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Thursday 14 December 2017

Cork favourites in wide-open league title race

ANOTHER February, another case of hope springs eternal. The Allianz Football League kicks off this weekend with a tasty Croke Park double-header to whet the appetite, but the unanswered question is who will be standing on the last Sunday in April?

Will it be the Dubs, planning to carry on where they left off last September? Or how about Kerry, stung by that smash-and-grab All-Ireland defeat into a desire to sweep all before them in 2012?

But how can we possibly overlook Cork - seeking to win a hat-trick of NFL titles on the bounce. Conor Counihan's men start out as favourites, but before a ball is kicked in anger, you can never be sure which teams will perform.

And that is before you factor in the unpredictable consequences of format change. This spring we'll have top-flight semi-finals for the first time in five years. Unlike 2007, though, when the leading two protagonists in Division 1A and 1B advanced to the last-four, now the entire top-half of Division One will make the cut-off.

This could throw up far-from-ideal scenarios and the prospect of a team scraping into the semis and still winning the title. Consistency pays? Maybe, not always.

DIVISION 1 CONTENDERS

ARMAGH

What's changed since last summer?

Paul Grimley is back with his native county and will join fellow new recruit Brendan Hughes alongside manager Paddy O'Rourke.

Hotseat Temperature

Scorching. A third season of under-performance wouldn't reflect well.

Wfy they'll win the League

Armagh (and we're stretching it here) are at least seeing some green shoots of youth popping through. They also have one of the most stylish attackers in the game in Jamie Clarke.

Why they won't

No Crossmaglen men, no Stevie McDonnell until after the birth of his child in March or Ronan Clarke. Away days in Dublin and Kerry.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Paddy O'Rourke (3rd season)

2011 NFL: 6th Div 1 (P7, W2, L5)

2012: Home (3): Cork, Mayo, Down. Away (4): Kerry, Dublin, Laois, Donegal.

First game: Next Sunday v Cork, Athletic Grounds.

CORK

Last Division 1 title: 2005.

Odds: Title 28/1, Relegation 4/7.

What's changed since last summer?

Back among the challenging pack may be no bad thing. Cruising to McGrath Cup success without a raft of regulars reaffirmed their strength.

Hotseat Temperature

Hotter than 12 months ago. Pallid summer surrender to Mayo has upped the ante for Counihan.

Why they'll win the League

The carrot of three-in-a-row. Wounded pride. Four home games, leaving them hot tips for a semi berth.

Why they won't

Injury issues, with Daniel Goulding and Ciarán Sheehan still on the casualty list and several more doubtful for the opener in Armagh. A desire to freshen up the team may not yield an immediate harvest.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Conor Counihan (5th season)

2011 NFL: Champions Div 1: (P8, W6, L2)

2012: Home (4): Down, Laois, Kerry, Dublin.

Away (3): Armagh, Donegal, Mayo.

First game: Next Sunday v Armagh, Morgan Athletic Grounds.

Last Division 1 title: 2011

Odds: Title: 2/1, Relegation 20/1.



DONEGAL

What's changed since last summer?

Eh, ever hear of Kevin Cassidy? Perception: too many neutrals were willing to swallow their tactical grievances ... until Jim McGuinness parked 14 men behind the ball against Dublin.

Hotseat Temperature

It should be chilled out locally, but Jim McGuinness's latest tirade (against Niall Moyna et al) reinforces the impression of a manager who doesn't react well to criticism.

Why they'll win the League

Because they're supremely fit, defensively rock-solid and horrible to play against.

Why they won't

Teams adjusting (as they will) to the Donegal blanket.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Jim McGuinness (2nd season)

2011 NFL: Champions Div 2, promoted (P8, W5, D2, L1).

2012: Home (4): Laois, Cork, Mayo, Armagh. Away (3): Down, Kerry, Dublin.

First game: Next Saturday v Down, Newry.

Last Division 1 title: 2007.

Odds: Title 12/1, Relegation 2/1.

DOWN

What's changed since last summer?

So long Marty Clarke. Down are no longer everybody's dark horses.

Hotseat Temperature

Tepid. 'Wee' James McCartan is a living legend in Down but things will look less rosy if a spring malaise sets in.

Why they'll win the League

Still possess a wide array of explosive attackers, while former Armagh minor Conor Gough is proving a useful addition in midfield.

Why they won't

Down are still well short on big, physical defenders.

VITAL STATS

Manager: James McCartan (3rd season)

2011 NFL: 4th Div 1 (P7, W3, D1, L3).

2012: Home (3): Donegal, Kerry, Dublin. Away (4): Cork, Mayo, Armagh, Laois.

First game: Next Saturday v Donegal, Newry.

Last Division 1 title: 1983.

Odds: Title 12/1, Relegation 2/1.

DUBLIN

What's changed since last summer?

No Mickey Whelan, who's been replaced by Ian Robertson in Pat Gilroy's backroom team. The added pressure of being champions.

Hotseat Temperature

Baltic. Gilroy has a long time to repeat last September's heroics.

Why they'll win the League

Because the past two consistent springs have preceded successful championship summers and because they failed so narrowly and so harrowingly to do so in last year's final.

Why they won't

The hangover. How far are they behind last year's January pace and, more importantly, how much catch-up do they have to play to the likes of Cork and Kerry? The country's prime scalp in every match they play.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Pat Gilroy (4th season)

2011 NFL: Beaten finalists Div 1: (P8, W 6, D1, L1).

2012: Home (3): Kerry, Armagh, Donegal. Away (4): Mayo, Laois, Down, Cork.

First game: Next Saturday v Kerry, Croke Park.

Last Division 1 title: 1993

Odds: Title 7/2, Relegation 9/1.

KERRY

What's changed since last summer?

Not much. The expected flurry of retirements never materialised. Unfinished business maybe?

Hotseat Temperature

Rising slowly. The unsatisfactory way their seasons have ended in the past two years may not be tolerated if the run extends to three.

Why they'll win the League

Kerry have taken the National League very seriously over the past couple of years and four home games should see them reach a semi-final at least.

Why they won't

They won't have Colm Cooper, Eoin Brosnan, Kieran O'Leary or any of the Dr Crokes brigade for at least the opening rounds as they prepare for an All-Ireland SFC club semi-final.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Jack O'Connor (4th season, second term)

2011 NFL: 3rd Div 1: (P 7, W5, L 2).

2012: Home (4): Armagh, Donegal, Laois. Mayo; Away (3): Dublin, Down, Cork.

1st game: Next Saturday v Dublin, Croke Park.

Last Division 1 title: 2009

Odds: Title 9/4, Relegation 20/1.

LAOIS

What's changed since last summer?

"Lots - we hope," is the likely response of traumatised Laois fans. What has definitely changed is Donie Kingston's self-imposed exile.

Hotseat Temperature

Rising. Justin McNulty still has to convince the Portlaoise Doubting Thomas brigade.

Why they'll win the League

Because Dublin won the O'Byrne Shield last year and look how their season turned out!

Why they won't

They lack the firepower required to trouble the elite.

VITAL STATS

Manager: Justin McNulty (2nd season)

2011 NFL: Beaten Div 2 finalists, promoted (P8, W5, L3)

2012: Home (4): Mayo, Dublin, Armagh, Down. Away (3): Donegal, Cork, Kerry.

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