Over the next two months, 32 counties will go to battle week in, week out as the Allianz Football League gets underway.
As teams prepare for the white heat of Championship come summer time, the league presents an opportunity for promotion, silverware and an early-season-run out in Croke Park.
Whilst the prize on offer is great, the threat of relegation looms large as counties fight it out to remain as high up the divisions as possible. There are no guarantees in the league with Derry proving a prime example. Only five years ago the Oak Leaf county steamrolled their way to the Division One final before falling to Dublin. Five years later they stare down the barrel of the basement division (four) as the journey to climb back up begins.
Ahead of the opening round, fans should keep an eye out on these four men across the divisions as they attempt to steer their respective counties to victory in Round 1.
Diarmuid O’Connor (Mayo)
The Ballintubber man is well known to supporters by now. An ever-present figure in this Mayo side since his debut in 2015. O’Connor amassed two Young Footballer of the Year awards in his first two seasons.
However, throughout O’Connor’s run in the senior side he has been deployed at wing-forward, and whilst he has clearly done a stellar job, anyone in Ballintubber will tell you that he is a natural midfielder.
O’Connor starred at midfield as Mayo won the All-Ireland minor title in 2013. He dominated centrefield for Ballintubber as they collected a Mayo title last year (scoring a last-minute winner in the final). He was also the only shining light on a bleak day for Mayo football as they were dumped out last year’s Championship by Kildare.
Due to the presence of Seamus O’Shea and Tom Parsons, O’Connor has been used elsewhere, but with Parsons still injured O’Connor is named to start at midfield this evening as Mayo take on rivals Roscommon.
Don’t be surprised if the younger O’Connor brother shines, and makes a name for himself in 2019 as one of the top midfielders in Ireland.
Stefan Campbell (Armagh)
The Clan na Gael club man returned to the Armagh fold this season following a year out in 2018 and the classy forward will be looking to force his way back into an Orchard County side that isn’t exactly short of options up-front.
Campbell starred for Kieran McGeeney’s side throughout their run to the McKenna Cup final this month where they were defeat by Tyrone picking up two Man of the Match awards in a week following victories over Donegal and Monaghan.
Has been used largely in the half-forward line throughout his Armagh career, but is seen by many as an out and out full-forward.
Despite his extended absence last season, Campbell is still viewed as a senior player on the team and fans in the Orchard County are excited at the prospect of a full-forward line containing Campbell, Jamie Clarke and Andrew Murnin come Championship time.
Graham Brody (Laois)
The Portlaois shot-stopper was a key cog in a resurgent Laois side last season. John Sugrue’s side started the last season by climbing out of the fourth division. Early-season silverware was backed up by a come from behind victory over Wexford in the first round of the Championship that sparked a run towards an unexpected Leinster final.
Throughout their successful 2018, Brody was arguably the sides most consistent performer. Had it not been for a number of Brody saves against Dublin, the Leinster final would have looked worse.
Not only is Brody a first-class shot-stopper, but he also operates as a ‘fly-keeper’. His marauding runs up the field were lauded last season and eventually earned him an All-Star nomination.
If Laois are to make it two promotions in a row they will need another top year from Brody, and that starts with a trip to Esler Pairc this evening to take on Down.
Chrissy McKaigue (Derry)
As previously stated, Derry football reached a low ebb last season when they were relegated to Division Four of the Allianz Football League.
Derry’s inter-county struggles seemed to go hand in hand with Slaughtneil’s rise. Since their Division One final appearance in 2014, Slaughtneil have won four county championships, three Ulster club championships and appeared in two All-Ireland club finals. It would be fair to say that the county side felt the loss of the Slaughtneil contingent throughout their successful run.
With Gaoth Dobhair proving to be Ulster’s new sheriff in town. The Slaughtneil men are back on board form get-go in 2019 as Derry look to begin their ascent back up the leagues.
If there is one player who can inspire this team, it is talisman Chrissy McKaigue. Whether it is at full-back, centre-back, midfield or even in hurling, McKaigue is a leader of men, and on his day one of the best defenders in Ireland, as shown by his man-marking performance against Diarmuid Connolly in the All-Ireland club semi-final of 2017.
On that particular day, McKaigue managed to not only out-play Connolley – who was widely regarded as the best in the country at that time – but also out-score the Dublin ace.
McKaigue has rightfully been named Derry’s captain this year, and it is clear there is no better man.