The National League commences on Saturday February 2nd with a double header in Croke Park. All Ireland champions Donegal will take on promoted Kildare in the opener and League champions Cork will take on Dublin in the second. Also on Saturday night Tyrone will take on Down in an all Ulster affair.
The only game on Sunday will see All Ireland and League finalists Mayo take on Kerry in Mc Hale Park, Castlebar.
This year’s Division 1 is arguably the most competitive yet with 7 of last year quarter finalists in Division 1 this year. The last 5 All Ireland champions feature in Donegal, Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Tyrone as well as runners up in the 2012 and 2010 finals in Mayo and Down. Kerry and Cork have also been runners up in 2011, 2009 and 2008. In fact you have to go back to 2003 to when a team not involving a team from this year’s Division 1 was not in the final when Armagh lost to Tyrone. There should be very little between the teams on any given weekend and it is likely that there will be a few teams looking towards the semi finals but also over their shoulder to avoid relegation when the league is drawing to a close.
Here I will preview each team and look at their league prospects.
This Cork side could be one of the biggest under achievers when it comes to the number of All Ireland’s won, with the 2010 All Ireland being the only one they have taken back to Cork. It is in the National League where they have been dominant, winning the last 3 titles. There is no doubt that Cork have a deeply talented squad full of big, strong and athletic playes. They were not helped in the Championship last year with a two and a half month gap between beating Kerry in the Munster Championship and losing to Donegal in the All Ireland semi final, the games against Clare and Kildare were not competitive, as it was a lack of battle hardiness that was a factor in them losing to Donegal. As a result of having such a deeply talented squad Cork will always be competitive in the league.
Mayo reached the League and All Ireland finals in 2012 but lost both finals. Mayo are the only team to stay in Division 1 every year since the league was restructured at the beginning of the century, reaching two of the last three finals but losing to Cork on both occasions. Mayo’s last league success came in 2001. Connacht’s only Division 1 team will be hoping to build on the good work carried out by James Horan over the last two seasons. Horan is hoping to unearth a few players in this years league that can be useful addition’s to the team, this will likely be in the forward department, where despite Mayo hitting some big scores, the full forward line was accused of not winning enough ball and contributing enough against Donegal. Andy Moran has targeted a April 1 return but with only one game after this date it is unknown how much game time he will see. Mayo needed an extended league run last year as they were not in Championship action until the end of June, this year they start on May 19 against Galway in Salthill so there will always be an eye on this clash during the league. I believe that winning the league would do wonders for this team as it would give them further belief and prove that they can win on the national stage. I expect Mayo to be experimental yet competitive in this year’s league.
Down reached the semi finals of the league last year, losing to Cork in Croke Park. Things went down hill in the Championship where Down lost heavily in the Ulster final to Donegal before exiting the Championship in another heavy loss to Mayo. The accusation levelled at Down was that they were too light and small in a lot of areas so if these areas are to be addressed an intense weights program may have an impact on their campaign. Down will find it difficult in Division 1 as they are a good bit behind the majority of teams in the division.
Everybody seems to want to write Kerry off with accusations that they are “too old” and “haven’t replaced players who have retired”. Yes some players are nearer the end of their careers than the start but Kerry are still a formidable team. It is still beyond me how they did not win the All Ireland final in 2011 and in 2012 a freak sideline goal at the start of their Quarter Final played a huge role in their loss to eventual champions Donegal. The Kingdom are under new management in Eamon Fitzmaurice in 2013. He will be looking to add new faces to the panel as will most teams. He will have to plan without the Dr Crokes players as they are involved in the All Ireland club series so this presents opportunities for new players to stake a claim for a place in the team or panel. Last year Kerry won 5 of 7 in Division 1, drawing 1 and losing 1 before losing to Mayo in the semi final after extra time. Kerry are always a solid league side and will likely be in the top 4. Incidentally Kerry have won the league 3 times since it was restructured, in 2004, 2006 and 2009 and followed each league win with All Ireland success the following September.
Dublin have been handed a huge advantage in this year’s league with 5 of their 7 games being played in Croke Park. It was scheduled as 4 but Kildare opted to play their home game against Dublin in Croke Park as opposed to Newbridge. Dublin finished 5th in last year’s league but this was the year after winning the All Ireland where they eased into training and this showed in their league performance as they recovered from the All Ireland winning exertions. Dublin are under new management in Jim Gavin and generally teams under new management perform well as all players are eager to impress the new head man.
Despite playing under par in last year’s championship the Dubs still made the semi final. They have a lot of underage success in recent years and have a lot of strength in their panel. Jim Gavin will be trying out different players but all of them are of high quality with experience of success so this should not adversely affect Dublin in the League, in fact competition for places is a good recipe for success at this time of year.
All eyes will be on the All Ireland champions to see how they perform following their success last year and if there is any hangover from that. Donegal finished 6th in last year’s league, a point above relegation, but this was irrelevant come Septmeber. Jim Mc Guinness has stated that he is looking for some new additions throughout the league, as well as not to over burden his current players by playing every game, so the Donegal we see in the league could much different to the team we seen win ultimate honours last September. They have a few injuries, Karl Lacey and Mark Mc Hugh to name two who have been ruled out of the league.
Donegal have the easiest start to the league, playing Kildare and Down in their opening two games. These are games that if they win they should get enough from their remaining games to get what they want out of the league. However, if they only finish with 2 or less points from these games it could be a relegation battle for the All Ireland champions. I do not expect Donegal to go all guns blazing in the league, but I do not expect them to get relegated. They will push for a semi place but may just fall short.
There is no doubt that Kildare have improved since Kieran Mc Geeney has become manager. However in his time they have not won a provincial or league title despite being talked about as a top team during his tenure. Promotion to Division 1 could make this team as they have prepared for the championship in recent years without the true tests that come from Division 1 football. The Lilywhites have acuired former Wexford manager to the coaching staff. Ryan did a good job at Wexford and should be a good addition to Kildare, provided it does not lead to too many chiefs in the dressing room.
Mc Geeney has unearthed some new players in the O Byrne Cup which should increase the competition for places within the team. They have not helped themselves by giving away home advantage against Donegal and Dublin, though Croke Park is familiar to them Newbridge would have brought an advantage. They now only have two games at home. Division 1 will bring benefits to Kildare in terms of seeing where they are against the best teams but I do not expect them to extend their stay for a second year.
Mickey Harte is back for another year at the helm of Tyrone football. Tyrone have overhauled their side with a lot of the old guard who were so successful in the last decade hanging up their boots. Tyrone have enjoyed a lot of underage success in recent years and it is now time for those players to step up to the plate for the Ulster side.
Tyrone came very close to beating Donegal last year, but for a late Sean Durcan save they would have advanced to the Ulster final so the thoughts that Tyrone have fallen away are misconstrued. Mickey Harte will use the league to bring in new players and try and find the right blend of youth and experience. He knows it is a big job and has described Division 1 as “scary” but he will be happy to be testing his players against the best
Tyrone will be a difficult opponent and will be one of those teams with an eye on both directions as the league ends.
Semi Finalists – Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Mayo
Relegated – Kildare & Down