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Division One is wide open this year - and I see a surprise team claiming the League title

Pat Spillane


Rian O'Neill (left) will be a key man as Armagh look to win a Division One crown. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rian O'Neill (left) will be a key man as Armagh look to win a Division One crown. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Rian O'Neill (left) will be a key man as Armagh look to win a Division One crown. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

STRAP yourself in for a roller-coaster ride of inter-county football action.

In 27 weeks’ time, the All-Ireland Football Final will be played on July 30th.

Between now and then, there are 22 football weekends plus the Sigerson Cup Final, which has a weekend to itself.

So that’s 23 out of 27 weekends of action, leaving four in which I’ll have no football to discuss. It’s madness.

Including the League Finals, there are eight Allianz League matches for counties in the next ten weeks.

Spare a thought for Leitrim and Sligo. If either, or both of them, get to the Division Four League Final, they will be playing it a few days before heading to New York and London, respectively, for Championship action.

And remember this is the ‘soft’ side of the draw in Connacht, where one of Sligo, Leitrim, London or New York will get a golden ticket into the new structure to play for the Sam Maguire Cup.

Because of the round robins later in the summer, we have 33 extra matches to be played this year, with the GAA allocating one extra week to the calendar.

Those round robins only get rid of four teams from the championship – more madness.

Meanwhile, 17 of the 32 teams playing in the NFL are scheduled to play championship the weekend after the league deciders.

Can I remind you of last year, when neither Mayo nor Galway ‘tried a leg’ in the Division One and Division Two league finals, because they had a big championship match coming up.

The year hasn’t started well. Last week I watched Mayo v Roscommon in the FBD Final out west.

After 15 minutes it was one point to no score in favour of Mayo.

I watched Derry v Tyrone in the McKenna Cup final too – it was two points to one after 18 minutes before the game, or rather Derry, warmed up.

You might gather that I am not hopeful for the year ahead. The omens are not great, fingers crossed things get better.

So here are my previews of the four Allianz Football League divisions for 2023.

As regards the aspirations of the counties in it.

Division One: This a bit of a mixed bag.

Donegal, Monaghan, Mayo and Roscommon have new managers – and for the four new bosses the dream will be to stay in D1. Anything else would be a big bonus!

Paddy Carr in Donegal has no Michael Murphy to call on – and the natives are restless already before a ball has been kicked.

Apparently an under-strength Meath gave them a bit of a spanking in a challenge last weekend.

Monaghan have done brilliantly to stay in Division One for nine years with its small population.

But there is no sign of young talent of the required level coming through for Vinny Corey, and Monaghan remain over-dependent on scorer-in-chief Conor McManus.

Mayo, under Kevin McStay, have probably put in more pre-season work than any other county.

But losing Lee Keegan and Oisín Mullin are huge blows.

Davy Burke’s Roscommon have good forwards, but there remain question marks hovering around their defence.

When I watched them, admittedly only on the TV, against Mayo, I didn’t see the physique and conditioning of the top teams that evening.

Galway might struggle a bit with the Moycullen players and Shane Walsh taking a rest after their club activities – and a strong UCG team going well in the Sigerson will mess Pádraic Joyce’s team around too.

Tyrone started last year’s league playing catch-up and never caught up.

They’ll be better prepared for the league this year, but scoring only 1-5 in the McKenna Cup Final is not a great omen.

In 2022, Kerry went for everything, fielding full-strength teams in every game they played.

Forget about that this year, the Kingdom will be understrength for most of the league.

Finding a new talent or two would make the competition a success for Jack O’Connor, but don’t expect a league title in Kerry this year.

That brings me to my fancies for the Division One crown – Armagh.

They’ve a settled team and back-room team – and a settled style.

Look back on last year, they finished third in Division One and were beaten only on penalties in an All-Ireland quarter-final.

For me, the big issue hanging over them is discipline.

That has to improve this year if Kieran McGeeney’s men are to do anything.

I think they are capable of winning the Allianz League, beating, perhaps, Mayo in the final.

Division Two: This will be seriously competitive.

There are three new managers in Colm O’Rourke of Meath, Ray Dempsey of Limerick – and, technically, John Cleary of Cork who took over only halfway through last year.

With Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion back on the pitch, and Pat Gilroy back on the sideline, Dublin football has made a statement.

Forget about planning for the future, a rebuilding job, or anything of that ilk, 2023 for Dublin is about regaining the Sam Maguire Cup.

For now, they look certainties for league promotion.

Kildare flattered to deceive last year.

It was Newbridge or Nowhere for them, for they took no points away from their home ground – and the Lilies have four away matches this term.

In the case of Meath, O’Rourke has finally been given the job he should have been given years ago.

It’ll take a while for him to get it right, especially as he must cope with key players active in the Sigerson.

Cork look like a very fit team already and they have two interesting additions to their back-room team in former Galway boss Kevin Walsh and Olympic walker Rob Heffernan.

The Rebels’ league season will be settled by the results of their first three matches, Meath (h), Kildare (a) and Dublin (h).

My tip to join Dublin in going up is Derry.

One shocking first half – against Galway – last year in the league cost them promotion.

Scoring 3-11 against Tyrone in the recent McKenna Cup Final was pleasing – and I believe they will go up, even if they have to play their first two or three games without the Glen lads.

