For the first time in 16 years Gaelic football season previews won’t start with the question: “Can Dublin finally capture Sam?” There will still be a massive focus on the Dubs – population and geography ensure that will always remain the case – but now they enter the season without the ‘bottlers’ tag hanging around their necks.
It will be fascinating to see how they react. Their age profile is most definitely in their favour. The veterans of the side are still relatively young. Footballer of the year, Alan Brogan, only recently turned 30, while the same can be said for Barry Cahill and All-Ireland final hero Stephen Cluxton.
The likes of Bernard Brogan, Ger Brennan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Rory O’Carroll are all under the age of 27. They will see this as their chance to build a footballing dynasty, and place themselves among the greats of the game.
Furthermore, stars of their successful under-21 team from 2010 like Gary Sweeney, Sean Murray, Nicky Devereux, and Darragh Nelson will be chomping at the bit to make their mark at senior level.
Dublin would appear to be in an almost perfect position. But their detractors have many counter arguments.
The high octane style of play that manager Pat Gilroy has implemented takes massive commitment, hunger and fitness. When Tyrone were at their pomp under Mickey Harte, they employed similar tactics and many critics believe that the reason they could never retain the title was it took too much out of them to repeat it for two years on the spin. Can Dublin buck that trend?
There is also a strong element within the game that say Dublin enjoyed a rather lucky season. Indeed, Kildare, Wexford, Donegal and Kerry will all feel aggrieved, for different reasons, that they didn’t put the Jacks away last summer. The latter three in particular contributed massively to their own downfall at various stages in their respective games.
However, the fact remains that Dublin emerged victorious on every one of those occasions and to put it down to luck is doing a huge disservice to a very talented group of footballers. It may even give them the motivation required to go to the well a second time and prove that they are no flash in the pan. Anyone who does not think they will be involved at the business end in 2012 needs a reality check.
So what of the challengers? Kerry will be hurting. Losing an All-Ireland final that they led by four points with less than ten minutes remaining has been the cause of many a sleepless night in the Kingdom.
There is no doubt that they still possess the quality of footballer to beat anyone on any given day. Their forwards remain the most potent unit in the business.
Colm “Gooch” Cooper, Declan O’Sullivan, Darren O’Sullivan and Kieran Donaghy would walk onto any other team in the country.
It is the first time since 2004 that there has been a longer period than two years between All-Ireland wins for Kerry. They will be desperate to ensure that the gap doesn’t grow any bigger.
Their great rivals and 2010 champions Cork are also going to be well in the mix. Last year injuries to key men like Daniel Goulding, Colm O’Neill, and Ciaran Sheehan left their attack listless and an erratic display against Mayo saw them eliminated.
Donegal, Tyrone and Derry, along with western sides Mayo and Galway, will have confidence in their own ability to make a serious tilt at a championship game in September
With a full deck of cards to choose from, Con Counihan’s men are a formidable outfit and will be many people’s favourites to regain the title.
But for The Goose, the value-for-money bet is on Kildare. Under the guidance of former Armagh star Kieran McGeeney, the Lilywhites have been steadily building and narrow defeats in the semi-final to Down (2010) and quarters to Donegal (2011) were marred with controversy when poor refereeing decisions cost them dearly.
Dublin have shown, though, that a team makes their own luck and this year sob stories simply won’t cut it for their fans. McGeeney needs to deliver a trophy, and the All-Ireland is his primary target.
Their critics point to a lack of firepower. The imminent arrival of Cavan’s Seanie Johnston, however, will ease that worry, while Johhny Doyle will be operating closer to goal having spent last summer at midfield following an injury crisis in that sector.
They will also receive a double boost with the return of All-Stars Peter Kelly and Dermot Earley, who have both recovered from cruciate ligament injuries.
Others such as the northern powers of Donegal, Tyrone and Derry, along with western sides Mayo and Galway, will have confidence in their own ability to make a serious tilt at a championship game in September.
But it is the aforementioned four who appear to be on a level above and, with the appealing odds of 10/1, it is the Kildare men who get the nod here.