In a league of their own
It's lift-off weekend in the Allianz Football League which, between today and April 24 next, will feature 124 games across the four Divisions. Officially, counties have had just five weeks of collective training to prepare for the Leagues, arising from the November-December training ban. So who's ready and who's not, who's cold and who's hot? Martin Breheny gives a county-by-county guide.
Division 1: Armagh, Manager: Paddy O'Rourke (2nd season)
2010 NFL: Div 2 champions -- promoted (P 8, W6, L2).
They looked on enviously at Down last summer, wondering, "why not us"? After all, Armagh had beaten Down in the Division 2 final and seemed well set for a good championship run after beating Derry. However, that was as good as it got and the season petered into nothing. Hopes are again very high in Armagh and will intensify when the Crossmaglen Rangers contingent return after the All-Ireland club campaign.
Odds: Title 14/1; Relegation 11/10.
Prospects: Second favourites behind Monaghan for relegation, but with four home games, they may escape.
Manager: Conor Counihan (4th season)
2010 NFL: Div 1 champions (P8, W6, L2).
History is all against them retaining the title. No team, not even the remarkable Kerry outfit of 1975-86, won a League/All-Ireland double and retained the League the following year. Of course, every sequence is there to be ended, but whether Cork, who have had a long winter of celebrations, switch on quickly to the demands of the new campaign remains to be seen. One significant difference between Cork and some other All-Ireland winners is that, with so many players to choose from, fewer are guaranteed their places on the starting 15, which is a plus in kick-starting a post All-Ireland season.
Odds: Title 9/4; Relegation 10/1.
Prospects: Four away games -- the first two in succession -- increase the load. Will be in contention for a place in the final, but might just lose out.
Manager: James McCartan (2nd season)
2010 NFL: Div 2 runners-up -- promoted (P8, W6, D1, L1)
Their progress will be watched with interest. Will they build on last year's surge? Or will they be hindered by the new level of scrutiny they are about to experience? Better known for their championship than league exploits, summer could again be more productive than spring.
Odds: Title 11/1; Relegation 13/8.
Prospects: They have four away games, including the first and the last two, which makes it a tough campaign.
Manager: Pat Gilroy (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 3rd Div 1 (P 7, W5, L2)
No 'ifs, buts or maybes' -- Dublin need to win a league title. Several years in league oblivion (no title since 1993 or no place in the final since 1999) was a symptom of a flakiness which invariably returned to haunt them. They ran a much improved League campaign last year and, Meath aberration apart, were also more coherent in the championship. Dublin need the confidence that winning a league crown in front of a full house in Croke Park would bring.
Odds: Title 4/1; Relegation 5/1.
Prospects: Much depends on tonight's game with Armagh. If they win, it will set them up nicely for Croke Park, where they will have four of their next five games in front of a big following. That's a huge incentive and opportunity.
Prediction: League Champions
Manager: Tomas O Flatharta (1st season)
2010 NFL: 5th Div 1 (P7, W3, L4)
Galway are at a crossroads and finding it very difficult to read the signposts. Their problem is simple: the replacements for the departing stars which brought All-Ireland glory are nowhere nearly as effective.
Odds: Title 10/1; Relegation 15/8.
Prospects: This could be a really tricky campaign for Galway.
Manager: Jack O'Connor (3rd season -- second term)
2010 NFL: 4th Div 1 (P7, W3, L4)
A league title may be a weak currency in Kerry, but they still like to bank it -- hence their commanding lead at the top of the honours list. Three titles (2004, '06, '09) were won under O'Connor, while they lost the 2008 final to Derry. So he clearly believes a good spring campaign builds a solid platform for later on. Kerry will be pushing hard again this term.
Odds: Title 5/2; Relegation 8/1.
Prospects: They need a win against Cork tomorrow for acceleration. If they achieve that, they could be on their way to the final.
Prediction: Beaten finalists.
Manager: James Horan (1st season, pictured right)
2010 NFL: Div 1 runners-up (P8, W6, L2)
Which Mayo will emerge under new management? The confident outfit which won six of seven divisional games (losing the other by a point after kicking 18 wides) or the dismal lot which delivered awful performances against Cork in the final and later lost to Sligo and Longford in the championship? There's a tendency to dwell on the latter games, but Mayo are better than that.
Odds: Title 7/1; Relegation 5/2.
Prospects: Two homes games to start with, four at home in all -- it's exactly what they need to nurse them out of their insecurity.
Manager: Eamonn McEneaney (1st season)
2010 NFL: 6th Div 1(P7, W2, L5)
They avoided relegation through a combination of scoring average and a win in the head-to-head game with Derry, but may not escape the trapdoor this time. Under new management, Monaghan are in transition and Eamonn McEneaney has to deal with a lengthy absentee list.
Odds: Title 25/1; Relegation 4/7.
Prospects: Tomorrow's clash with Galway is crucial. A win would give them an outside chance of avoiding the drop, but a defeat would be ominous, especially as they are away to Armagh and Cork next.
