Having already dealt with the prospects for the Big Three in this year’s championship, JPM concludes his preview of the summer campaign by sizing up the rest of the field.
Apart from Dublin, Kerry and Cork, thirty other counties make up the field to compete in the All-Ireland championship. And because of its size it’s easier to sub-divide this field into its four respective plots, i.e. the four provinces.
First of all it’s fair to say that all counties have ambitions of winning it. However the barometer reading for them varies from freezing to those with a hot chance of causing a real upset. The question is how they will get to the stage where they can achieve a scorching result. For the majority it won’t happen and for most others it’s not even straightforward, as a route through the murky bog of the qualifiers must first be crossed.
Ulster as always is a lottery, and often a bloodbath. Last year’s champions Donegal will find it extremely difficult to retain their title as they definitely have the tougher side of the draw. After overcoming their first obstacle, Cavan, they follow it by another against near neighbours Derry. And this is before a meeting with Tyrone or Armagh in a possible provincial semi-final! On the other side, league semi-finalists Down are the team who look most likely to make a fist of it. If they manage to defeat Fermanagh they will meet the winners of Monaghan or Antrim in a semi-final.
The problem with Ulster though is that it’s difficult to know where the province stands right now. Looking back to this year’s league, two seasoned teams (Tyrone and Down) put their best boots on and came to show their substance at Croke Park. But both were easily beaten. Down were again destroyed by Cork and even though Tyrone had experience under their belts, the manner of the defeat to Kildare where they were comprehensively outplayed in the second half must be a worry for their supporters. You could argue that someone has to come out of Ulster and they will at least be battle-hardened when they reach the last eight. However based on form it seems the greatest likelihood of an upset is for one of the strong Ulster teams to get a home draw in the qualifiers and give a decent account of themselves there.
Munster holds the intriguing prospect of two Division 4 counties left with everything to play for with an eye to a possible Munster title. Depending on results this game may also contain home advantage for that decider. Whether this will be enough to cause an upset remains doubtful however it does promise a novel test for whoever is involved. Based on last year’s championship form Limerick offer most, having eventually got to an All-Ireland quarter-final final and a rare July run-out in Croke Park.
After overcoming Waterford Limerick now meet Clare, the team with better form coming into the championship. In their league campaign Clare were just denied promotion in their final away game loss to Wicklow. While it is difficult to see an upset overall, if Clare were to advance and gain home advantage in a Munster final, then history has a chance of being repeated, especially if they were taken too much for granted.
In Leinster although the draw suits Dublin the Delaney Cup is up for grabs this year. Dublin have won it for many seasons and one more or one less won’t make a lot of difference to them. Whether Pat Gilroy likes it or not nearly everyone in Dublin will already be zoned in on the All-Ireland series rather than another Leinster title. So there is room for a power shift here.
Based on the league Kildare are the form team in Leinster. Their Division 2 win in Croke Park will give them confidence and takes a monkey off their back somewhat. Plus Kildare may have a chip on their shoulders towards the championship. Several times in recent years they have been denied by dubious or downright bad calls to make progress and gain some sort of national respect. This chip could give them a harder edge this year. Also Kieran McGeeney must assume it’s probably his last opportunity to make his name with Kildare. So the presumption is that everything will be put into gaining silverware in 2012. And targeting Leinster with everything they have is the best opportunity for this.
In their way to the final stand Offaly, Wicklow, Carlow or the Royals. Offaly were relegated from Division 3 this year so, even playing away, it is difficult to see Kildare being beaten. The winners of Wicklow v Meath meet Carlow. Meath were relegated to Division 3 whilst Wicklow were promoted from Division 4. But Meath hold home advantage and this may be enough to see them through.
Meath really are unpredictable. Even for all the infighting and bad press they have received, the make up of the Meath man is such that he might on any championship day just turn up on with the attitude that no one will beat him. And nine times out of ten with this attitude they generally don’t. Carlow have had a very unremarkable 2012 with only victories against London, Kilkenny and Waterford to give them any comfort. On this form alone it is very difficult to see them denying either Wicklow or Meath the opportunity to play in Croke Park in a Leinster semi-final.
In Connacht also it’s not as clear-cut as it seems. Although as Mayo men we could in all honesty be targeting an automatic All-Ireland quarter-final berth, the likelihood of meeting this target depends largely on whether we emerge as provincial champions or not.
With Mayo it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what our realistic goals are this year. Will it be one game at a time or will the conditioning of the team be targeted to them being at their peak for a quarter-final in August rather than earlier in the season? Realistically we could even be aiming for an upset at semi-final stage, however our team sheet seems very unsettled still, with more county faces continually appearing, being spoken about or revealed. Not to mention our known problems at midfield, an area that must be dominated to have any realistic chance of causing upsets to more illustrious opponents.
The ideal scenario for us (presuming we overcome Leitrim or London) is that Sligo cause a massive upset and beat Galway. But this is unlikely. Against Roscommon, Galway showed their worthiness. Indeed it was a fine display they put on, exhibiting a brand of football that was refreshing and invigorating. Plus the fact that the match was realistically over when their two great stars appeared must give plenty of food for thought to the remaining teams with aspirations for Connacht glory. The verdict must go to them to reach the decider, with a more than reasonable chance of winning it. So on the whole, although Connacht might appear somewhat open this year, nearly everyone is already nodding their heads at the suggestion of a July decider in Pearse Stadium between the traditional top two.
Overall eight teams still have to make the quarter-final one way or another. The fact that either Kerry or Cork will definitely have to travel via the back door makes it intriguing for those who will be in the draw against them. Already upsets have occurred and it proves that anything can happen in a one-off game especially if the cards fall your way. Nearly every year there is at least one major defeat and there’s no reason to discard this occurring in 2012. Whether or not it occurs in the long grass prior the quarter-finals is difficult to know. However, like every year it’s guaranteed there will be shocks along the way, making for great entertainment and debate for the wider audience. And who knows, maybe even the biggest shock of all: overall glory for some aspiring county from within the boundaries of the Field.