The sight of the Allianz Football League returning last weekend will have please GAA lovers across the country.
The format of the competition is such that it, at least theoretically, pits teams of a similar standard against each other in a league based system before, ultimately, a final match against the league’s top two placed teams is played to determine the division’s champion. 2017, however, represents the first year that the ‘top 4’ system in division 1 will be no more. Unlike previous years, there will be no semi – finals resulting in this year’s league programme being condensed, with the divisional finals fixed for the weekend of the 8/9th of April – that’s two weeks’ earlier than last year. Regardless of the aforementioned changes, however, one question remains as prominent as ever; can Dublin be stopped from achieving a fifth straight division 1 crown?
Dublin GAA’s Senior Football team is currently enjoying a period of dominance that is the envy of every county in Ireland. They have won 4 out of the last 6 All Ireland Championships, 11 of the last 12 Leinster Senior Football Championships and, of course, the previous four Allianz division 1 championships in succession. Will Dublin make it 5 without reply? In all likelihood, most likely. To put Dublin’s dominance into perspective in league terms, under Jim Gavin, the county has played a total of 36 league games in the division with the best Gaelic football teams in the country – Dublin have lost only five times. Also, in the finals of Dublin’s previous 4 victorious league campaigns, they have annihilated Kerry, Cork, Derry with only Tyrone in 2013 putting forth any meaningful challenge when losing by a solitary point to the dubs.
However, despite all that, an upset, although unlikely, is still possible. In Dublin’s recent O’Byrne cup victory over Louth, the Dubs were lauded for their ability to win the competition with what was, in effect, a 3rd string side. Incredibly impressive, no doubt. However, whilst the decision by Jim Gavin to rest his star players can only be a positive for Dublin, his decision as to how strong a line-up he opts to select for the league will be, ultimately, a crucial one. If he decides, on the back of his development side’s impressive victory in the O’Byrne, to continue experimenting with fringe players, then Dublin will be considerably weaker than in years past. Will he do that, though? Doubtful, and for that, Dublin remain strong favourites for the five-in-row.
What about the rest? How are they shaping up? Who’s most likely to dethrone the dubs? You can’t talk about Gaelic football for long without mentioning kingpins Kerry – GAA’s most successful county. However, since their last championship victory over Dublin in 2009, Kerry have lost every championship meeting with the dubs since, and the majority of league encounters too – including a heavy defeat in last year’s league final. However, with the likes of James O’ Donoghue, Kieran Donaghy and Paul Geaney, Kerry possess a potent strike force that is good enough to challenge Dublin. Kerry will be desperate to defeat Dublin and claim victory in this year’s league, however, given how the balance of power has shifted between Dublin and Kerry, it is likely that the kingdom will remain in the shadow of Dublin for the foreseeable future.
Mayo and Tyrone will hope to achieve victory in this year’s league and use it as a springboard to achieve bigger and better things in the coming year. Mayo, to their credit, are every bit as good a team as Kerry, however, their poor performances in the previous couple of league campaigns – due, in part, to experimental line-up’s – make it hard to see a victory for the westerners. Tyrone, despite all the hype that seems to follow them around, are unlikely to be victorious in this year’s league campaign, much less the championship. Whilst they possess a talented team, one cannot forget that they were relegated in their last division 1 campaign. Also, despite a good year last year, they were quite fortunate to defeat Donegal in the Ulster Final before ultimately being slightly unlucky themselves to lose to Mayo in the All Ireland Quarter Final. Mayo and Tyrone will challenge Dublin, but they will likely fall short.
Donegal and Monaghan are very unlikely to be victorious in their respective division 1 campaigns. In fact, I’d imagine survival would be their aim as things stand. Donegal need to alter their strategy, at least somewhat, if they are to challenge. This absolute emphasis on defending with 14/15 players in your own 45 metre line is great from a defensive perspective, but it’s not conducive to allowing you to score much yourself. Donegal have a stellar defence but have an attack that is devoid of scores despite possessing players of the ilk of Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty. Donegal will likely survive regardless of their approach but if they have greater ambitions in the summer, they must adapt and change their attacking approach.
Monaghan slipped into mediocrity in 2016. Fortunate to avoid relegation last year whilst losing to Donegal in Ulster and Longford in the qualifiers. An over-reliance on star-forward Conor McManus needs to be addressed if Monaghan are to pose a threat in this year’s division one campaign.
And, lastly, we have Roscommon and Cavan. Many people’s favourites for the drop. Despite getting into the semi-finals in last year’s league, Roscommon went on to have an utterly forgettable championship. Cavan also suffered in this regard. They gained promotion from division 2 last year but failed to produce much in the way of results in the championship. So, these two teams will do well to avoid dropping back to division 2 as things stand.
There we have it, I predict the following table; Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone, Donegal, Monaghan, Roscommon and Cavan. A Dublin vs Kerry final with the kingdom, once again, coming up short against the dubs whereas both Roscommon and Cavan will get relegated. Will it work out this way? Probably not, but that’s the beauty of the GAA; it’s still unpredictable!