How Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion will bring glamour to Dubs’ foray off-Broadway
There is something strangely incongruous about this year’s Allianz Football League. More specifically about Division 2.
Think of buzzwords that you routinely associate with the Dublin football roadshow: box-office, glamour, elite, sell-out, titles (lots of them).
How many of those phrases usually gatecrash a sentence that also includes the words NFL Division 2?
As for titles, you don’t require a PhD in economics to realise that the success or otherwise of Dublin’s 2023 campaign will be measured in one piece of silverware … and we’re not talking of a second-tier league crown.
So, starting with Kildare’s visit to Croke Park on Saturday evening, we can all look forward to that most unusual of theatrical productions – the Dubs off Broadway.
It could be fascinating. It might also be a damp squib, as a group of players stung by last year’s relegation and the scarring memory of a second summer without Sam take out their revenge on a motley collection of counties who lack the quality/experience/guile to keep them honest.
Before a ball is thrown in, the bookies have already made up their minds – almost. Dublin are 1/3 for the Division 2 title, followed by Ulster champions Derry (9/2) and a relatively distant Cork (12/1). In the promotion betting, they are 1/12, well ahead of Derry (5/6) and Cork (10/3).
For now, given the shadow squad fielded by Dessie Farrell in the O’Byrne Cup, we can only speculate on what type of Dublin will return to the fray this weekend.
Will they be rusty or ruthless? Opponents Kildare experienced both sides of that coin last year, in late February and then in late May.
At their best under Jim Gavin, Dublin always espoused the primacy of performance at this time of year – but they also genuinely hated losing.
That’s why it happened so rarely, even when they were still sporting team holiday tans or playing poorly.
Last spring, it happened a scarcely believable five times in seven games.
Too many decorated Dubs were miles off it and not enough wannabes – with the exception of Lee Gannon – did enough to compensate.
This season, despite the retirement of Jonny Cooper and the fact that Dublin’s surviving thirty-somethings are all a year older, there appears far less fraught discussion about the county’s spluttering production line.
Maybe that will change once the games begin, but it’s probably also a reflection of the following: (a) unproven players should have more time and less pressure to develop in Division 2; and (b) concerns about Dublin’s long-term prognosis have been glossed over by the returns of Jack McCaffrey, Paul Mannion and, in the background, Pat Gilroy.
Now, it’s debatable how much we will see of McCaffrey and Mannion in the coming months. The latter is only just back on the pitch after ankle surgery and betrayed all the tell-tale signs when starting last Sunday’s All-Ireland club final for Kilmacud; that’s before you even factor in the subsequent Glen objection and where that convoluted saga may end.
Still, going forward, a Dublin team that includes McCaffrey and Mannion carries an entirely different aura. It fuels the impression of a manager who intends throwing the kitchen sink at this year’s All-Ireland.
And don’t forget a certain Con O’Callaghan, who missed all of last year’s league and the pivotal business end of their All-Ireland campaign.
Paul Geaney, who will miss the start of Kerry’s league campaign through injury, is happy to embrace the challenge of a stronger Dublin – if they even get to meet this season.
“It’s great to see players like Paul Mannion and Jack McCaffrey back playing because that’s what the supporters want to see – the best players from every team playing,” the veteran forward said at yesterday’s launch of the 2023 Allianz Leagues.
“Obviously, from our point of view, it mightn’t even matter – we mightn’t even get to meet them, so there’s no point in worrying about that.
“But from a spectator’s point of view, it’s great to see the best players returning. Paul Mannion obviously was back in Croke Park last week; he missed last year’s (club) final, so it was good for him to get back there.
“Look, the bottom line is the best players, they have to be on show, and the two boys are back with Dublin, and it’ll make everybody else that are playing Dublin raise their game.
“It’s good for every other team in Division 2 to be able to play Dublin in the next three months.”
The counter-argument is that, for years, Dublin’s monopoly of the Delaney Cup hasn’t prompted improvement among the distant chasing pack in Leinster. Now we can look forward to a ‘mini-Leinster’ league, with Glenn Ryan’s Kildare, Mickey Harte’s Louth and Colm O’Rourke’s Meath all hoping/praying for further signs of Sky Blue regression.
Dublin are emphatic favourites to make their first Division 2 foray in 15 years a short-lived affair. Derry, as Ulster kingpins and now freshly minted McKenna Cup winners, are widely touted to join them.
But might a revitalised Cork threaten our putative big two? At this stage, they look the most likely outsider to do so.