As for relegation, it’s two of Louth, Limerick and Clare to go down.

With the great work Colm Collins has done with the Banner, I fancy Clare to be the ones who survive.

They have four home matches and the big one is the first one, today against Louth, and that will define their season.

Limerick seem certainties to me to go down with Ray Dempsey a last-minute call to replace Billy Lee as boss.

Louth set up like all Mickey Harte teams, defending in depth and breaking out quickly, but they are too dependent on Sam Mulroy for scores in this incredibly competitive division.

Division Three: A seriously competitive section here.

All of these teams are capable of beating each other on a given weekend.

However if Westmeath reproduce the form of the Tailteann Cup they should stroll this.

Mind you, this time last year I wrote that they should amble through Division Three too.

Dessie Dolan is in charge and Jason Sherlock will bring a bit of Dublin nous to the camp.

Down are my outsiders for this Division. I liked what I saw of them in the McKenna Cup – and Conor Laverty has the players playing for the county and for the manager.

Two other counties with ambitions are Longford and Fermanagh.

Paddy Christie surely has a dream of one day managing his native Dublin and an O’Byrne Cup win with Longford was a good start on his inter-county CV.

Fermanagh boss Ciaran Donnelly is a cute operator and I like the addition of former Tyrone man Ronan O’Neill as a forwards coach.

Lest I forget, Cavan who will be there or thereabouts for promotion, even without All-Star midfielder Thomas Galligan who is off travelling.

Offaly were unlucky last year with so many players out injured.

They will be hoping that some of their All-Ireland-winning Under-20s of two years ago would start to come through.

Yet they may be scrapping to avoid relegation with Antrim and Tipperary.

Andy McEntee will have trouble figuring it all out with Antrim, and Tipp have lost Colin O’Riordan to Australia and Robbie Kiely has retired.

Michael Quinlivan has yet to commit for this year, which would leave David Power’s team very reliant on Conor Sweeney for scores – yet again.

Division Four: It’s a big year for one of these.

Sligo or Leitrim or London or New York (who don’t play in the league) are guaranteed a place in the All-Ireland series, because of the lopsided Connacht draw.

Laois were relegated last season and you get relegated for a reason.

Evan O’Carroll is one of the best players in the country – never mind in this division – and Laois manager Billy Sheehan knows the scene there now very well as he starts his second season at the helm.

Laois visit Sligo today and that will set the tone for both counties – and don’t rule London out of the promotion stakes either.

Their panel is stronger this year with the likes of Kevin McCarthy of Kerry and Derry’s Enda Lynn aboard.

Spillane’s verdicts on today’s Allianz League games

Division One

Roscommon v Tyrone
Hyde Park, 1.30

A hard one to call with both sides playing matches in January when short of top players. Roscommon have been in all four league divisions in the last 12 years, and in the last six years they have alternated between divisions one and two.

The Rossies will get a bounce from the arrival of new manager Davy Burke. Tyrone were disappointing last weekend – but they are closer to full strength and fitness right now.

Verdict: Tyrone

Donegal v Kerry
Ballybofey, 2.0

Last year these teams played in a monsoon in Killarney – and, despite the weather, I left the ground convinced Donegal were going nowhere. I was right. This is a game for gamblers to avoid. Kerry go north without ten of their 2022 All-Ireland Final team, including all six forwards.

Verdict: Donegal, by a whisker

Division Two

Cork v Meath

Páirc Uí Chaoimh, 1.30

I like what Colm O’Rourke did on taking over, holding trials in Meath for any player that wanted to try his hand at being an inter-county player. But he has had just three O’Byrne Cup matches to prepare his team. Cork will be fit and raring to go, and having the excellent Daniel O’Mahony back at full-back, is huge for them.

Verdict: Cork

Clare v Louth
Ennis, 2.0

Even though it is only the first round of the league – realistically, this is a relegation four-pointer. Louth surprised me last year – I didn’t expect them to get promotion. Mickey Harte is getting the best out of his players, but beating Clare in Cusack Park is a hard nut to crack.

Verdict: Clare, after a hard game to watch!

Division Three

Westmeath v Cavan
Mullingar, 2.0

By contrast this is a promotion four-pointer in the first week – and, of course, a repeat of last year’s Tailteann Cup decider. Cavan are an experienced, strong team, But I don’t see Westmeath getting caught out as they were last season.

Verdict: Westmeath

Antrim v Offaly

Corrigan Park, 2.0

Antrim started last year’s league well, but faded as the championship and Tailteann Cup came along and they threw in the towel. Offaly had good days and bad in division two last year – putting 3-10 on Galway was one of the good days.

Verdict: Antrim

Division Four

Leitrim v Waterford
Carrick-on-Shannon, 1.0

Since 2015, Waterford footballers have lost 17 games by margins of one or two points. You have to feel for them. Leitrim beat the Déise easily in the league last year, and I expect the same result.

Verdict: Leitrim

Sligo v Laois,
Markievicz Park, 2.0

The big one! Laois have played at a higher level of football than Sligo are used to. That must count for something. Sligo have called up a bunch of the U-20 team that won last year’s Connacht title. It’s a big game that the home team needs to win.

Verdict: Sligo

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