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comment After 38 years on the road the break from covering GAA was nice - but I am so glad to have it back now

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LATE last week the 2021 Allianz League fixtures dropped into my in-box. 

Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would be excited about opening an email from Croke Park. But after nearly four months at home, cabin fever has definitely set in.

The 2021 lockdown has been infinitely more difficult to endure than last year’s shutdown. After 38 years on the road, last year’s break was not just novel, it was welcome. For the first time in my adult life I didn’t see a live GAA games for seven months.

My last game before the lockdown came was the rescheduled Mayo v Kerry league tie in Castlebar in early March. I didn’t venture out again until the end of September when I covered the Kerry county football final between East and Mid-Kerry.

Frankly I didn’t miss the games and harboured deep reservations about the GAA’s decision to proceed with the championship as the country went into another lockdown in November. In the event, the All-Ireland series was a resounding success.

There were unexpected bonuses for those of us fortunate enough to be allowed to attend games. We could rock up ten minutes before throw-in and park beside the entrance and of course, there were no traffic jams en route.

By the time the new inter-county swings into action on the second weekend of May I might even be vaccinated. So, after innumerable zoom interviews and long days in the attic, the anticipation of being on the open road again is tangible.

We might get a frosty reaction from the Dublin and Monaghan football camps for revealing that they broke the Covid training regulations but these are minor problems compared with the challenges facing most of the population.

It could be a season where the football league will be more interesting than its hurling counterpart. There is a lot more at stake for the majority of the football sides compared to their hurling brethren.

The football league is being run on a regional basis with teams being guaranteed just four games – three in their section and either a promotion or relegation semi-final.

For example, the new look Division 1 consists of two sections: Four Ulster teams, Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and Armagh play in the northern section while Dublin, Kerry, Roscommon and Galway compete in Division One south.

The top two teams in each section face each other in cross-over semi-finals. Provided the semi-final winners are not scheduled to play in an early round championship game, they will then meet in the final.

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Arguably what will happen at the other end of the table will be more intriguing. The third and fourth-placed teams in the two sections will feature in a relegation play-off with the two losers dropping to Division 2 next season.

The same format applies to all the Divisions. Though there is no relegation from Division 4, there will be a play-off between the bottom two finishers in each section. The non-participation of London in the league has thrown up an unfortunate anomaly.

Division 4 North is the quintessential ‘Group of Death’ with Louth, Leitrim, Antrim and Sligo competing. What makes this division all the more interesting is the line-up of managers.

Former All-Ireland winning boss Mickey Harte takes charge of Louth for the first time, while Enda McGinley - who won an All-Ireland medal under Harte’s tutelage in Tyrone - makes his inter-county managerial debut in Antrim.

Also, Armagh and Crossmaglen Rangers’ All-Ireland medal winner Tony McEntee takes charge of Sligo for the first time, while Cavan native Terry Hyland remains at the helm in Leitrim for a third season.

Meanwhile, there are only three teams in Division 4 South; Carlow, Wexford and Waterford, so one win could be enough to secure a place in the promotion play-off.

In Division 2 North all eyes will be on beaten All-Ireland finalists Mayo whose unbroken stay in the top flight finally ended last spring. They will be competing against Meath, Down, and Westmeath for a place in the promotion semi-final with Clare, Cork, Laois and Kildare in Division 2 South.

The reigning Ulster and Munster football champions, Cavan and Tipperary, will be in action in Division 3 but in different sections. Cavan are grouped with Fermanagh, Derry and Longford, while Tipp have Wicklow, Limerick and Offaly for company.

In hurling it will be interesting to see how newly-promoted Antrim fare in the top flight – they are grouped with Kilkenny, Dublin, Clare, Wexford and Laois. In the other section All-Ireland champions Limerick - who begin their campaign at home on May 8 against Tipperary - are grouped with Westmeath, Galway, Cork and Waterford.

But the spectre of Covid-19 still hangs over the games, which of course will be played behind closed doors. And for the first time this century no game in either the National football or hurling league is scheduled for Croke Park.

Welcome to a world where the GAA and Covid-19 co-exist.

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