National Football League Division 2: County-by-county guide
CLARE Manager: Colm Collins (10th season). Captain: Eoin Cleary. Main man: Has to be the skipper – still. Cleary’s 1-9 from play and 1-17 in total from four SFC games was enough to earn a second consecutive All-Star nomination. One to watch: Brian McNamara of Cooraclare has featured at midfield this month, both for college (UL) and county (against Cork in the McGrath Cup). Critical question: Can they absorb the loss of veteran sharpshooter David Tubridy in a division that looks even more daunting than last season? League fixtures: Jan 29 v Louth (h), 2.0; Feb 5 v Meath (a), 2.0; Feb 19 v Kildare (h), 2.0; Feb 25 v Dublin (a), 7.0; Mar 5 v Cork (h), 2.0; Mar 19 v Derry (a), 1.0; Mar 26 v Limerick (h), 2.0. CORK Manager: John Cleary (first season). Captain: Brian Hurley. Main man: Watch this space for Seán Powter’s role. The erstwhile sweeper played at centre-forward in the McGrath Cup. Offers badly-needed penetration in that line, but can they afford to keep him there? One to watch: Underage star Conor Corbett, fully over his 2021 ACL injury, has looked the part for both DCU and Cork in recent weeks. Critical question: Kevin Walsh’s addition as coach is intriguing. The ex-Galway boss has been well received, but can he energise Cork as Cian O’Neill did Galway? League fixtures: Jan 29 v Meath (h), 1.30; Feb 5 v Kildare (a), 2.0; Feb 19 v Dublin (h), 3.45; Feb 26 v Limerick (h), 3.45; Mar 5 v Clare (a), 2.0; Mar 19 v Louth (a), 1.0; Mar 26 v Derry (h), 2.0. DERRY Manager: Rory Gallagher (fourth season). Captain: Conor Glass Main man: Shane McGuigan. Plenty of options when you consider Glass, Chrissy McKaigue and Brendan Rogers – but McGuigan is Derry’s one bona fide marquee forward. One to watch: Eoin McEvoy, who skippered St Mary’s Magherafelt last year, slotted neatly into the full-back line during the victorious McKenna Cup run. Critical question: You could say they blew promotion last year, but can they live up to growing expectations fuelled by last summer’s glory run? League fixtures: Jan 28 v Limerick (h), 3.0; Feb 5 v Louth (a), 2.0; Feb 18 v Meath (h), 5.0; Feb 26 v Kildare (a), 2.0; Mar 4 v Dublin (h), 5.0; Mar 19 v Clare (h), 1.0; Mar 26 v Cork (a), 2.0. DUBLIN Manager: Dessie Farrell (fourth season). Captain: James McCarthy. Main man: Even as the team faltered, Ciarán Kilkenny was Dublin’s only All-Star – back-to-back. That speaks volumes, albeit a fully-fit Con O’Callaghan remains the X-factor. One to watch: For all the talk about Dublin’s creaking conveyor belt, the grapevine suggests they’ve unearthed a very special wing-back. He’s called Jack McCaffrey! Critical question: Can the return of Jack, Paul Mannion and Pat Gilroy transform the mood music? If Dublin are half-right, Division 2 should prove a very brief sojourn. League fixtures: Jan 28 v Kildare (h), 5.0; Feb 5 v Limerick (a), 3.0; Feb 19 v Cork (a), 3.45; Feb 25 v Clare (h), 7.0; Mar 4 v Derry (a), 5.0; Mar 18 v Meath (a), 3.0; Mar 26 v Louth (h), 2.0. KILDARE Manager: Glenn Ryan (second season). Captain: Mick O’Grady. Main man: Contrary to reports that Australia might lure their most consistent player of 2022, Ben McCormack has stayed around. One to watch: Kildare arguably need new corner-backs in preference to corner-fowards, but Jack Robinson was prolific in the O’Byrne Cup. Critical question: Have they learned from last year’s Leinster final defensive horror show? Dublin, who else, might tell us on Saturday. League fixtures: Jan 28 v Dublin (a), 5.0; Feb 5 v Cork (h), 2.0; Feb 19 v Clare (a), 2.0; Feb 26 v Derry (h), 2.0; Mar 5 v Louth (a), 2.0; Mar 19 v Limerick (a), 3.45; Mar 26 v Meath (h), 2.0. LIMERICK Manager: Ray Dempsey (first season). Captain: TBC. Main man: Cian Sheehan’s dynamism from wing-back earned an All-Star nomination last year, but he was centre-forward for the McGrath Cup final. One to watch: Cathal Downes, ex-county U-20 hurler, started both McGrath Cup ties up front. Critical question: Is Division 2 a step up too far, especially as they adjust to new management? League fixtures: Jan 28 v Derry (a), 3.0; Feb 5 v Dublin (h), 3.0; Feb 19 v Louth (a), 2.0; Feb 26 v Cork (a), 3.45; Mar 5 v Meath (h), 2.0; Mar 19 v Kildare (h), 3.45; Mar 26 v Clare (a), 2.0. LOUTH Manager: Mickey Harte (third season). Captain: Sam Mulroy. Main man: For his deadball acumen alone, Mulroy will have a huge role. He tallied an eye-watering 3-57 in last spring’s promotion campaign. One to watch: Tom Jackson excelled for Ardee St Mary’s last season. Now in his third year under Harte, the wing-forward looks set to establish himself as a regular starter. Critical question: Can Harte’s legendary organisational skills confound the sceptics? Don’t be surprised if they hit the league ground running. League fixtures: Jan 29 v Clare (a), 2.0; Feb 5 v Derry (h), 2.0; Feb 19 v Limerick (h), 2.0; Feb 26 v Meath (a), 2.0; Mar 5 v Kildare (h), 2.0; Mar 19 v Cork (h), 1.0; Mar 26 v Dublin (a), 2.0. MEATH Manager: Colm O’Rourke (first season). Captain: Donal Keogan. Main man: Keogan may still be the obvious choice, but Meath finally appear to have a settled ’keeper in Harry Hogan – and that could be priceless. One to watch: Ratoath’s Daithí McGowan is a powerful option for either midfield or half-forward, and he’s capable of taking a score. Critical question: How O’Rourke adjusts from the studio lights to the unrelenting glare of the touchline will be fascinating, especially with four away games. League fixtures: Jan 29 v Cork (a), 1.30; Feb 5 v Clare (h), 2.0; Feb 18 v Derry (a), 5.0; Feb 26 v Louth (h), 2.0; Mar 5 v Limerick (a), 2.0; Mar 18 v Dublin (h), 3.0; Mar 26 v Kildare (a), 2.0.
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