The first round of the 2019 GAA National Football Leagues commences on Saturday, January 26th. Last year saw Dublin regain the Division 1 Title, while Roscommon, Armagh and Laois won Divisions 2, 3 and 4, respectively.
The big talking point for this year’s competitions is the introduction of the new rules. They have been in place for the pre-season tournaments, with the 3-hand pass rule causing particular confusion for referees. As a result of this, the Central Council has rejected the implementation of the hand pass limit. The other four new rules will apply in this year’s NFL, but not championship.
This promises to be a very intriguing division after a number of managerial changes over the winter.
Peter Keane, who has played down the importance of the league, has taken the reigns at Kerry. James Horan has been re-appointed as the Mayo manager, a team who will be looking to improve on last year’s disappointing season.
Interestingly, former Galway Hurling manager Anthony Cunningham has taken over from Kevin McStay as the new Roscommon manager. Also, Mickey Graham, who famously led Mullinalaghta, a half-parish with a total population of 440, to a first ever Leinster Senior Club Championship, is the new Cavan Manager.
Although newly-promoted teams Cavan and Roscommon have appointed two very ambitious managers, I can see them both struggling against the elite counties.
I fancy both of them to go down this year. Malachy O’Rourke’s Monaghan are another team that could be loitering around the drop zone. The Farney men are entering their fifth year in Division 1 and I think this experience will help them do just enough to retain their status.
Even with all the new appointments, it is very hard to look past the Jim Gavin Machine that is Dublin. I expect them to retain this year’s Division 1 league title and my prediction is that they will beat a revitalised Mayo in the final. Tyrone and last year’s finalists Galway are two teams that shouldn’t be too far away from booking a final place also.
Winners – Dublin at 8/15
Possibly the toughest of all 4 divisions to predict.
It may seem that the reigning Ulster Champions Donegal, who were quite unlucky to be relegated from Division 1 last year, should be very strong favourites to win this competition.
However, they will be without quite a few of their key players for the first few rounds, most notably Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty, who are both recovering from injuries. They will also be without the Gaoth Dobhair contingent, who will not join up with the squad until at least the 4th round of the league.
Having said all this, with all of these players likely to return around the business end of the league, I expect them to have enough quality to win Division 2.
My dark horses for this highly competitive division are Armagh.
Aside from Donegal, they seem to be the team with the most momentum after their Division 3 triumph last year and a very promising McKenna Cup campaign over the past few weeks.
Kildare would be a lot of people’s favourites to go straight back up with Donegal after making the Super 8’s last year. However, without their powerful full-forward Daniel Flynn, who has opted out of the Kildare set-up for this year, I think Kieran McGeeney’s charges can pip them to a top-two finish.
Kildare play Armagh in Newbridge in the first round of the league and the winners of that game should be well set up for the rest of the campaign.
At the other end of the table I can see Clare really struggling. Fermanagh will be dogged and hard to beat but I can’t see them picking up enough wins to stay in this division. Out-of-sorts Meath and Cork could both be looking over their shoulders come the end of the league also.
Relegation – Clare and Fermanagh both at 8/11 each
New, highly-regarded Down manager Paddy Tally should help the Mourne men return to Division 2 next year. They will face stiff competition from the likes of Westmeath and Laois.
The second final spot is harder to call. John Sugrue’s Laois have been making great strides after winning Division 4 last year. However, I think Westmeath will pip them for promotion, with a lot depending on how prolific star man John Heslin can be.
In terms of relegation to Division 4, Sligo will be without last year’s captain Kevin McDonnell and the experienced duo of David Kelly and Ross Donovan for 2019, which should see them face the drop.
Longford and Louth are the two other teams I can see struggling. Louth had a nightmare year in 2018 under Pete McGrath, losing every game in Division 2. However, I think new manager Wayne Kierans should get enough out of this group of players not to suffer successive relegations.
Longford had a poor O’Byrne Cup campaign and will be without their Mullinalaghta contingent for at least half of the league so they could be destined for Division 4.
Winners – Down at 2/1
Runners Up (Promotion) – Westmeath at 13/8, Down at 10/11 to be promoted
Relegation – Longford at 10/3 and Sligo at 7/4
Derry are odds on to win Division 4 and I think their price is vindicated. They should really have too much for the rest of the opposition. It’s hard to believe that Derry were in the Division 1 Final in 2014.
They have suffered back-to-back relegations in the past two campaigns, so I feel that the only way is up for the Oak-Leaf County.
The big question in Division 4 is who will join Derry in the final. I think this will be a close run thing between Wexford and Antrim. I’m going to side with Wexford because, in the higher grade of Division 3 last year, they only really suffered one comprehensive beating, which ironically was away to Derry.
I think Derry will be too good for them in this year’s Division 4 Final also.
Winners – Derry at 1/2
Runners Up – Wexford at 15/8
All prices correct at time of publication