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10 most intriguing storylines ahead of the GAA football league return

We’re set for our first full and uninterrupted league since 2019.

pjimage (5) We have a full slate of league games next weekend. Source: Inpho

THE ALLIANZ FOOTBALL League returns next weekend and we’re set for our first full, uninterrupted season since 2019. The split season means there’s less of a gap between the league and championship, which should give this competition added importance.

Then factor in next month’s Congess, where the two templates for Gaelic football reform will give positions in the league added importance for the 2023 season. 

As ever, there’s plenty to discuss across all four divisions. Here are 10 storylines worth following on over the next couple of months: 

1. What new faces will break through for Dublin?

The strength of some of Dublin’s O’Byrne Cup line-ups indicate they’re looking to hit the ground running when the league starts.

Two-thirds of the side that started last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Mayo have already taken to the field in the pre-season competition. And still Dessie Farrell has cast his net wide in January, using 39 different players across their three group games as he assesses his options. 

darragh-conlon Dublin and Ballymun youngster Darragh Conlon. Source: Ashley Cahill/INPHO

Farrell confirmed Stephen Cluxton, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion won’t be returning this season. Philly McMahon and Kevin McManamon have retired. It’s clear the Sky Blues need to add some new names to the first XV.

There could be three or four new faces regularly appearing on the Dublin team during the spring, with Lee Gannon, Darragh Conlon, Peader Ó Cofaigh Byrne, Ross McGarry and Ciaran Archer among those fighting for spots. 

2. Andy Moran’s first campaign over Leitrim 

When a recently retired forward from an All-Ireland contender takes over a county team, there’s always going to be a sense of intrigue surrounding their appointment.

Andy Moran’s arrival in Leitrim brings further star quality to a Division 4 table that already includes the 2020 Munster and Ulster champions. He’s a deep thinker about the game, as evidenced in his recent autobiography, where he recounts in great detail the lessons he learned from old team-mates and managers. 

The 38-year-old look to take many of the learnings from his 17 seasons as a player with Mayo, as well as his stint as coach with the county U20s and as player-manager for Ballaghderreen.

emelyn-mulligan Emlyn Mulligan is back in the Leitrim fold at 34. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“Leitrim is a mad spot,” he said this week on Off the Ball’s Football Pod.

“Outside of a small few areas, Gaelic football is the sport, it’s the religion down there. People love it and they love talking about it.

“The boys have absolutely lit up the training fields in terms of wanting to be there, giving great effort and doing stuff they probably haven’t done in the past.”

3. Survival of the fittest in Division 1

This year’s top flight looks particularly strong: Armagh, Donegal, Dublin, Kerry, Kildare, Mayo, Monaghan and Tyrone. It’s difficult to predict how it will all play out.

Newly promoted and under new management, Kildare will be eager to avoid an immediate return to Division 2. By week four they’ll have played Kerry, Donegal, Tyrone and Dublin, so hitting form early will be a priority for Glenn Ryan’s team. 

Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh will be looking to prove they belong among the game’s elite with a strong spring campaign to back up last year. Monaghan take great pride in their lengthy stint in the top tier and despite being tipped for relegation on an almost yearly basis, they make for formidable opposition. 

Dublin, Kerry, Mayo, Tyrone and Donegal will give minutes to young guns around established stars in the hope of finding some new championship starters, while aiming to pick up enough points to finish safely inside the top half. 

The Red Hand will be of particular interest given their All-Ireland success last year. Will they look to cement their place on top of the pile by claiming the Division 1 title or hold something in reserve for the summer? 

4. Recent provincial champions on comeback trail 

It was probably inevitable that Cavan and Tipperary would suffer a hangover last year after the success of 2020. Both counties won provincial titles and reached the All-Ireland semi-finals, so dropping down to Division 4 represented quite the fall from grace even if the relegations didn’t come in a normal seven game league. 

michael-graham Cavan manager Michael Graham talks to his team after their big win over Tyrone in the McKenna Cup. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

In the championship, Tipperary fell to Kerry and Cavan lost out to Tyrone. With no backdoor, it was an anti-climatic year for both counties. 

The loss of Michael Quinlivan from the Premier panel will hurt David Power’s team, but Sean O’Connor could fill that void alongside Conor Sweeney in attack. It’s difficult to read too much into Cavan’s pre-season trouncing of Tyrone, yet it’s not a bad sign for Mickey Graham’s team.

Whoever prevails in the round 5 meeting between these sides on 13 March should seal promotion to the third tier. 

5. Division 2 promotion race

The hunt for the two promotion places in Division 2 could conceivably feature seven of the eight teams in the second tier. Offaly – down a handful of regulars from last season – face a battle to stay up, but it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see any of the rest launch a promotion bid. 

