Still, Offaly won their first Leinster senior hurling title in 1980 without ever having won a minor title, so underage success is not always necessary.
11. Will Waterford follow the Clare lead? If Waterford had taken a reasonable percentage of their chances in the first 40 minutes against Clare in last year's Munster quarter-final, they would have won and their season might have taken a completely different direction. Waterford are a lot closer to the being the real deal than many seem to think.
12. Why haven't Antrim warmed to the Leinster championship? Just as moving east to Leinster was a good idea for Galway, moving south should have been equally invigorating for Antrim, but it hasn't turned out that way. They have rarely brought the fire and passion which underlined so many of their performances when they came to Croke Park directly as Ulster champions. They need to make it happen this year.
13. Will Laois build on last year? Their performance against Galway, albeit with the latter firing haphazardly, in the Leinster semi-final was very encouraging. Seamus Plunkett has plenty to work on.
14. Will the gods relent and give Carlow a break? John Meyler and his squad endured several outbreaks of bad luck last year when even a modest swing would have seen them face at least one higher-ranked opponent.
15. By how much will the goal rate drop when penalty and free-takers are forced to strike the ball outside the 20-metre line? It's virtually certain that Congress will change the rule so that Anthony Nash and other metre-eating strikers are no closer than 20 metres when hitting the ball.
16. Will Aidan Walsh become Cork's latest star act in a dual role? Dual players have been a dying breed for many years, but Walsh's decision to expand his schedule at the age of 24 is as welcome as it's advantageous for Cork.
17. Who will be the first player red-carded for interfering with an opponent's helmet (provided the rule is changed by Congress next month)? Pulling at helmets is an ugly trend which has crept in over the past few years -- it needs to be outlawed.
18. Will the All-Ireland senior club trophy find a new home? Mount Leinster Rangers (Carlow) and Na Piarsaigh (Limerick) are chasing their first wins, but are up against previous winners, Loughgiel Shamrocks (Antrim) and Portumna (Galway).
19. Will the Allianz League undergo another change? Absolutely not, say the GAA's top power brokers, but then we've heard that before, only for the scene to change over the summer.
20. Will Hawk-Eye mess up again? And if does will the company respond to queries more openly than was the case following last year's controversy, which arose from a wrong call on a point during the Galway-Limerick All-Ireland minor semi-final?
21. What odds on a replay in the Leinster final? The last one was in 1993.
22. Who will be the first manager to call for black cards in hurling? They are probably on their way anyway, but comparisons will be made with football, which will operate under the stricter system this year.
23. Will the All-Ireland title be won by non-provincial winners for the third year in a row? That has never happened before.
24. What are we to make of the betting for the 2014 Hurler of the Year which is led by the following: Joe Canning 13/2; Tony Kelly 15/2; Brendan Maher, Michael Fennelly 14/1; Noel McGrath 14/1; Seamus Harnedy, Richie Power, Padraic Maher, Richie Hogan, Lar Corbett 16/1. Henry Shefflin and Tommy Walsh are both on 20/1. Interesting.
25. Could we dare to dream that this year's championship will be as exciting as 2013?