I’VE been on tenterhooks all week anticipating the start of the Allianz Football League
Two months of top-class football; it’s manna from heaven. Better still, the crowds are back.
Long gone are the days when managers fielded weakened teams and fellas used the league to blow off winter cobwebs.
But here’s a plea to the GAA.
There were three unplayed League finals (Divisions 1, 2 and 4) last year due to Covid-19.
Co-incidentally, the teams involved all play each other in the coming weeks: Kerry v Dublin; Kildare v Mayo and Louth v Antrim.
Why not designate these games as the 2021 finals and present the trophy to the winners?
Next July’s All-Ireland finalists will almost certainly be from Division 1, which underlines its significance. Every one of the 29 games here is important.
Yet from a purely competitive viewpoint there is nothing to match Division 2. It will be a pure dogfight for two reasons.
All the teams want to play in the top-flight. But the bogey prize for the two relegated counties is probable demotion to the Tailteann Cup later this summer.
Division 3 is not as competitive as in previous seasons.
What is striking about Division 4 is the plethora of aspiring young managers such as Wexford’s Shane Roche, Sligo’s Tony McEntee and Andy Moran, the new Leitrim boss, learning their trade here.
Here is my one sentence guide to all 32 teams plus predictions:
Armagh: Seriously talented up front but have a porous defence.
Donegal: Need to unearth a young ‘Michael Murphy.’
Dublin: Write them off at your peril, they will be hungrier than ever.
Kerry: Near full strength, flying fit and all trying to impress Jack O’Connor.
Kildare: ‘Dream’ management team headed by Glenn Ryan – now boosted by ex-Kerry ace Paul Galvin.
Mayo: No home league games for the Green and Red as a new pitch is laid in MacHale Park.
Monaghan: I won’t fall into the trap of writing them off again.
Tyrone: They could struggle early on as they are behind in terms of preparation due to their All-Ireland team holiday.
Winners: Kerry. Relegated: Donegal and Kildare.
Clare: Another season of endeavouring to punch above their weight.
Cork: Keith Ricken is rebuilding the squad, so time and patience is of the essence.
Derry: This is Rory Gallagher’s third season at the helm and there are definite signs of improvement.
Down: The return of James McCartan as manager will surely give them a much-needed bounce.
Galway: The addition of Cian O’Neill to the back-room team will improve their defensive structure.
Meath: Cannot afford to miss out on promotion again this season.
Offaly: Plenty of young talent coming through and they have Tomás Ó Sé on board as defensive coach.
Roscommon: Always consistent performers in this division, winning promotion on three occasions since 2015.
Promoted: Galway and Meath. Relegated: Clare and Down
Antrim: Enda McGinley is assembling a talented squad, they could be a team to watch in 2022.
Fermanagh: Struggling due to a small pick, yet they are always difficult to beat at home.
Limerick: I think they have plateaued and could struggle this season.
Longford: A fresh start under new boss Billy O’Loughlin, but the same problem remains – the shortage of players.
Laois: Rebuilding under new manager Billy Sheehan, but they need to find forward talent.
Louth: Can Mickey Harte avoid second-season syndrome and keep the team in Division 3?
Westmeath: Unlucky to be relegated last year – they are the best team in this division.
Wicklow: Survived in Division 3 last year by winning one game.
Promotion: Westmeath and Antrim. Relegation: Wicklow and Limerick
Carlow: No real sign of a renaissance under Niall Carew.
Cavan: Comfortably the best team in the division.
Leitrim: It was a smart move recruiting Andy Moran, but he faces a massive task.
London: Back in football for the first time since March 2020, they will surely be off the pace.
Sligo: In his second season at the helm, Tony McEntee will be seeking big improvement.
Tipperary: Complacency cost them last season, they need to get serious again.
Waterford: Ephie Fitzgerald faces a struggle in his new role as the Deise boss.
Wexford: Will be aiming to reproduce the spirit they showed against Dublin in last year’s championship.
Promoted: Cavan and Tipperary.
Allianz Football League
Round 1, Division 1
Kildare v Kerry, Newbridge, 1.45. Delayed Coverage on TG4
The focus will be on Jack O’Connor in his first league match for his third coming as Kerry boss.
He was also the one who guided Kildare back to the top-flight last season.
The home side were notoriously inconsistent last year, but the tight confines of Newbridge will suit them.
However, Kerry have hit the ground running in 2022 and look exceptionally fit for this time of the year.
Mayo v Donegal, Markievicz Park, 1.45, Live TG4
Mayo’s home league form has been inconsistent – so surrendering home advantage might not prove a handicap.
Both teams are weighed down by negatives. For Mayo it is the baggage of another All-Ireland final defeat, while Donegal’s work rate dropped alarmingly last year, and their defence looks porous.
Tyrone v Monaghan, Omagh, 3.45, Live TG4
Monaghan used 30 players but still won the McKenna Cup, and didn’t play Conor McManus in the final.
As All-Ireland champions, Tyrone will be targeted every time they take the field. They don’t have a cause to fight for at present and the retirement of five squad players is a big blow.
Roscommon v Cork, Dr Hyde Park, 2.0
Roscommon will be without the club-tied Padraig Pearses’ and St Faithleach’s players – but Cork have issues too. They will be missing the St Finbarr’s contingent, while other regulars are out through injury.
Judging by their feeble efforts in Killarney last weekend, they have a lot of work to do.
Galway v Meath, Salthill, 2.0
Match of the Day in the Division with the two teams most people have tipped for promotion clashing straight away.
Meath were a disappointment last year in failing to get out of the division. Last-quarter heroics in key matches is no substitute for consistency.
Galway were a big disappointment, too, in 2021. But I noticed how much they had upped their work rate in the FBD League. Perhaps Cian O’Neill’s influence is already paying dividends.
Clare v Offaly, Ennis, 2.0
It’s only the first week, but Sky Sports would describe this as a six-pointer, as the losing team faces a battle against relegation.
Potentially, Offaly are good but there is a big gap between U-20 and senior level and also between Division 2 and 3. Playing in Division 2 for a sixth successive season, Clare are difficult to beat on home soil.
Westmeath v Wicklow, Mullingar, 2.0
Westmeath, the unluckiest league team in 2021, take on the luckiest side. A big home win in prospect.
Louth v Laois, Ardee, 2.0
The challenge for Mickey Harte is to keep Louth in the division. Laois can only improve as they failed to win a game last season. Judging on their O’Byrne Cup form, new boss Billy Sheehan is getting a positive response from the players.
Leitrim v Cavan, Carrick-on-Shannon, 2.0
Leitrim make a fresh start under Andy Moran. Unfortunately for them they face the best team in the division straight away. Cavan’s carelessness cost them dearly last season. Leitrim will feel the backlash today.
Wexford v Sligo, Wexford Park, 2.0
When the teams met in the Division 4 Shield final last year Wexford had 12 points to spare. The margin will be reduced today – but the result will be the same.
Waterford v Tipperary, Dungarvan, 2.0
I’ve tipped Tipperary to be promoted but they need a far better attitude than they displayed against Kerry in the McGrath Cup if they are to fulfil my expectations of them.