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EXCLUSIVE New format will mean league will only be a phoney war ahead of the championship

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The retrun of Cathal McShane could lead Tyrone to the league title.  Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The retrun of Cathal McShane could lead Tyrone to the league title. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Last year's U-20 star Ciarán Archer could get some game time during the league . Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Last year's U-20 star Ciarán Archer could get some game time during the league . Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

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The retrun of Cathal McShane could lead Tyrone to the league title. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

The time has finally come – the return to action for the country’s elite Gaelic footballers. Sorry, they aren’t ‘elite’, of course, or so they found out a few months back when other sportspeople around the country got the green light to return to competitive mode.

As venues such as Dalyer, Richmond Park, Tallaght Stadium and Oriel Park, not to forget the likes of Ferrcarrig Park and Markets Fields, echoed to the shouts of “howzee ref?”, “man on!”, “house” etc the nation’s Gaelic footballers had to bide their time. Now it has arrived for them, the hurlers making their long-awaited comeback last weekend.

So the players will be more than eager to don their county colours once again, tomorrow and Sunday.

The structure of the condensed format and its proximity in time to the commencement of the championship could make this league campaign a tricky one to get a true read of.

A bit like the Rainbow Cup malarkey in rugby, this year’s league will mean different things to different players and managers, with counties looking for a wide range of outcomes, not necessarily just credit in the wins column.

But when we reach the rainbow’s end, with regard to the eventual league winners in the top flight, could we be left with nothing more than fool’s gold?

Pause for a second to remember who last year’s Allianz FL Division 1 champions were.

It was Kerry – their comprehensive victory over Donegal in Tralee on October 24 saw their captain David Clifford lift the trophy, two weeks later they were dumped out of the championship when Mark Keane delivered that late, late knockout blow for Cork in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

The Kingdom are under major pressure to deliver this season, and I don’t mean by retaining the league title.

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Last year's U-20 star Ciarán Archer could get some game time during the league . Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Last year's U-20 star Ciarán Archer could get some game time during the league . Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Last year's U-20 star Ciarán Archer could get some game time during the league . Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

The Dubs seem to live rent-free in their heads but they would arguably be better served focusing more in-house for the meantime.

For reasons such as that, and others I’ll get to, I feel that while it’s great that our games are back there will be an element of phoney war to the Division 1 over the coming weeks – particularly the North section, which is effectively a mini-Ulster league prior to the real business of the Ulster Championship.

It will, however, be very interesting to see how players and managers use their three regulation games in this league.

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From a management’s perspective they have very little run-in time, and with that comes the greater risk of injury. While the absence of the usual pre-season competitions (O’Byrne Cup, Connacht League, McKenna Cup, McGrath Cup) has both denied emerging players of a shop window but also the opportunity for managements to run the rule over new players.

Further down the divisions I expect counties to approach the league in a truer fashion, knowing that promotion is very important for the incremental, year-on-year development of their teams and players.

Nevertheless, the top flight is sure to throw up some great contests and with such competitors among all the top teams games will take on a life of their own.

One county who may hit the ground running is Tyrone. Under their new joint-management of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher it will be very interesting to see how they set their side up strategically.

It was often alleged in recent times that Mickey Harte had put something of a tactical straightjacket on his side, so it’s anticipated the new management will develop a more expansive game-plan.

With Cathal McShane returning after missing the business end last year, his partnership with Conor McKenna should be a real headache for any defensive system, particularly with the ‘mark’. The Red Hands could give the league a right tilt.

Running the rule over some of the other Division 1 contenders, my views at this moment in time would be that Galway got caught in two minds over what their game-plan should be in last year’s championship.

They had started last year’s league at a rate of knots, like a team who had a lot of work done, but then the Covid lockdown struck – and they were caught in neutral, and couldn’t get back to top gear.

The return from injury of Damien Comer will be a timely fillip for Pádraic Joyce’s side, as they try to build a winning momentum to carry themselves into the championship.

Donegal are another county, like Kerry, who would have spent last winter licking their wounds, following their unexpected loss to Cavan in the Ulster final.

The returns of Odhrán Mac Niallais, Odhrán McFadden-Ferry and Kieran Gillespie will strengthen their options. Mac Niallais, in particular, can complement their natural style, but they need new more on-field leaders to emerge.

The belief that ‘if Michael Murphy plays well we’ve a great chance’ will not suffice at the very top level – and he can’t be expected to shoulder the burden of huge ambitions year in, year out.

Then there’s the Dubs and the Dessie Farrell factor, or absence of a ‘Dessie factor’ to be precise.

They face a Roscommon team driven by the desire to cement their place long term in Division 1, and stop yo-yoing between the top flight and Division 2, on Sunday in Dr Hyde Park.

How significant is the loss of Farrell as he serves his 12-week suspension?

Well, it most certainly is a hindrance but one you’d expect Dublin to overcome – as they are such an experienced outfit with leaders in all sectors of the field, and who employ a very player-driven approach to their workings on-field and behind the scenes.

You can expect Dublin to try out a few less familiar faces as they look to strengthen their hand. Players such as Ciarán Archer, Lee Gannon, Kieran Kennedy and Peadar Ó Cofaigh Byrne have done well for the Under-20s over the past few years, and some of them may be given limited game-time.

It was a privilege to attend many of the games last year post-lockdown, but without the presence of crowds there was always an eerie feel to the occasions.

However, I anticipate that most of the top teams will not show their full hands, so we could be in for some results that might lead to mistaken beliefs ahead of the summer.

Hopefully, by the time the championship is nearing provincial semi-finals supporters, though it will be in limited numbers, will be returning.

In the meantime, sit back and enjoy what should prove to be an interesting league, but one that may not provide all the answers pre-championship.

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