After a brief sojourn in America, the 2009 Football Championship returns home this weekend, with the Ulster and Leinster competitions starting on Sunday afternoon.

Ulster SFC First Round

Enniskillen: Fermanagh v Down

May 17, 3.30pm

Fermanagh and Down will kick start the Ulster SFC this Sunday in Brewster Park, Enniskillen. It will be the first game of the 2009 Championship on Irish soil after Mayo beat New York last week in the Bronx.

The Fermanagh-Down clash on Sunday is being anticipated anxiously by football fans all over the country, who have been deprived of the oxygen of Championship action since the All-Ireland final last September.

The two sides haven’t met since June 22, 2003 in St. Tiernan’s Park, when Down came out on top by 2-10 to 0-11 before losing the Ulster Final to Tyrone in the replay.

The question on everyone’s mind for Sunday is who is going to win, the team who came close to winning the Anglo Celt Cup last year or the Down men who beat Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster SFC.

Erne Manager Malachy O’Rourke is not prepared to invest too much thought in the fact that his side have home advantage.

“Maybe things went right for us last year but there is absolutely no guarantee that this will be the case again on Sunday. Down will travel with considerable confidence, we know, and we must be ready for the challenge,” says O’Rourke.

The Fermanagh manager has included a few surprise selections for Sunday’s upcoming game, one of which sees 2008 goalkeeper Ronan Gallagher being replaced by Chris Breen.

The introduction of Ryan Keenan, younger brother of Daryl, who will debut at corner forward, will bring some fresh legs to the forwards while Ryan Carson will take the number 14

Shane McCabe will be a big loss to the side after his superb cameo performances in last year’s Ulster campaign. Ryan McCluskey rejoined the panel two weeks ago after playing Irish League football, but will not feature in this Sunday’s game while corner back Shane Goan will not be starting.

Fermanagh keep their experienced defence line but will be missing All-Star Barry Owens, who has not being named in Sunday’s line-up. The Teemore Shamrocks could yet feature as a sub, and his ability to lift the team could prove vital as he demonstrated with a key goal against Derry that lifted Fermanagh to the Ulster final last year. 

 “Barry’s ongoing absence is a big blow, no doubt about that. He is making a recovery now from knee surgery and we have been forced to play without him for a while,” said Fermanagh defender Niall Bogue.

“He is badly missed in every respect, to be honest.  No one will be working harder to make up for the loss of Owens than Bogue, though - after all, he feels he has lost time to make up.”

Meanwhile, Fermanagh’s captain Martin McGrath has recovered from a knee injury and will take his spot at midfield alongside James Sherry. 

Down have several injury worries, the main one being Benny Coulter who remains major doubt. The Mayobridge man has been unable to train due to a heel injury he picked up in the National League final. Liam Doyle will definitely be sidelined for Ross Carr’s side.

Taking into consideration that Down were the only team to give Tyrone a taste of defeat last year, Carr will be hoping that the Mourne men can reproduce that epic performance in Brewster Park.

 “Let’s be honest, teams like Kerry, Tyrone, Galway, Dublin, Cork and Armagh generally do not suffer from away day blues...with the pressures of playing on their opponents’ grounds. The crowd is close to the playing arena at Brewster Park and we know that the home fans can make their voices heard,” said Carr.

Whatever advantages Fermanagh may take from the home venue, Carr predicts this will be outweighed by his own players’ capacity to rise to the occasion.

Skipper Dan Gordon should his position at centre of the field while Declan Rooney, Aidan Carr and Luke Howard will try their best to stop Fermanagh newcomers Daryl Keenan and Ryan Carson.

Down’s strength in finding the net will be a crucial factor for the Fermanagh defense to deal with, while the Down tactic of playing ‘out in front’ will be the deciding factor if Fermanagh succumb to staying behind their men. Fermanagh’s 2008 crusade caused massive upset, getting the upper hand against an experienced Monaghan side.

Malachy O'Rourke has named an experienced Fermanagh side, but the loss of Barry Owens is not going to go unnoticed, whereas Down have been coming for a while and may feel that 2009 could be a big year for them.

The winners will progress to a quarter-final tie with Cavan on June 6th.

Fermanagh: C Breeen; P Sherry, S Lyons; H Brady, D Kelly, S McDermott, T McElroy; M McGrath, J Sherry; R Keenan,C McElroy, M Little; D Keenan, R Carson, E Maguire. Down: TBC Verdict: Down

Leinster SFC First Round

Parnell Park: Carlow v Louth

May 17, 3.30pm

Carlow and Louth get the Leinster SFC off to a low-key start in Parnell Park on Sunday afternoon.

Both sides are coming off the back of underwhelming National League campaigns and will be looking for a morale-boosting Championship win.

Somewhat unfairly, Carlow have been dubbed the weakest team in the competition outside London and New York, although the final National League Division Four standings would appear to back up that assertion.

The Barrowsiders finished ahead of London and perennial strugglers Kilkenny in the table, ending up with just four points having been beaten comprehensively on a number of occasions.

Manager Luke Dempsey, who took over the team this year, has not been helped by a number of withdrawals by key players and his inability to lure Thomas Walsh back to his native county from Wicklow.

As a result, Dempsey has named a callow team short on Championship experience. He has included four newcomers, with Shane Redmond, Ciaran Nolan, Sean Gannon and Shane Myers all set for their first taste of the Championship football.

However, they do look strong in attack, with Mark Carpenter, Derek Hayden and free-taker Enda McCormack providing the nous and experience at this level that is lacking further back the pitch. 

Their manager will be hoping Sunday’s encounter won’t prove as traumatic an experience as when Meath destroyed them at the same stage last year.

Louth go into this game with little to indicate how they are going to perform this summer. They were erratic in Allianz NFL Division Three, winning three and losing four of their matches. Indeed, they were in relegation trouble right down to their final game.

Eamonn McEneaney, the Louth boss, has also been forced to name two debutants in his team, with Padraig Rath and Gerard Hoey included in defence for their first starts in the Championship.

Rath starts despite concerns over his fitness, while midfielder Paddy Keenan also gets the after struggling with injury over the last few weeks.

In attack, Aaron Hoey is ruled out after tearing his hamstring, although McEneaney has a solid full-forward line in the prolific Darren Clarke, Shane Lennon and Colm Judge, who missed much of the league through injury. A sign of their strength is that JP Rooney can only command a spot on the bench.

McEneaney says Carlow deserve respect despite their status as minnows in the competition. 

"We have stood back and taken a good look at Carlow and they have a number of players who have been to a Leinster minor final and an All-Ireland Colleges final with Knockbeg," said McEneaney.

"They are a relatively young side and Luke Dempsey is only starting to make his mark with them. He's only been there a few months, but they improved an awful lot over the course of the league."

Louth, on paper, are a superior outfit to the Barrowsiders, who look short on experience and will have to rely heavily on veteran wing-forward. Carlow’s defence is massively changed from the last few years and with the Louth attack capable of doing damage, it could be a tough first championship game in charge for new manager Dempsey.

Louth: S Reynolds; P Rath, D Finnegan, J O'Brien; D Crilly, M Fanning, G Hoey; B White, P Keenan; R Finnegan, R Carroll, D Reid; C Judge, S Lennon, D Clarke. Carlow: J Clarke; S Myers, J Hayden, C Nolan; S Gannon, B English, S Redmond; J Murphy, W Minchin; B Murphy, D Hayden, JJ Smith; E McCormack, D St Ledger, M Carpenter. Verdict: Louth