The Connacht Football Championship is the first competition to get underway every year with the annual trip to New York.
Galway got their campaign off to a winning start on the east coast of America, and the trip out of Ireland will continue with London completing the contingent of non-Irish-based teams competing for Sam Maguire.
Following on from part 1 of our countdown, which previewed the Ulster Championship – we now look ahead to the 2015 Connacht Football Championship.
The Connacht championship has been dominated by the green and red of Mayo in recent history – they have won four titles on the bounce, some of them in a comfortable manner. They still haven’t managed to end their years of heartbreak by going all the way and finally fulfilling the ‘Mayo For Sam’ campaigns, which are popping up earlier and earlier every year.
But while Mayo have dominated at senior level, things have been changing at underage level and for these reasons, Connacht looks like it may be a very competitive provincial championship in 2015. Roscommon and Galway have either won or contested All-Ireland under-21 titles over the last few years and it looks like they may be ready to push Mayo closer than they have in recent years.
Mayo will rightly start out as favourites to lift their fifth Connacht title in a row but they will have to work hard to retain their title. Every man and its dog knows that the All-Ireland title is the only one that Mayo really want to get their hands on. They certainly won’t refuse a Connacht title and a more straight forward passage through the front-door, but it won’t be their one and only aim.
A lot of outsiders will see this as being Mayo’s toughest Connacht campaign in a while. They have had some close run-ins over their run to four-in-a-row but there is a chance now that Galway and Roscommon may have a bigger say than usual and Mayo will probably have to beat both if they are to reign supreme again.
Mayo still possess some of Ireland’s best footballers. The likes of Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Lee Keegan, Aidan O’Shea, Seamus O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor will pose big threats to any opposition and they could easily lead Mayo to another provincial crown.
Galway have won two All-Ireland under-21 titles in the last five years but are yet to bring any of this to the senior ranks. They have made no impression on the Connacht Championship and have fallen victim to some poor results against Mayo as well as a shock defeat to Sligo in 2012.
They look to be an improving side. They gave a decent showing against Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final last year and have some talented footballers in their side in the likes of Shane Walsh and Paul Conroy. Corofin winning the All-Ireland club title this year should also add some steal and belief to their group.
It is a big year for Galway. It is likely that they will use the Connacht championship as a means of developing confidence and momentum. A win in Connacht would mean a lot to Galway having struggled for the last few years in the province, so we think they should and will be targeting provincial success.
There is a certain degree of hype surrounding Roscommon at the moment. A lot of it is coming from underage success in recent years, coupled with an All-Ireland club success for St. Brigids and now they won Division 2 of the National Football League to gain a place in the top division to compete with the country’s leading teams next season.
But before next season’s campaign in Division 1, there is the small matter of this summer’s championship. Like Galway, the Rossies will be more than likely be looking to win silverware through the province to build-up their season. They have avoided both Mayo and Galway, so a place in the Connacht final would the minimum expectation.
John Evans has received a lot of plaudits for the job he has done in Roscommon so far. They have some very dangerous forwards in Senan Kilbride, Donie Shine, Diarmuid Murtagh and Enda Smith. They are a side that a lot of people will watch closely this year and a provincial title is within their means.
As has almost become the norm, a qualifier run beckons for Leitrim, who will be looking to win a competitive game of some sort to see their season as a relative success. They will be up against the odds in their opening game with Galway where a win is highly unlikely.
Leitrim also must face into this season without their talisman, Emlyn Mulligan. He will be a massive loss to any hope they had of putting any sort of championship run together. One win would probably be seen as a success for Leitrim, and they will need a favourable draw to secure one.
A few years back they were a very competitive team in Connacht but their shock defeat to London in 2013 has seen the wheels come off for Sligo. They have struggled since then in Connacht and in the championship as a whole. Now that Galway and Roscommon look to be catching up with Mayo, it will be interesting to see how Sligo will compete this year.
They fell a long way short to a regressing Cork team in last year’s qualifiers, having lost to Galway in Connacht. Their 2015 league campaign saw three wins and four losses in Division 3. So recent history does not overly favour Sligo.
Back in 2009, Sligo were a last minute penalty away from knocking the eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry out of the championship. It is hard to see anything close to a repeat of that for 2015. But they have had tendencies to cause upsets in the past, so maybe it should not be ruled out.
They came from absolutely nowhere to become one of the stories of the 2013 football championship when they beat Sligo and Leitrim to qualify for a Connacht final. While they were well beaten by Mayo, they still got a day out in Croke Park in their qualifier game with Cavan, where their season ended.
It was a massive shock for London to get so far, and a very admirable story, but it looks highly-unlikely that a similar fairytale will occur any time soon. They had been threatening a shock for a while in the Connacht Championship and then to pull off two in a year was something special.
Back-to-back defeats in 2014 saw no repeat of their 2013 success story and it would be highly unlikely that Roscommon will slip up in the first round in Ruislip. After that it will be a qualifier run and a lot of teams would like to be drawn against the men from across the Irish Sea.
Leitrim v Galway
London v Roscommon
Mayo v Galway / Leitrim
Sligo v London / Roscommon
PA Prediction: Roscommon to beat Mayo in the final.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena