National Football League Division One South – Round One Preview
By Tom McLoughlin
When Dublin emerged victorious over Mayo in last year’s unique All Ireland final on 19th December, I don’t think any of us foresaw that it would be a full 146 days later before another ball would be kicked in intercounty football. Fortunately, this Saturday 15th May, marks day 146 with the return of the National Football league in its new condensed and regionalized format.
Whist Division One North very much has the feel of a mini Ulster championship with local rivalries being fought out in each fixture, Division One South has more of a traditional league feel about it. Round One sees two intriguing ties in prospect with defending league champions Kerry hosting Galway on Saturday afternoon in Tralee. This is followed by reigning All Ireland Champions Dublin travelling to Dr. Hyde Park on Sunday afternoon to face Roscommon, Division Two champions from 2020.
Saturday 15th May
Kerry v Galway
Venue: Austin Stack Park, Tralee
Referee: Conor Lane (Cork)
Channel: Eir Sport
“Connolly kicking up into the air. It’s drifting. It’s moving. It’s still in play…………It’s a goal. It’s a goal for Cork”.
Was this the shock sporting moment of 2020? Cavan and Tipperary’s provincial successes were both joyous and welcome but for shock factor, it would be hard to top that finale in the November rain in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Sport’s ability to surprise is arguably its most compelling quality – the reality is such surprises are all too rare. However, Mark Keane’s last minute smash and grab victory for Cork was truly one of those remarkable moments – rousing for the Rebels, catastrophe for the Kingdom.
This weekend presents Peter Keane and Kerry with their first opportunity to banish some demons and it will be interesting to see how Keane embraces this league campaign. Did complacency lead to Kerry’s Munster and All Ireland championship undoing? Or was it a preoccupation with the Dubs and the implementation of a defensive shape in preparation for a final that would ultimately never come?
So where are Kerry at now? Peter Crowley’s retirement leaves a hole at centre back; a tough and tigerish defender, Crowley often did the dirty work in a team with a plethora of stylish footballers. Sometimes, you also need a few dogs for the hard road when the game is in the melting pot on the big occasions. Crowley is a loss and Paul Murphy may well slot into his position as leader of the defence.
That said, the quality of forwards that Kerry have at their disposal is breath-taking and a Kerry forward unit in full flow is a joy to behold. David Clifford, Sean O’Shea, Tony Brosnan and Killian Spillane are players of the highest calibre. Allied with the return of two time All Star Paul Geaney and former Footballer of the Year James O’Donoghue from injury, Keane certainly has a wealth of options and it is his job to get a tune out of them.
As for Galway, 2020 was somewhat of a mixed bag for Pádraic Joyce’s charges. Spring brought about hope of a league winning campaign arising from impressive victories over Donegal, Meath, Monaghan and Tyrone. As we know, the pandemic brought a halt to action and on resumption in October, Galway’s league prospects came to an abrupt halt with a heavy defeat to rivals Mayo in Tuam followed by defeat to Dublin in their final game.
Galway’s exit from the Connaught championship came at the hands of Mayo too in the Connaught final in Pearse Stadium. Mayo escaped with a narrow one point victory in a game that truly could have gone either way. Joyce will know his team were there or thereabouts last year and will hope to build on some encouraging signs from last year’s campaign.
The Galway squad has seen some experienced stalwarts depart over the winter with Ian Burke, Gareth Bradshaw, Gary Sice and Adrian Varley being some of the high profile absentees in 2021. Michael Daly is also missing from the panel and Cillian McDaid has suffered a knee injury ruling him out for the time being.
Joyce should see this league campaign as an opportunity to blood some new talent especially given Galway’s impressive All Ireland U-20 success of last year. With the tight intercounty calendar in 2021, it is a difficult balancing act to bring through young players whilst preparing for the battle of championship. If Joyce can blend the young talent with the silky skill and pure power of Shane Walsh and Damien Comer respectively, then the capacity for Galway to cause Kerry problems is certainly there. Paul Conroy is also a massive influence on this Galway team and his leadership qualities will be important.
This could be the game of the weekend. I expect a close encounter but Kerry in recent years have taken the league seriously and have been champions twice in the last four years. I expect them to kick off this year’s campaign with a victory.
Verdict: Kerry by 3
Sunday 16th May
Roscommon v Dublin
Venue: Dr. Hyde Park, Roscommon
Referee: Derek O’Mahoney (Tipperary)
2015: Promoted from Div. 2
2016: Remained in Div. 1
2017: Relegated from Div. 1
2018: Promoted from Div. 2
2019: Relegated from Div. 1
2020: Promoted from Div. 2
A quick look at Roscommon’s league record may suggest that they are the quintessential yo-yo team. However, to only glean that summation from the above would do Roscommon a great disservice. What their record shows is that over the last seven years, Roscommon have consistently been in the top 7 to 10 teams in the country, picking up two Connaught titles along the way, no mean feat for a county of Roscommon’s size. The more difficult part, as former manager Kevin McStay surmised, is bridging the gap to the top 3 or 4 counties, in particular, Dublin.
That takes significant resources, coaching, talent and arguably population to bridge that gap.
This is precisely the daunting challenge that Roscommon face on Sunday. Clutching at straws for a competitive encounter, the Rossies may hope to avail of some early season rustiness on Dublin’s part. Roscommon’s Division Two promotion campaign last year included notable victories over Cavan, Kildare and Armagh as well as Clare and Westmeath. However, the Dubs will be a step, if not a leap up in class.
Roscommon’s semi-final exit from the Connaught championship at home to Mayo was uncharacteristically meek and potentially a cause for concern for Anthony Cunningham. Mayo got out to an early lead and Roscommon seemed reluctant or incapable of changing their defensive strategy. There appeared an unwillingness to attack their opposition and throw men forward even in the closing stages as they limped to a disappointing defeat.
Roscommon will look to the likes of Enda Smith and Niall Daly for inspiration as well as relying on sharpshooter up front, Conor Cox to do the bulk of the scoring. Down native and former Carlow coach, Steven Poacher, has been brought in by Cunningham for the 2021 season and it will be interesting to see what impact his coaching will have on the style of play on Sunday.
As for Dublin, what is there left to say? They start the season as strong favourites to win the league and the championship. It is hard to back against them but possibly the league is the best opportunity for teams to achieve success over a Dublin team who have not win the competition since 2018. Hardly a famine period granted but Tyrone emerged victorious over Dublin in Omagh last year whilst Kerry and Monaghan both achieved valuable draws.
In terms of absentees, Dublin will be without Paul Mannion as he opts to sit the year out whilst Darren Daly, Michael Darragh McAuley and Darren Daly have all retired over the winter. Jack McCaffrey remains a continued absence. For most counties, the inability to call on such personnel would provide an insurmountable challenge but for Dublin their strength in depth is phenomenal. Dessie Farrell may try to bring through some new faces as Dublin tend to do during most league campaigns with Robbie McDaid, Seán Bugler and Paddy Small benefitting most recently.
On Sunday it is difficult to see anything other than a comfortable victory for Dublin. Dublin’s composure and ability to make the right decision at the right time usually wins out. I am hopeful that Roscommon can be competitive and don’t sit back to just “take their beating” as many teams often do against Dublin. No harm in going down fighting.
Verdict: Dublin by 7