Minnows seeking magic winning formula
Four Leinster sides begin campaigns knowing honours aren't even worth dreaming about
Four of the participants in this year's Leinster senior football championship should be whittled down to two after today's double-header in Portlaoise, which involves only one county that has won the province in living memory, and another that has never won it, nor reached a final since the 1800s. There isn't even the added edge of a border rivalry to spice up either contest, with Offaly and Wicklow providing a curtain-raiser to Carlow and Louth later in the afternoon.
Ten years ago Mick O'Dwyer, in his second season in charge, guided Wicklow to arguably their most famous Leinster win when they defeated Kildare in Croke Park, where they had never won a championship match in the province before.
The following season Wicklow hit their peak, belting out qualifier wins over Fermanagh, Cavan and, most memorably Down, a county that were close to winning the following year's All-Ireland.
Louth, the highest placed league county of the four this year, had that epic run in 2010 too, denied in undeniably cruel and outrageous manner by a mixture of chicanery and hapless officiating. For all that, only a year later they were floored in Leinster by Carlow, with one of today's notable absentees, Brendan Murphy, a central influence.
The arrival of Pete McGrath hasn't had an immediately positive impact in Louth. In the 2015 qualifiers, the county suffered a 23-point defeat to Tipperary in Thurles when Colin Kelly was in his first year. Like McGrath, he had seen his team relegated in the spring, to Division 4. They seemed close to rock bottom but managed to gain successive promotions under Kelly, then suffered this year's immediate demotion from Division 2 under McGrath. After losing to Tipp in 2015, Kelly admitted: "it was just an awful performance - there's not a lot you can say."
In March, Louth lost in Thurles in the fifth round of the league by 14 points and it could have been by more than 20. After that game McGrath said that the two remaining games were about pride and that losing all seven games would be hard to stomach for players and management. That is what happened.
It left them with only six weeks to prepare for Carlow and some players were soon to join those who had already withdrawn from the squad. McGrath is hoping that the championship will inspire some hitherto unseen magic in Louth and rescue something from the season.
Carlow is the only county up an upward trajectory of the four playing in Portlaoise today. The loss of Brendan Murphy is being played down, and they have enough form and players to win, but Louth have, in spite of their relegation with a string of defeats, some useful schooling from playing against higher ranked opposition.
In the Division 4 league final, against Laois in Croke Park, there was evidence of Carlow nerves, with a slow start and a poor day for their free-taker, Paul Broderick.
In tense, and more important, circumstances in Corrigan Park, Broderick (pictured), in fairness, nailed two tricky early frees from tight angles to set Carlow on the road to victory and eventual promotion. They will be heavily relying on more of that today.
Wicklow, who face Offaly, are under the guidance of another Kerryman now, John Evans, who led Laune Rangers to an All-Ireland 22 years ago and has careered through a series of county jobs since.
In O'Dwyer's time Wicklow's league form had little relevance to the championship and O'Dwyer showed little interest in it. Wicklow are coming off a spring in which they finished bottom of the entire league with no win from six matches played.
Today's match has an added layer of interest in teeing up the winner up for a daunting mission against Dublin in two weeks' time. Offaly and Wicklow last met in the Leinster championship 21 years ago when Offaly won and motored on to take the provincial title.
The province is a much duller racetrack now. A year before Offaly last raised the chequered flag, Meath zoomed to an All-Ireland turbo-charged by a cache of young players. The year before that Dublin had stuttered over the line, ending a 12-year drought and presaging a 16-year wait until the next triumph. The year after Offaly last won a Leinster, Kildare broke through and nearly won an All-Ireland. Leinster can't come anywhere near producing that kind of variety show 20 years on.
Of today's four counties, three will be in Division 3 next year and one in the bottom division. Other Leinster counties in Division 3 next year will be Laois, Westmeath and Longford, while Wexford are going to be in Division 4. Dublin is the only Leinster team in Division 1, with Kildare and Meath in Division 2.
No county has ever won eight Leinster senior football titles in one decade before. That is set to be broken this summer by Dublin. Today will see four teams beholden to the tradition of playing a provincial championship they have taken part in for generations. They will do what they have to and see where they are when the day is done.
The new Championship formats explained
Leinster and Munster will run their championships on a round-robin basis, with each team getting two home games and two away.
The top two teams in each will proceed to the provincial finals, with the third team in each getting a chance to earn a place in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, by beating the winner or losing finalist in the Joe McDonagh Cup, the new next tier down from the Liam MacCarthy itself.
The Leinster and Munster winners go to the All-Ireland semi-finals, the losers of the deciders go straight to the quarter-finals.
The team that finishes fifth in Leinster will not play in the Leinster Championship in 2019 -they will be replaced by the winner of the Joe McDonagh Cup, unless the winner of that cup is Kerry, who would then play off against the last team in Munster for the right to go into the southern championship next summer.
In the football, there are round-robins too. Instead of having knock-out All-Ireland quarter-finals, the eight best teams in the country will now play three matches at that stage, one in Croke Park, one home and one away.
Group 1: Munster Champions; Connacht champions; Ulster runners-up or the team that beats them in Round 4 of the qualifiers; and Leinster runners-up or the team that beats them in Round 4.
Group 2: Ulster champions; Leinster champions; Munster runners-up or the team that beats them in Round 4; and Connacht runners-up or the team that beats them in Round 4.
The top two in each group advance to the All-Ireland semi-finals - Winners of Group 1 v runners-up of Group 2; winners of Group 2 v runners-up in Group 1.
In the event of three or more teams finishing on the same number of points, scoring difference will count. If two teams finish level on points, the outcome of the match between them will decide who advances.
Provincial games in both codes, with the exception of finals, will have 20 minutes of extra time (10 x 2) in the event of a draw. All games in the football qualifiers and the preliminary hurling quarter-finals must finish on the day. If the sides are level after 30 minutes of extra time (2x10 and 2x5) a 45m (football) or 65m (hurling) free-taking competition follows. If the sides are level after five shots it will go down to sudden-death.
Sunday Indo Sport