The big question for Gaelic football followers in 2017 is as it was this time 12 months ago — who can stop Dublin?
One of the fundamental reasons for the capital’s incredible League and Championship success in this decade has been the reliability and leadership of goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton.
The role of the keeper has evolved at breakneck speed in recent years, with Cluxton leading the charge. How Mayo and Kerry would love to have such certainty of custodians.
Both teams have two solid options.
The Rob Hennelly and David Clarke situation last year has been debated time and again and while I expect Mayo to give Hennelly game time early to help him move on from last September there will need to be a long-term call made before the end of the league.
Similarly in Kerry, Brendan Kealy and Brian Kelly have alternated over the past few seasons without either taking full command of the position.
Eamonn Fitzmaurice may look at a younger option in U21 Shane Ryan but again will ideally have identified his championship option as early in the season as possible.
“Transition” is nearly a dirty word in GAA circles at the moment but the reality is all good squads will be constantly looking to transition in some form, there is a natural turnover of squad members every year and managers will always look for new personnel to freshen things up in training.
However, there is no doubt this year’s Donegal squad will be very different from what they are used to.
Look at the names that won’t be in Letterkenny tomorrow; Eamon McGee, Christy Toye, Rory Kavanagh, Leo McLoone, David Walsh, Colm McFadden, Anthony Thompson, and Odhran MacNiallais have all stepped away over the winter, leaving a huge gap in Rory Kavanagh’s panel.
He also opted not to enter the senior squad in McKenna Cup matches feeling work on the training ground was more advantageous during January.
Donegal have had some strong minor and U21 teams in recent years so there will be opportunities for younger players.
But with such a vast amount of experience gone from the group, it increases the pressure on the likes of Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, and Paddy McBrearty to lead the way.
Even after the All-Ireland wins in 2013 and 2015, Jim Gavin and his Dublin squad had the ability to park those successes by the end of each year with a view to a clean and fresh start for January 1 of the next season.
This approach suited Dublin and all players knew that was the clear cut-off for celebrations and if they wanted to stay successful and a part of the squad, they were back to work.
After the 2016 final went to a replay and the season was extended by an extra two weeks, Dublin added that fortnight into their off-season by going on a team holiday in January (for the first time).
This meant the 2016 group were unavailable for the O’Byrne Cup and the main squad will only have had two weeks’ worth of training ahead of tomorrow’s visit to Breffni Park.
With the success of the O’Byrne Cup squad over the last few weeks, it will allow Jim Gavin the opportunity of giving game time to fringe players and new talents.
This may lead to a bumpy few weeks in the short term but the expectation is that players will be fresher later in the season.
If Dublin do have a slower start, one thing that may impact them will be the removal of the league semi-finals. With just the top two playing off in the league final, the room for error in the earlier round is diminished.
There can be a great freedom in the start of a new year with players and managers starting with a clean slate.
However, for some sides it’s not really a fresh start.
Teams who had success last season will have been impatiently waiting to get going and maintaining that momentum.
Think of Clare and Tipperary, surprise All Ireland quarter-finalists in 2016.
After being promoted last year, Clare are swimming in the choppy waters of Division Two looking to build on the progress of last year.
Captain Gary Brennan is setting the tone by making himself available for their opening game away to Derry just 24 hours after his club hurling semi-final this afternoon with Ballyea.
A home game against Down is on the horizon and these games will give Clare an excellent idea as to where they are at.
Tipperary will look to emulate Clare’s league success of last year and depart Division Three.
Liam Kearns got the very most out of his squad in last year’s championship but will be planning to bring that energy and free-flowing attitude from the start of this campaign.
In terms of Tipp’s long-term development, promotion to Division Two would arguably be as beneficial as another impressive championship run.
There are a number of counties hoping to get a bounce from the appointment of new managers.
Two names that jump out are Andy McEntee with Meath and Peter Creedon with Laois.
These two Leinster counties will feel they have underperformed in recent seasons and are fully aware of the mammoth task at hand to close the gap in Leinster with Dublin.
McEntee is coming in on the back of a very successful spell with Ballyboden St Endas and will look to bring the organisation, attitude, and work rate he helped instil in Ballyboden to his native county.
Meath have played a huge amount of games in January, in both O’Byrne Cup and challenges to have a look at as many players as possible.
It’s obvious that McEntee will have certain expectations and demands on the players who do get the Meath jersey and with two home games to start the league (Kildare and Derry), they have a chance to get off to a positive start.
Peter Creedon comes in on the back of a disjointed year for the Laois footballers.
They appear to be a squad who have been meandering in recent seasons and it appears Creedon’s biggest challenge will be to get full buy-in from everyone and look to create a united squad.
Now residing in Division 3, there is an opportunity for Laois to get into a habit of winning.
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