The championship may have started two weeks ago in New York but it doesn’t really start until a game has been played on Irish soil and also when a big gun starts their campaign. This weekend there are 3 games in the football championship, one each in Connacht, Leinster and Ulster.
Out of the six teams starting their campaigns this weekend only Mayo have a realistic chance at an All Ireland. Here are the six teams who can be called contenders.
Starting with the champions and Donegal are the team to be knocked off the perch this year. Donegal were unstoppable last year as the marched to Sam with an organised defensive system and some excellent attacking play. It could be argued that the most was squeezed out of Donegal’s resources last year but Jim Mc Guiness stated after the final that there was an even higher level of play that this team could reach. The had luck with injuries last season, this year Player of the Year Karl Lacey has been out for the whole season to date and is only just back for Donegal. Mark Mc Hugh has also had his injury issues. Can they go through another season injury free?
The last two season Donegal have won Ulster from the preliminary round, a rare feat in Ulster football, but this year’s campaign is certainly more difficult in that they have a quarter final tussle with Tyrone, the province’s only other All Ireland candidate. The loser of this game will be at a huge disadvantage as they have a long wait until their next game in the minefield that is the qualifiers. How Donegal do in their opening game will have a serious impact on their season, win and they are on track, lose and it could come derailed. Jim Mc Guiness has said all year that the championship meeting with Tyrone was his focus and that the league had little interest for Donegal, ending up in relegation. Win and this proves true but lose and its a plan that raises questions.
Winning back to back is a hard job and it is a challenge that Jim Mc Guiness and his charges will relish. They will have the confidence that being All Ireland champions brings but will also have a target on their back as teams try to knock them off. Whether they can sustain another grueling title run remains to be seen, Donegal don’t have the depth of others but in Karl Lacey and Michael Murphy have two of the best players in the country, but if Donegal get over Tyrone they should win Ulster which would be an impressive 3 in a row and leave them as an ominous opponent for anyone when they hit Croke Park.
Mayo are the first of the title contenders to get their campaign on the road when they take on Galway tomorrow. Mayo have been one of the most consistent teams over the past couple of seasons reaching the latter stages of the league and championship. In the championship they reached the semi final in 2011 and final last year and like Donegal are aiming for 3 in a row provincial titles. Despite this consistency Mayo have not turned this into a trophy at national level.
Mayo enter the championship as a contender based on their consistency and ability but they would be classed as the outsiders of the contenders. Mayo have been able to knock off one big team but have yet to manage to do it in succession.
Like Donegal, a lot rides on the opening game. If Mayo lose this it will be seven weeks until their next game. This time plus the minefield of the qualifiers makes winning an All Ireland a more perilous task but should it happen and they get to Croke Park in August then any team is stronger for it.
Mayo have a number of injuries to contend with Andy Moran, Barry Moran, Alan Dillon (though he is rumoured to start in Galway), Michael Conroy and Jason Doherty all out through injury. If they overcome Galway plus getting these players back to fitness it will start momentum which could take Mayo far.
If Mayo overcome Galway it will put them on track for 3 in a row Connacht titles, a first since 1951 when they last won Sam. Mayo people revel in all sorts of omens so this may be another one to jump on in July.
Mayo have the hunger and ability to have a long Summer. Issues that arose from the league like the lack of goals scored and letting teams get a run on them on the scoreboard will hopefully have been addressed. Mayo have Summers where they take one “scalp”, for ultimate success they will need to take at least two.
This is Dublin’s All Ireland to lose if the media’s view and even general consensus is anything to go by. They were extemely impressive in winning the National League and have an extremely deep and talented squad.
This expectation could be a disadvantage to the Dubs as the weight of it could crush them in championship pressure.
That being said, this is a very talented squad with a lot of leaders on the pitch. Bernard Brogan is one of the leading forwards in the game and has a supporting cast that can put up scores. Paul Mannion looks like a great prospect and a possible young player of the year. Michael Dara Macauley is a very versatile and athletic midfielder and in Stephen Cluxton they have a great leader. New manager Jim Gavin has bought a freshness to the set up and there is healthy competition for places which can only be a good thing.
