Evans and O'Brien think big for 2018
They won't be leading their teams into the 'Super 8' next year and the best they can hope for in the Allianz League is to escape from Division 4, but the sense of anticipation for John Evans and Turlough O'Brien as they watch tonight's provincial draws will be just as heightened as for Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte or Stephen Rochford.
Evans has taken over in Wicklow after a season where they won only one of nine championship and league games, while O'Brien heads into his fourth season as Carlow manager with expectations soaring after a year of considerable advancement.
Even before the balls are placed in the draw drum tonight, seven Leinster counties are at a disadvantage compared to Dublin, Kildare, Meath and Westmeath, all of whom are seeded directly into the quarter-finals as a reward for reaching this year's semi-finals.
Three first-round pairings will be made from Carlow, Wicklow, Laois, Longford, Louth, Offaly and Wexford, with one getting a bye into the quarter-finals.
"It's the way things are done in Leinster, but it would be more exciting if it were an open draw with everyone in together. The more options there are for who you can play in the first round, the better for everyone. Variety is good. Being seeded is certainly an advantage," said O'Brien.
Carlow beat Wexford in the Leinster first round this year before putting in a spirited performance against the All-Ireland champions, which compared favourably with all of Dublin's subsequent rivals except Mayo.
Carlow then reached Round 3 of the qualifiers for the first time, where they tested Monaghan all the way before losing by five points.
It left Carlow wishing the new season could start inside a few weeks.
"It seems a long time since we played but the mood in the county is even more upbeat now than it was.
"People can't wait for the league to start. We are away to London in the first round and already supporters are making arrangements to travel over. There's big interest in the Leinster draw as well, just to see who we play first and which side we're on.
"Every footballer in the county wants to play for Carlow now, which is great because it wasn't always like that. If we keep clear of injuries, I would expect to have the strongest panel the county has sent out for years when we start the league," said O'Brien.
While Carlow are a work in progress, Evans is starting with a new slate in Wicklow, having taken over from Johnny Magee, who was in charge for the last three seasons.
The former Dublin centre-back didn't enjoy much luck with his troops in that period, with this year especially disappointing. Wicklow's only win was against London in the league, leaving them second last on the table.
"The league table shows Wicklow are 31st of 32. That's where we're starting from now so the only way is up," said Evans, who previously managed Tipperary and Roscommon.
The Kerryman, who first made a coaching impact when guiding Laune Rangers to the All-Ireland club title in 1996, believes that his experience with Tipperary and Roscommon will be important in the challenge which lies ahead with Wicklow.
He steered Tipperary from Division 4 to 2 and Roscommon from Division 3 to 1, reaching the top flight in spring 2015. However, he didn't get a chance to work with them in Division 1, having resigned after the championship amid rumblings of discontent from clubs who were disappointed with a poor summer campaign.
He is now back on the bottom rungs of the ladder, hoping to re-build in Wicklow.
It is a county where unity hasn't always been easy to achieve, but Evans is confident that his outsider status will ensure that all strands pull together in the wider interest.
"I have no agenda, other than to see Wicklow win games. Tables don't lie so everyone in Wicklow can see where they are. The one thing I know from being there in recent weeks is the great passion for football that's in the county.
"You can see it at the club games and also when you're talking to people. And it's not just men either. Women are just as interested. I'll be trying to tap into all that, get things organised my way and see where it takes us. If you can get any sort of run going, the impetus builds itself. Getting the run going is the difficult part," said Evans.
Four-hour trips from Kerry to Wicklow will be a big part of Evans' life for the foreseeable future, but the long journeys were never going put him off.
"There's more to football than what happens in Croke Park in August and September. Everyone would love to be there but it's not possible.
"For a lot of counties, including Wicklow, it's about taking small steps.
"But if you take enough of them, you'll make progress. I have a lot of experience of working in Divisions 3 and 4 and that should be a big help now," said Evans.
The Garden County haven't won in the Leinster championship since 2013 and have no championship success since beating Offaly in the 2014 qualifiers.
Despite that, Evans says they will be watching tonight's draw with interest.
"You can't change the past but you can influence the future. It's all about 2018 now - the sooner we get started the better.
"I'll be taking a look at a lot of players to see who's ready to step up to the county squad," he said.
Carlow, who finished third in Division 4 last year before further improving in the championship, are in a more advanced state than Wicklow and while that's encouraging, it also carries risks.
"The element of surprise is certainly gone. Expectations are high in Carlow now. That's good but there are no guarantees in football.
"Division 4 is a lot harder to get out of than people might think. I'd like to see how some counties from further up the line would get on there. They might get a bit of a surprise - there are some good teams in there," said O'Brien.
As well as Carlow and Wicklow, Laois, Limerick, Antrim, Leitrim, Waterford and London will be in Division 4 next year.