Pat Spillane predicts his winners of each provincial senior football championship
I'M betwixt and between about the 2016 All-Ireland football championship.
One part of me is looking forward to the series in the hope that we will witness more of the excellent attacking football which featured in the Allianz League.
I really enjoyed it. There was lots of open football played with fewer teams relying on the blanket defence.
Influenced no doubt by the extraordinary success of Dublin, the game might have come full circle and we see managers adopt the mantra that attack, attack, attack remains the only proven way to achieve success.
By the same token I cannot get rid of the nagging doubts which continue to plague me about what the championship will actually be like.
The reality is that the gap between contenders and challengers has widened to a chasm and the also-rans have fallen off the cliff entirely.
Let's cut to the chase. I will be astonished if any team other than Dublin, Kerry, Mayo or Tyrone secure the Sam Maguire Cup this season.
What's more worrying is that all the indications are that Dublin have stolen a march on the chasing pack of three and really it is their All-Ireland to lose.
But I wouldn't entirely write off the chances of the three pretenders to the throne.
Of course, right now Dublin look the best team in the championship but that doesn't mean they will win back to back titles.
We had precisely the same scenario heading into the 2014 championship and Dublin came a cropper in the semi-final when they walked straight into a Donegal ambush.
On the law of averages the Dubs are likely to have one bad day at the office during the championship.
It happened last year in the semi-final against Mayo but the Connacht champions didn't truly believe they could win and the Dubs got off the hook.
But if they had endured a bad day at the office against Kerry or Tyrone – or maybe even Donegal (if they made it that far) – it could prove fatal.
With the exception of the Ulster championship the other provincial series are a lost cause.
While I believe they should be retained, the overall championship structure is no longer fit for purpose. We need a two-tier Champions League-type structure with more games involving the top teams.
In short we need the structure used for the League to be the template for the championship as well.
So how will be four provincial series pan out?
The 2015 championship was a curate's egg affair. The big surprise was Sligo's win over Roscommon but then they unravelled completely in the Connacht final. They lost by 26 points to Mayo with the game being effectively over after five minutes.
Essentially there are three contenders, Mayo, Galway and Roscommon, who are likely to face Sligo in the semi-final after routine wins over New York and Leitrim. They will hardly fail for a second year in a row against the Yeats County.
The other semi-final could be more interesting as Galway might finally fulfil some of their potential and battle Mayo in Castlebar. But the Mayo players are under pressure to deliver having mutinied last autumn against their joint managers Noel Connelly and Pat Holmes. I believe they will win a historic sixth Connacht title in a row this summer.
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford
This is the most the uncompetitive, uninspiring and unappetising of the four series. Ten counties are making up the numbers in a one horse race which Dublin will win without breaking sweat.
Mind you, it did produce one of the games of the championship last year with Westmeath’s famous second half revival giving them their first ever win over Meath.
Otherwise, though the average winning margin in games was 10 points while Dublin’s average victory margin was just less than 20.
Any serious analysis of the series is utterly pointless. Dublin are the only Division 1 team in the province; Meath were lucky to keep their place in Division 2 while Laois were relegated to Division 3. Kildare returned to Division 2.
But it will be a cake walk for the 16/1 on favourites Dublin who will extend their unbeaten run in league and championship to 25-0.
Wexford, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath and Kildare have the consolation of being on the opposite side of the draw to Dublin which will give them an opportunity to get a least two wins on the spin before the inevitable hosing from Dublin in the final. But at least the defeated finalists will be assured of a place in the last 12 of the All-Ireland series.
At least Dublin have to move out of Croke Park for one match – their fans love these road trips and I imagine Nowlan Park will be sold out for their Saturday night game against either Laois or Wicklow. What will be more interesting, though, is how many bother to turn up for their games in Croke Park.
Last year’s drawn Munster final was one of the better games in championship 2015. But even though the average winning margin in the other contests was six points they were largely forgettable.
Cork and Kerry have been kept apart again despite the open draw which means it will almost certainly be another provincial showdown between the Old Firm in Killarney – and the replay (if needed) will also be there! Happy days for the Killarney traders!
Since losing Colin O’Riordan and Steven O’Brien Tipperary appear to have regressed and though they will beat Waterford they will hardly upset Cork in the semi-final. Fresh from their excellent Division 3 final win over Kildare, Clare will beat Limerick but they’re not good enough yet to trouble Kerry.
In the wake of another defeat by Dublin, Kerry have a lot of issues to address but Cork are even more brittle and have a woeful record at Dr Fitzgerald Stadium in the championship having not won a here since 1995.
Football wise, the standard is not quite as high as the halcyon days when Tyrone and Armagh vied for supremacy in the noughties. But the series remains the most exciting, most intense and definitely the most competitive of the provincial championships
Last year the average winning margin was a mere three points which says it all and it won’t be any different this summer.
Based on League performances all the indicators point to a decline in the fortunes of Down, Armagh and Donegal and it could be argued that though they are the defending title holders Monaghan’s best days are behind them as well.
While they reached the Division 1 League semi-final, Donegal looked a pale shadow of the team which contested two of the last four All-Ireland finals. But at least both have a chance of winning the title – indeed either Donegal or Monaghan will almost certainly be in the final.
The same cannot be said of Derry, Armagh, Down, Fermanagh or Antrim – none of whom have a snowball’s chance in hell of securing the Anglo Celt Cup.
The country’s most improved team Cavan are the dark horses but they will almost certainly have to beat Tyrone in order to reach the final.
I fancy Mickey Harte’s side to maintain their 2016 unbeaten record and secure their first Ulster title since 2010.