Dublin should win a third in a row Leinster title but will be tested by, more than likely, Kildare in the semi final.
The expectation of this Dublin team is high and they will be in Croke Park in August. Once there the path gets tougher and while they can beat the other big sides it goes both ways and there is nothing guaranteed when it comes to latter stages of the championship.
There is a widely held belief that this Cork side has under achieved. They have a deep panel with plenty of quality and athletic ability. They may have missed out on their chance of some dominance as the other top sides have caught up to them physically.
Cork have the advantage of being all but guaranteed a Munster final spot, meaning that at the worst they will be in the last 12 of the championship.
Cork had won the previous 3 league campaigns but have focused their training and emphasis more on the championship this year. Whether this pays dividends remains to be seen but it is worth noting that Cork and Donegal went more or less point for point in their semi final tussle last Summer. Donegal put on the burners in the third quarter and got a lead which they did not relinquish. Cork were not helped last year by the fact that after they beat Kerry in May they did not have a tough game until that semi final so some game rustiness was inevitable.
Cork have the advantage this year of coming in under the radar as the attention has shifted elsewhere. The Rebels may remind us this Summer that they are still a force to be reckoned with in the game.
During this year’s national league there was talk of a crisis in Kerry as relegation loomed and the performances were poor. Enter the big boys of Colm Cooper, Declan O Sullivan, Darren O Sullivan and Paul Galvin and this Kerry team had a different look at they won 3 in a row to stay in Division 1. There may be lean years ahead when these players are no longer playing for Kerry but that is for the future, for this year this is still a strong Kerry side that boast a forward line that may be the best in the country. Despite all the poor league performances it is worth noting that Kerry had the best defence in the league, adding that to their forward line and crisis talk for 2013 was premature.
Like Cork, Kerry know they will at least be in the last 12 so can plan accordingly. Once they get into Croke Park they usually start to shine. In 2012 they lost to Donegal in the quarter final. Donegal scored a very fortuitous early goal directly from a sideline ball. Once Donegal build a lead they are hard to break down as they do not leave much space at the back as they do not need to chase scores. This goal definitely hampered Kerry but despite that they did get a goal and almost came back to win from six points down. In 2011 they threw away an All Ireland as they let Dublin back into the game and snatch victory from them so Kerry have been very close to the eventual champions for the last two years and these near misses will be a source of motivation for the Summer ahead as Kerry look to win back the trophy they see as theirs.
Tyrone’s championship campaign in 2012 ended in difficult circumstances as they were well beaten by Kerry in Killarney and had to endure jubilant Kerry scenes as they celebrated slaying the Tyrone dragon. Players retired and with that it seems to have started a new era in Tyrone football as they embarked on a very good league campaign, narrowly losing the final to Dublin.
What last year’s championship exit overshadows is the fact that Tyrone came very close to drawing or beating Donegal in the Ulster championship, but for a late Paul Durcan save a goal would have been scored that could have meant a draw or even turned the game to push Tyrone on to victory, of course Donegal equally could have responded, but Tyrone were close to the eventual champions, a fact as stated overlooked by their heavy defeat in Killarney.
Stephen O Neill and Sean Cavanagh have been in great form to date and if they carry that into the championship their leadership should aid the newer players to the scene.
As stated with Donegal, the Ulster quarter final meeting between the two could be key to their chances of All Ireland success. A six week break between games awaits the loser so how the loser adapts to that loss and wait will be crucial. If Tyrone beat Donegal they should win the Ulster title, it may be May but the game next week is a virtual Ulster final. Mickey Harte has won 2 All Ireland through the back door so he knows how to negotiate this passage.
This should be the year where Tyrone show they are back in the big time, but whether they can land the big prize is another question.
It is extremely unlikely that anyone outside of these teams will win the All Ireland with Kildare being next best.
There should be some exciting match ups in August if these six all make it through to the quarter finals and avoid each other in the qualifiers.
All six are capable of a run to Sam and it is difficult to call a winner.
Dublin is the common choice, Mayo is the choice I’d like to come true but the choice to lift Sam in September is Kerry.