Indeed, Galway, Roscommon and Meath look like the obvious candidates to go up given their recent top flight experience. Derry are on the rise under Rory Gallagher and can call upon quality players like Conor Glass and Shane McGuigan.

sean-kelly-with-the-connacht-gaa-fbd-trophy Can Galway build on their strong FBD League form? Source: Tom Maher/INPHO

Clare lost by four points to eventual All-Ireland finalists Mayo in a promotion play-off last year and shouldn’t be underestimated. Cork will look to shake off their inconsistencies under new man Keith Ricken. If Down’s returning boss James McCarten can get the Kilcoo contingent involved, they’ve got every chance of being right in the mix. 

6. Leaving the AFL behind 

Conor McKenna and Conor Glass have returned from the AFL to give starring performances in recent years. The focus will shift to high-profile returnee Stefan Okunbor as he embarks on his rookie season with the Kerry seniors. 

Okunbor has featured at midfield for Kerry in the McGrath Cup and for UL in the Sigerson Cup so far this month. An incredible athlete, he’s also an option for Jack O’Connor at the centre-back and full-back positions, where they need depth.   

Elsewhere, might we see Anton Tohill (Derry), Ross McQuillan (Armagh) or Luke Towey (Sligo) break onto their respective county teams during the league?  

Oisin Mullin turned his back on a professional career in Australia and he’s sure to receive a rapturous welcome from Mayo supporters whenever he makes his seasonal debut for the county. 

7. First-time managers

We’ve already mentioned Andy Moran, but there are several other managers taking charge of inter-county teams at the senior grade for the first time.

Keith Ricken, 53, has built a fine reputation through his player-centred approach at U20 level with Cork. He guided them to All-Ireland glory in 2019 and will be looking to kick things off in style with promotion form Division 2.

keith-ricken-speaks-to-his-players-during-the-half-time-break Cork manager Keith Ricken speaks to his players during the McGrath Cup. Source: Ken Sutton/INPHO

At just 36, Longford’s Billy O’Loughlin is the second-youngest manager on the circuit. He got the job on the back of his fine work with the DIT Sigerson team plus Laois U20s and Kildare club Sarsfields. 

Ephie Fitzgerald (61) takes over Waterford after managing at the top level of ladies football with Cork for a number of years. 41-year-old Kerry native Billy Sheehan takes over a rebuilding project in Laois, who he represented during his playing days. He brings a wealth of coaching experience and an abrasive approach that might rub some up the wrong way.

At 45, Kieran Donnelly enters the inter-county arena for the first time, following a successful spell with Scotstown. And finally, London boss Michael Maher, 34, is looking forward to his first championship season with the Exiles. 

8. Jack is back

Jack O’Connor’s third coming as Kerry boss begins with a return to Newbridge to face his former team Kildare in a tasty end of January fixture. On the sideline for the Lilywhites will be Kingdom great Paul Gavin, adding further interest in this clash. 

Interestingly, on all three occasions he’s taken over the Kerry job they were beaten in the All-Ireland series by eventual winners Tyrone the previous season. 

What will O’Connor be looking to get from the league? No side have greater attacking riches than Kerry, so nailing down a more ruthless defence will be his main priority. Dan O’Donoghue and Dylan Casey are fresh options in the full-back line.

Stefan Okunbor is an option at 3, 6 and midfield. David Moran’s presence on the long-term injury-list could paves the way for Joe O’Connor to stake a claim for his place. Then there’s the goalkeeper battle with Peter Keane’s first-choice Shane Ryan set to be challenged by 2018 netminder Shane Murphy, who was recalled to the squad. 

jack-oconnor Jack O’Connor enters his eighth season as senior Kerry manager across three reigns. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

9. Cillian O’Connor’s much-anticipated return 

When Cillian O’Connor went down with an injury in the June league tie against Clare, many felt Mayo’s All-Ireland hopes were over. He subsequently went under the knife to repair his Achilles tendon, ruling him out for the season. 

James Horan insisted the injury was “not a disaster” for Mayo, but few believed him. However, youngsters Ryan O’Donoghue and Tommy Conroy assumed the scoring responsibility and drove Mayo to the final.

O’Connor underwent surgery last June, with the recovery time for a fully torn Achilles generally in the region of 12 months. It’s unclear how severe his injury was and a return during the league may come to soon for the Ballintubber ace. If he can make it back during Mayo’s Division 1 campaign, it would be a major boost for Horan’s team. 

10. Michael Maher’s London reign finally starts

Michael Maher enters his third season as London manager with only five competitive games and no championship outings under his belt. The London-born man took charge in late 2019 only for the pandemic to badly disrupt his plans for the past two seasons. 

Because of the Covid situation in the UK, London have been unable to compete in any inter-county competitions since March 2020.

It’s been 22 months since they last played a league game and, naturally, the Exiles panel has witnessed plenty of changes since then. They’ve been back training since 8 December  and Maher has described their trip to Newtwatch Cullen Park to face Carlow on 29 January as “one of the biggest dates in London GAA’s calendar for two years.”

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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