How the battle is shaping up in Allianz League Division 1
Sunday Business Post journalist and author of 'Tactics not Passion' previews Division One12:16 Saturday 4 February 2017, 12:16 4 Feb 2017
Division 1 of the GAA Football League has a slighter tougher balance to find than most divisions. The bulk of contenders for honours at the end of the summer play in the top flight so performances, and avoiding relegation, matter but time also needs to be found to break in players who might make a difference come the warmer end of the year.
One of the youngest sides in the top flight, Cavan come into the campaign as the red hot favourites for relegation but don't expect them to play backs-to-the-wall football. Mattie McGleenan has set his stall out to attack this year and his record with Scotstown at club level before that leaves little reason to doubt his intent.
Having dominated the Under-21 grade provincially for most of this past decade, the Breffni Blues have a solid group of young players who are familiar with each and that might be enough to stave off the drop. McGleenan has already tinkered heavily, changing the roles of Martin Reilly, Killian Clarke, and Padraig Faulkner, so there's little reason to expect a predictable outfit in this campaign.
The 2012 All-Ireland champions went all-in on youth during the McKenna Cup, focusing on using Under-21 players against more seasoned opposition to break in new talent. Much of this is down to the front-loaded league schedule for Rory Gallagher's side, which has to handle a strong albeit changing Kerry side on the opening weekend. Look for Donegal to try and secure safety early, not an easy feat, so Gallagher has more time to experiment in the middle and later rounds of the campaign.
The pre-season really couldn't have gone any better for the reigning league champions, who are seeking a fifth straight title. The only question for Jim Gavin is who to not bring up to the main squad after rolling through the O'Byrne Cup with a hybrid second and third-string side. Depth is nice to have and Gavin has more wriggle room than any coach in the country during spring. A top-three finish is all he needs, while still being favourites to win the whole thing, so that gives him time to break in as many players as he likes in the first half of the campaign.
The time really has to be now for Eamonn Fitzmaurice even though he'd much rather have another year or two to bring players through slowly. A string of retirements in the off-season has left holes to be filled, leaving Kerry fluctuating between reload and rebuild.
Kerry would take fourth or fifth, a solid four win - three loss season, but want to make the decider if only to get another shot at the Dubs. Fitzmaurice however has a bunch of the recent minor corps that needs to be brought through to fill holes. These next few months are his only chance to get the new look Kerry to blend right before the summer.
Well this is just a tough hand, there's no other way of looking at it. Mayo got about as close as a team can to winning an All-Ireland last year without actually winning it. That points heavily to supporting the existing core particularly as the side had to adapt to a radical shift in strategy over the course of last season.
The challenge is finding a way to build on that while also working in some of the loaded Under-21 class of 2016 that won the All-Ireland and has the potential to deliver the missing pieces for a summer charge. Survival is the only requirement of the league here, winning would be nice but the only title that matters in Mayo these days is the one they haven't won since 1951.
We're going to learn pretty fast how big an impact the slew of retirements that hit Monaghan in the off-season will have on their prospects for the year. Having won a first Ulster Under-21 title since 1999 this past summer, there's a crop of young players available to Monaghan to make a heap of radical changes but it's not going to be easy. Dick Clerkin and Paul Finlay are huge losses and the Farney Army know the road to retaining top flight status won't be easy after the retirement of the veteran duo.
Expectation and delivery, that's the challenge for Kevin McStay this season as the Rossies look to make strides on the back of last season's campaign which showed a side with promise but lots of questions around its killer instinct. Having won four provincial Under-21 crowns this decade yet failing to win an All-Ireland, while watching Mayo and Galway go all the way, the pressure is on this now more mature crop of Roscommon players to deliver at senior level. It's a huge ask and anything less than a top half finish this season will be seen as a disappointment. The Rossies expect a step forward, the league is a chance for this side to at least show some progress.
Mickey Harte's been waiting for a young crop like this for a long time. Harte was used to reloading rather than rebuilding during Tyrone's best days under his tenure and he finally looks like he is back in a situation like that. A sixth consecutive McKenna Cup win really doesn't tell a lot on the face of it but Harte's decision to lean heavily on players who were part of the Ulster Under-21 title win in 2015 and runners-up campaign a year ago points to his desire to get younger.
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