Westmeath will be targeting a successful Division 3 campaign after Tailteann Cup glory. Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Westmeath's big statement, bouncing back from the basement and managerial changes

Here’s five key questions ahead of the Division 3 and 4 football league opening weekend.

1. Can Westmeath make a big statement?

The inaugural Tailteann Cup champions will go into this Allianz football league campaign among the favourites for Division 3.

The Midlanders looked really good last summer, with John Heslin and Ronan O’Toole among those leading the charge. The retiring Ger Egan is the one big player departure, with most shaping up to go again.

Jack Cooney is no longer at the helm, having taken up a role with the GAA at national level, but there is some continuity with Dessie Dolan taking the reins. A Leinster champion with Westmeath in 2004, Dolan was part of Cooney’s backroom team.

The big ask is promotion to Division 2 after just missing out with a third-place finish last year, as they prepare for a return to the All-Ireland series.

2. Who are the new managers to look out for?

Dolan is one of several changes to the managerial rosters across the two divisions. Oisín McConville is one standout name, the Armagh All-Ireland winner taking charge of Wicklow. It’s his first inter-county job, having managed Dundalk IT and Monaghan club outfit Inniskeen Grattans in recent years.

Conor Laverty is in the Down hot-seat and Liam Kearns takes charge of Offaly, both teams looking to bounce back from the disappointment of relegation from Division 2.

Andy McEntee has swapped Meath for Antrim, Paddy Christie will be hoping to continue his bright start as Longford manager after delivering O’Byrne Cup glory, and John Hegarty is the man leading Wexfod for 2023.

oisin-mcconville-ahead-of-the-game Oisín McConville is at the Wicklow helm. Ben Brady / INPHO Ben Brady / INPHO / INPHO

3. How will the novel 2020 provincial champions fare? 

Cavan and Tipperary seem to go hand-in-hand in recent seasons. They shared a Super Sunday in November 2020, both disregarding the tag of underdogs to end lengthy waits for provincial success in Ulster and Munster respectively.

In June 2021, they simultaneously dropped to Division 4 after being stunned in relegation play-offs. The pair made swift returns, Cavan coming out on top in last April’s basement-tier final and lifting their first senior title at Croke Park since 1952.

They’ll be targeting a repeat, up a level, boosted by the return of Dara McVeety to the panel and the emergence of several young stars like Paddy Lynch.

Less optimism, perhaps, surrounds Tipperary. They’ve lost some big names in Robbie Kiely (retirement), Michael Quinlivan (work commitments) and Bill Maher (USA) while coach Christie has set sail for Longford. David Power remains at the helm, like Mickey Graham in the Breffni county, but with just nine of the 20 players that featured in the 2020 Munster final still involved, will this be a tricky period of transition or an opportunity for a fresh start?

Promotion to Division 2 — and in turn, All-Ireland SFC involvement — would be huge for both. But Westmeath, and plenty others, will undoubtedly have different ideas.

conor-moynagh-and-conor-sweeney Cavan and Tipperary have had similar fortunes in recent years - and share an off-Broadway rivalry. Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO Lorraine O’Sullivan / INPHO / INPHO

4. What about the others in Division 3?

Offaly and Down will be targeting immediate returns to Division 2, both hoping to be buoyed the new manager bounce. Kilcoo stalwart Laverty appears to have steadied the ship in the Mourne county, a solid pre-season campaign following a disastrous 2022, so it will be interesting to see what he can do there.

New Faithful boss Kearns has an impressive CV, and started in similar positions with Limerick and Tipperary before steering both up the ranks. He has also inherited no shortage of underage talent, with the U20 class of ’21 lifting the county’s first All-Ireland title since 1998.

Longford and Antrim, likewise, go in under the eye of new leaders, with the addition of Tyrone All-Ireland winner Ronan O’Neill to Kieran Donnelly’s Fermanagh backroom team perhaps a spark the Erne county need.

5. Will Laois bounce back from the basement?

Laois are stuck at the bottom after a major slump. The only way is up, but will the O’Moore county get out of it?

the-laois-team Laszlo Geczo / INPHO Laszlo Geczo / INPHO / INPHO

Billy Sheehan will be largely disappointed with his first year in charge: league relegation was a big blow, and they played just two more games thereafter as they exited both the Leinster championship and Tailteann Cup at the first hurdle. 2023 will be about rebuilding, though they’ll be without long-serving star Ross Munnelly who has retired.

They’re joined by a strong Connacht presence in the basement tier, with firm focus on Tony McEntee’s Sligo and Andy Moran’s Leitrim. Given their provincial championship draws — New York and London — a good league showing would provide the perfect platform, and after finishing third and fourth in the division last year, it’s well within their capabilities to improve.

Wicklow, Wexford, Waterford, Carlow and London will all be eyeing the same, though.

The name of the game in the league.

Allianz Football League Round One fixtures

Division Three

Saturday 28 January

  • Fermanagh v Longford, Brewster Park, 6pm
  • Tipperary v Down, Semple Stadium, 6pm

Sunday 29 January

  • Westmeath v Cavan, Mullingar, 2pm
  • Antrim v Offaly, Corrigan Park, 2pm

Division Four

Saturday 28 January 

  • Wexford v London – Chadwicks Wexford Park, 7pm
  • Carlow v Wicklow – Netwatch Cullen Park, 7pm

Sunday 29 January

  • Leitrim v Waterford, Carrick-on-Shannon, 1pm
  • Sligo v Laois, Markievicz Park, 3pm

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