National Football League Division One North- Round One Preview
By Ciaron Noble
Around this time of year, we would be traditionally entering the beginning of the inter-county Championship season, however similar to last season things are a bit different. The condensed league format of 4 teams in 2 groups means that there is little margin for error. Each team will play 3 round robin games before progressing to a semi-final or relegation playoff with another team from the division 1 south group. Every team will get at least 4 competitive fixtures before the beginning of the straight knockout Championship at the end of June.
The regionalized format of the league competition this year means that it will feel like we are being treated to a mini-Ulster Championship. Donegal, Tyrone, Monaghan and recently promoted Armagh make up one of the two groups in division 1 this year. Each of these teams will have a point to prove. Donegal will want to bounce back strong after the disappointment of losing the Ulster final last season. For the first time in 18 years, Tyrone has new management at the helm. Monaghan will aim to show cohesion after their Covid fiasco, which sees their manager Seamus McEnaney serving a 12-week suspension and Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh will be looking to impress as they make their long-awaited return to the top flight.
Saturday 15th May
Tyrone vs Donegal
Venue: Healy Park
Referee Joe Mc Quillan
In arguably the best tie of the round, Declan Bonner’s Donegal will travel to Omagh to do battle with long time rivals Tyrone in the opening round of this year’s league competition. Nobody could have anticipated that the Championship opener between the two sides last November would have brought down the curtain on Mickey Harte’s illustrious 18-year long reign as manager of his beloved Tyrone. However, half a year later and things are very different as Fergal Logan and former All-Ireland winning captain Brian Dooher take charge of the Red Hand County.
Donegal come into the game with a good run of form against their opponents. They knocked Tyrone out of the 2019 and 2020 Ulster Championship along with a league victory last season. However, the men from the north-west would have been disappointed with last seasons outcome. They saw off the challenges of Tyrone and Armagh in their two victories of last year’s Ulster Championship. It is possible that they under-estimated Cavan in the final who shocked everyone when they won their first Ulster title in 23 years.
Many regard Donegal as one of the only teams that could potentially pose a threat to Dublin’s 6-year unbeaten streak in the Championship. Their talisman Michael Murphy will be vital for them again this year along with the likes of Michael Lagan and Jamie Brennan.
Looking at Tyrone, it is hard to know what to expect from a team that is effectively entering a new age. The big question is, will Tyrone play a more direct style of football and move away from the physical and defensive blueprint that was Mickey Harte’s preferred style? Tyrone can play a more expansive game with the quality forwards at their disposal like Cathal McShane, Conor Mckenna and Darren McCurry, whether they will or not that is another question.
Both of these teams want to set their stall out early given the short nature of this year’s competition. We expect a close affair. What a great contest to have on the opening weekend of the Allianz Football League. It is too close to call.
Sunday 16th May
Monaghan vs Armagh
Venue: Brewster Park
Referee: Ciaran Brannigan
In the second contest of this group, Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh will have their first top division encounter in 9 years when they face Monaghan this weekend. This game could have big implications, with the losing team probably already looking at the prospect of relegation as both Donegal and Tyrone are the more favoured teams to progress into the semi-finals. In the other group. Roscommon will have to pull off a few surprises if they are to escape a relegation play-off with heavy hitters Dublin, Kerry and Galway mixed in there with them.
Armagh have been tipped by many to do big things for a couple of seasons now, is this going to be the year they do something special? McGeeney has enlisted the help of former Armagh captain Ciaran McKeever and former Kerry forward Kieran Donaghy to his backroom team for the season. The Orchard County has an exciting young team that is able to put it up to any opposition on their day with excited youngster Riain and Oisin O’Neill along with Jarlath Óg Burns. Following a disappointing Ulster semi-final showing against Donegal last season, they’ll be hoping for a bit more this time out.
Monaghan come into this campaign with a trail of controversy following their breach of covid guidelines which saw their manager Seamus McEnaney receive a hefty 12-week ban. Their commander and chief Conor McManus is 34, without him are Monaghan a side of division 1 quality? One thing is for sure they won’t be beaten without a fight.
Armagh will want to return to the top flight with a bang and we can expect them to be fully focused on the task at hand.
Prediction: Armagh by more than 2