Manager: Liam Bradley (3rd season)
2010 NFL: Runners-up Div 3 -- promoted (P8, W5, L3)
Together with Sligo, Antrim were promoted from Divisions 4 to 2 in successive seasons. They are now moving up another class in a very competitive group featuring strong forces in Tyrone, Kildare, Meath and Derry.
Odds: Title 22/1; Relegation 4/5
Prospects: The fixtures are nicely set up with four home games, including the first and last, but it may not save them.
Manager: John Brennan (1st season)
2010 NFL: 7th Div 1 -- relegated (P7, W 2, L5)
Unlucky to be relegated last year, but will now find it very difficult to make a quick return to the top flight. Still, counties often do well in a new manager's first season, so Derry are likely to be in the promotion mix.
Odds: Title 5/1; Relegation 10/3.
Prospects: May just lose out on promotion.
Manager: Jim McGuinness (1st season)
2010 NFL: 3rd Div 2 (P7, W4, L3)
Another Ulster county under new management, Donegal were in promotion contention right up to the last round in 2010. McGuinness has some fine young talent coming through from the U-21s, but, like Derry, they may have to wait another season to be primed for promotion.
Odds: Title 5/2; Relegation 15/2.
Prospects: They need to win all three home games (v Sligo, Kildare, Antrim) to have a promotion chance.
Manager: Kieran McGeeney (4th season)
2010 NFL: 4th Div 2 (P7, W3, L4)
Fancied for promotion last year, they ended up nearer the bottom than the top. They have won only eight of 21 League games in the last three seasons which is unimpressive. Kildare need to get out of Division 2 to build on the progress of last summer. Besides, not many Division 2 sides win the All-Ireland.
Odds: Title 7/2; Relegation: 5/1
Prospects: If they beat Antrim tomorrow, they will be on their way towards a serious promotion push.
Manager: Justin McNulty (1st season)
2010 NFL: 5th Div 2 (P7, W3, L4)
Laois are better than they have looked in recent seasons, but that's a worthless tag unless they actually do something about it. Justin McNulty and Paul Clancy will bring plenty of experience of how to make the breakthrough, but it's down to the players to prove they are more than unfulfilled reputations.
Odds: Title: 11/1; Relegation 7/4.
Prospects: If they switch on, they could do just about anything, but will they maximise their assets? Your guess is as good as theirs.
Manager: Seamus McEnaney (1st season)
2010 NFL: 4th Div 2 (P 7, W4, L3)
Meath have won only nine of 20 games in Division 2 (they missed one game in 2008 due to Cork's strike) in the last three seasons -- a poor record that explains why, despite being Leinster champions, they are only fourth favourites for promotion. They have the same plus (good attack) and minus (leaky defence) points as in previous years.
Odds: Title: 6/1; Relegation 3/1.
Prospects: The draw is nicely set up for them. Should be in the promotion mix.
Manager: Kevin Walsh (3rd season)
2010 NFL: Div 3 champions -- promoted
(P8, W6, L2)
Promoted from Division 4 to 2 in successive seasons, their wins over Mayo and Galway in last year's championship suggests they're ready for the step-up. However, with four away games, it could be a tough campaign.
Prospects: Not a good season to have a 3-4 home and away split.
Odds: Title: 16/1; Relegation: 8/11.
Manager: Mickey Harte (9th season)
2010 NFL: 8th Div 1 -- relegated (P7, W2, L5)
One of the most consistent league teams for over a decade up to last year, it was a surprise to see them relegated. But then it was a strange Division 1 campaign which produced some very surprising results.
Odds: Title 7/4; Relegation 7/4.
Prospects: Four away games, but that won't stop their return to the top flight.
Managers: Val Andrews & Terry Hyland
2010 NFL: 4th Div 3 (P7, W4, L3)
Close to the promotion push last year, but were headed by Antrim, Sligo and Wexford. Sligo and Antrim have left the group, replaced by Tipperary and Westmeath. Still, no easy escape route from Division 3.
Odds: Title: 8/1.
Prospects: Four of their first five games are away from home which is most unhelpful.
Manager: Maurice Horan (1st season)
2010 NFL: Div 4 winners -- promoted
(P9, W7, D1, L1)
Can they follow Sligo and Antrim and go from Division 4 to 2 in successive seasons? Championship form suggests they can, although they found life in Division 3 tough in 2008 and 2009. Their first two games against Tipperary and Waterford are crucial as they have four of their last five at home.
Odds: Title: 3/1.
Prospects: Favourites to win the title, but there are several teams in this group who, traditionally, would see themselves as superior to Limerick.
Manager: Peter Fitzpatrick (2nd season)
2010 NFL: 5th Div 3 (P7, W4, L3)
Their 2010 championship exploits leaves them with high expectations, but they have lost some key men from last year's side. Still, they ran a good O'Byrne Cup and have no reason to lack confidence at this level.
