The opening day of the senior football season, and indeed the official opening day of 2009 at Gaelic Park, takes place this Sunday, April 19.
The year begins in a very dignified manner with Mass at the Kerry Hall on McLean Avenue at 10 a.m. for all former New York players and their friends. It will be followed by Irish breakfast. Sonny Kenna can be called for information at 914-714-0359.
The games will begin at 1:30 p.m., with Cavan facing off against Four Provinces in the first round of the KO competition. This is a 13 a side tournament, with Leitrim the reigning champions. They defeated Cavan in a thriller on a Tuesday night last season to take their first silverware in some time.
Leitrim will open their defense of that title against Donegal at 3 p.m., while Kerry faces Down at 4:30 p.m. in the final game of the afternoon. All games promise to be entertaining with the added space due to the 13 a side element allowing for free flowing football.
While Cavan, Leitrim and Kerry will be the favorites in their respective games and also favored with the bookies, the hardest game to pick will be the repeat of the county final between Kerry and Down. A betting man would put 20 All-Ireland tickets on Down to reverse the outcome of that game. Down to win by three.
In the bigger picture, where will the championship end up this season? We have had winners and losers in our season projections over the years, but that will not diminish the need to again put the neck on the line and tell the public exactly who will be on top of the mountain when the season is over.
Here goes then for Senior Football 2009:
9. Sligo: A tough season last time for the Yeats Boys, with some heavy losses against serious opposition. This year doesn’t get any easier. Nester Allen and James Huvane were Sligo’s players of the year, but Huvane has moved on to Donegal for 2009. Dermot Fleming, Kevin Caffrey, Niall Moran from Kerry, Thomas Maher and help that always comes from Ireland (they had present Mayo senior Tom Parsons three years ago) will help them cause a shock or two, but that may be it.
8. Four Provinces: The out-of-towners were beaten in the final of the Cavan sevens and also lost in the Senior B final last season, but the shock value has worn off. All the other clubs are up for them now, and the team that won the title for them two years ago will possibly never be matched. It was that good.
Michael Grimes is an excellent backstop. Paul Walsh, the Moores and David Doyle give great service. Mike Higgins and Liam O’Donnell are both injured at the moment, however, and as the past three years have shown it is the sanctions that win titles when combined with a healthy home base. Look for a big win or two in surprises, but no playoff place this season.
7. Donegal: This may be a slot where a mistake may be made. Number six goes to the finals while seven goes home. Donegal have new arrivals already in town with a couple of forwards on show in the Cavan sevens that will change games. C.J. Molloy, Anton Diver, James McFadden, James Huvane and Andrew Donahue will leave all on the field while the 60 days will help immensely.
They have had Padraig Kissane and Thomas Deehan in years gone by, and they are excellent choices. Their aspirations this year may hinge on the results they get against the top three.
6. Down: The first quarterfinal slot this season goes to Down. Last year was a whirlwind of success, and they would have had the title if they fired the ball into Patrick Downey and Fergal Shannon in the last three minutes of the final against Kerry, instead of overplaying it in the middle of the park.
They still have a serious panel, but the surprise element is well and truly gone. Robbie Moran, Mark Dobbins, Sean Munnelly, Gary Cornyn and Liam Farrell are a great starting nucleus, with Downey on his way back to New York. Will it be enough? All the other sides will be up for the Mournemen this season, with each game akin to a cup final. Hard to play one of those every week.
5. Cavan: Senior B Champions in 2008, they return Paddy Smyth, Declan Fitzpatrick, Alan Caralon, Brendan Reilly and Martin O’Connor from that squad. Kevin Smith has returned across the pond after a brilliant year at the Mecca. He will need to be replaced from Ireland to help Cavan climb the totem pole.
They are very capable of providing stunning results in the championship. They hammered Down in the KO semifinal last season. But it’s consistence that is required to win the big one. A playoff spot is attainable, however.
4. Leitrim: Paddy Kearney is the man in charge with Leitrim as they strive to get back to the mountain top after a decade long absence. The team of the nineties have promised a lot in this decade but achieved little. A knockout title to go with defeats in finals will not be enough for Kearney. He brings a proven winning streak with him, and help from Ireland will be impressive if past years are anything to go by.
Dan Doona, Alan Foley, the O’Connors, Pa Ryan, Michael Travers, along with Lonon Maguire and Dermot Keane, give them a solid home base. They will make it to the semis, but it is there that the stakes get far higher. They will make it extremely hard work, however, for the team that beats them.
3. Tyrone: All conquering in 2008 at the Junior A level, many felt if that team was playing at senior they would have been top three. They get an opportunity now to prove themselves, with Gerard McCullough, Marty Hamill, Barry McElduff and the Skeffingtons leading the way.
The sanctions they had last year were tremendous, with Gary Reilly one of the best footballers on show at the park. Word is he is coming back for more.
The strongest aspect of their play last season was their teamwork. They out-hustled and out worked all opponents. They will certainly have the desire coming into the new season and will be there or thereabout at the end.
2. Kerry: The champions will be looking to go on another run of history after the brilliant displays of 2008. Despite numerous problems in the boardroom, Kerry the team let nothing upset them as they lost only one championship encounter on the field against Down. They reversed that in the most important way.
Stephen Kavanagh is returning to help in the repeat cause, and the Magicman had no equal last year. Add to the mix Niall Corbett, Shane Clifford and Vinnie Gavin and the further help that will come from Ireland, and you have one of the top two in New York. Very hard to wrestle away the mantle from the Kingdom, and they will not be in a generous mood this season.
And the winners are … County Cork
">Cork. They were the regular season champions last season but that will stand for nothing. They took home the seven a side Cavan title but that will be set aside come September.
It is all about winning the big one this year for Cork. They have not sat atop since 1955, and the wait will be over this season.
Further help to come from Ireland by way of Clare or Cork will make them a tough nut to crack. It adds up to a team that will take home the title possibly undefeated as they improve as the year goes on and the side gels.