Odds: Title 7/2.
Prospects: The fixtures are lined up nicely, including two home games at the start.
Manager: Tom Cribbin (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 6th Div 3 (P7, W3, L4)
Promoted from Division 4 in 2008, they won just six of 14 games in Division 3 over the last two seasons, which is a poor return. Still, there's still a feeling -- possibly because of the county's pedigree -- there's more to them and that it could surface at any time.
Odds: Title 4/1.
Prospects: An 85pc success record at home over the last three seasons shows that they encounter most of the problems on their travels. Two home games at the start will help their cause.
Manager: John Evans (4th season)
2010 NFL: 7th Div 2 -- relegated (P7, W2, D1, L4)
Unlucky to be relegated last year (they were only a point behind Laois and Kildare),this is a more natural environment for them at the current stage of their development.
Odds: Title 8/1.
Prospects: More likely to be in a relegation battle rather than a promotion battle, especially since they have four away games.
Manager: John Owens (2nd year)
2010 NFL: Runners-up Div 4 promoted (P9, W6, D2, L1)
Promoted teams have done well in recent years, but this is a tough group, one where Waterford may need another season to settle in. Question is: will they survive that long?
Odds: Title 20/1.
Prospects: Favourites for the drop but will be dogged in their efforts to beat the odds.
Manager: Pat Flanagan (2nd season)*
2010 NFL: 8th Div 2 -- relegated (P7, L7)
Without a league win since April 2008, they resemble the Irish economy, having dive-bombed over three years. Has either bottomed out? Westmeath will certainly end their 14-game losing run in the league, probably quite early on.
Odds: Title 4/1.
Prospects: Will be more involved in promotion than relegation matters.
*Flanagan took over half way through last year's campaign.
Manager: Jason Ryan (4th season)
2010 NFL: 3rd Div 3 (P7, W5, L2)
Unlucky to miss out on promotion last year, their attempt to get it right this season is being hampered by injuries and absentees.
Odds: Title: 7/1.
Prospects: Will need to make an early impact as they have three of their last four games away.
Manager: Luke Dempsey (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 6th Div 4 (P8, W3, D1, L4)
It may be the lowest division, but it's got some strong sides in there, many of whom will be too good for Carlow
Odds: Title 22/1.
Prospects: Unlikely to be near promotion.
Manager: Micheal McDermott (2nd season)
2010 NFL: 3rd Div 4 (P8, W6, L2)
Took 12 of 16 points last year, but just missed out on promotion and will fancy their chances again.
Odds: Title: 11/1.
Prospects: They need to pick up full points against Leitrim, Kilkenny, Carlow and London in the first four games as it gets much tougher from there.
Manager: John O'Neill (1st season)
2010 NFL: 8th Div 3 -- relegated (P7, W1, L6)
Dropped from Division 2 to 4 in successive seasons. There's more to them than that.
Odds: Title: 11/4
Prospects: Primed for a promotion push.
Manager: Dick Mullins (2nd season)
2010 NFL: 9th Div 4 (P8, L8)
They conceded an average of 3-20 per game last year, explaining why they finished last.
Odds: Title: 500/1
Prospects: 50,000/1 would be more appropriate odds.
Manager: Mickey Moran (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 5th Div 4 (P8, W4, L4)
Leitrim are going through one of their valley periods, but they're resilient so it won't last.
Odds: Title 18/1.
Prospects: Two home games gives them a chance of a good start, but over the eight games the promotion pace may be too quick.
Manager: Glenn Ryan (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 7th Div 4 (P8, W2, D1, L5)
Their disappointment over Brian Kavanagh's absence is understandable. Being without a star player is a huge loss to any county, let alone Longford, who are drawing from limited resources. Why players who are three weeks away from an All-Ireland club semi-final are unavailable for county duty remains one of the mysteries of the GAA.
Odds: Title 4/1.
Prospects: They need everybody available all the time to maximise chances.
Manager: Paul Coggins (1st season)
2010 NFL: 8th Div 4 (P8, W1, L7)
Ireland's economic woes are (and will be) London's gain over the coming seasons.
Odds: Title 66/1.
Prospects: Getting better, but will still be in the lower ends of this grouping.
Manager: Fergal O'Donnell (3rd season)
2010 NFL: 7th Div 3 relegated (P7, W1, L6)
Connacht champions in Division 4! Roscommon have got to ignore their championship status and dig their way carefully out this particular predicament. It's achievable, but there is no room for error.
Odds: Title: 2/1.
Prospects: Good but they need to be very careful on tricky away assignments against Longford, Clare, and Wicklow.
Manager: Mick O'Dwyer (5th season)
2010 NFL: 4th Div 4 (P8, W5, D1, L2)
A good side, but they have been much better tuned in for the championship than League under Mick O'Dwyer and there's no reason to believe it will be any different this year.
Odds: Title 3/1.
Prospects: Third favourites to win the title. Sounds about right.