THE championship starts for real this Saturday.Here, we run the rule over 16 of the better teams in the country and use our GAA manager tally system to work out each manager's success ratio.
Manager (Championship win %): Terry Hyland (60%)
Cavan ought to be in the foothills of a golden era but the cut-throats they have been lumped in with on the tough side of the Ulster draw will test that theory to its limits.
They are blessed with great young talent – Killian Clarke the best of the lot, if you’re asking us – so it would be nice to see Terry Hyland remove the shackles of their ugly negativity, particularly as it has not served them all that well on their past two trips to Croke Park.
It is more likely that they will continue to go safety-first, however. That ought to be enough for another win against Armagh, but after that, attempting to win an arm wrestle rather than taking teams on might cost them games they might have won, as it did last year against Monaghan.
Verdict: Ulster semi-finalists.
Manager: Brian Cuthbert
The glass-half-full perspective: outside of Dublin, no county has more exciting young footballers, particularly up front, where Brian Hurley was the most impressive attacker in the country during the league.
For some reason, a lot of people are more likely to mention Kerry as All-Ireland contenders than Cork, which is baffling given the contrast in quality between the counties’ production lines and the fact that the Munster final is slated for the Pairc. Cork are highly likely to begin a new period of southern dominance.
For those Rebels hoping for glory beyond Munster, the container takes on a more drained appearance. Cork’s midfield is simply not good enough, particularly given Aidan Walsh’s terrible cameo against Dublin, which might be taken as sound evidence that no party will benefit from his and Eoin Cadogan’s decision to do battle on two fronts.
At least the draw presents a Dublin-free path to September, but the naivety evident in the league is likely to lead Cork to defeat against a more streetwise team, such as Mayo.
Verdict: Munster champions, All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Manager: Brian McIver (50%)
There is no shame in any county losing a championship match to Donegal but if that is to be Derry’s lot, we will have to listen to an awful lot of annoying talk from people who believe one game can undo the good work of the previous nine.
They have home advantage against McGuinness’ men but in a tight championship game, Donegal’s greater spread of match-winning forwards might prove crucial.
At least McIver’s Derry could be trusted to take the qualifiers seriously, and if they do end up there, it would be nice to see such an honest team frank their spring form.
Verdict: Ulster and All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: Jim McGuinness (83%)
The departure of Mark McHugh from an already shallow squad and their failure to keep pace with Monaghan in Croke Park have grabbed the headlines, but is there really so much to be despondent about?
Almost every other county can only dream about the possibility of fielding three score-getters of the quality of Colm McFadden, Patrick McBrearty and Michael Murphy.
It is also easy to forget that Donegal were so many people’s All-Ireland fancy about nine months ago, and that they might have won a third Ulster title running had McFadden not had such an uncharacteristic off-day in Clones.
Of real concern is the sense that they have lost the discipline that characterised them in 2012, with Rory Kavanagh’s league final sending off the latest evidence. Still, it is not hard to imagine a successful raid on Celtic Park.
Verdict: Ulster finalists, All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: James McCartan (62%)
I’m one of those people that can’t help reflecting on the team that Down might have rather than the one they do. If they could call on Martin Clarke, Dan Gordon, Danny Hughes, Caolan Mooney and Paul McComiskey, they would be at least a last-eight team.
As it is, Mark Poland is perhaps their only outstanding starter, given that Benny Coulter looks likely to begin on the bench on Sunday. And even if they were to pull off a 2008-style surprise against Tyrone, their half of the Ulster draw is too tough for there to be much possibility of an end to their shocking 20-year wait for the Anglo-Celt Cup.
Verdict: Defeat in Omagh to be followed by a third- or fourth-round qualifier exit.
Manager: Jim Gavin (100%)
From Kerry 1982 to Kerry 2002 to Donegal in the run-up to last year’s Ulster final, history is littered with sure things that have collapsed to defeat when pressure is applied.
Still, a more favourable comparison with Kerry’s best ever team is that they were probably the last to create as many goal chances as the Dubs do now. The clearest area where the champions can improve is in the amount of those opportunities they take; a few Dublin players keeping a cooler head when through on goal would spell disaster for many an opponent.
What can derail them? Well, they may have replacements in most positions, but injuries or suspensions to players such as Stephen Cluxton or Michael Darragh Macauley would leave them weaker. Any team that could manage to win more than half the kick-outs in a given match would also put more pressure on Dublin to take their chances.
Both scenarios are highly unlikely and the lack of genuine rivals to Jim Gavin’s team mean there is only one conclusion we can draw.
Verdict: Leinster and All-Ireland champions.
Manager: Alan Mulholland (50%)
The time for excuses is long over for the most under-achieving football county in Ireland. The glimmer of promise from last year’s qualifier run was extinguished by a truly awful league campaign that leaves them with no great optimism ahead of the championship.
However, barring disaster in Ruislip or against Sligo, they have a path to the last 12 of the championship. If they don’t produce at least one decent performance from that point on, serious questions have to be asked about how a county with the pick of two All-Ireland U21 winning sides can possibly win so few championship games.
Verdict: Connacht finalists.
Manager: Eamonn Fitzmaurice (80%)
Fitzmaurice has shown in the face of great adversity that he is a shrewd manager, guiding Kerry to within a couple of minutes of an All-Ireland final last autumn and overcoming a plethora of bad luck to keep the Kingdom in the top flight this spring.
He is not a magician, though, and Colm Cooper’s injury spelled the end of any realistic ambition of going a step or two further this year. He had already lost a platoon’s worth of warriors and Marc O Se will probably follow them after this season.
It all leaves Kerry too short of talent, even given a strengthened midfield and James O’Donoghue’s incredible improvement over the past year or so. The only real hope of toppling their rivals would lie in the return of Tommy Walsh from Sydney, but the fact that they are left to look to the past for serious additions underlines the likelihood that a few bleak seasons lie ahead.
Verdict: Munster finalists, All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: Jason Ryan (52%)
An utter lack of competent leadership in the county means the Lilies have not only lost the competitiveness that characterised Kieran McGeeney’s first four years in charge, but have also retained the disunity that surfaced after heavy defeats to Cork and Dublin in his last two.
Jason Ryan appeared to improve their attacking flair during the league but this was accompanied by a distressing inability to defend. The county has not ripped itself in two just to get a slightly worse manager.
The silver lining is an array of promising footballers such as David Hyland, Niall Kelly and Paddy Brophy might just be good enough to inspire them to a showdown with Dublin they are not ready for.
Verdict: Leinster finalists.
Manager: Tomas O Flatharta (44%)
Laois attracted even more pitiful attendances than usual in the league this year, which is hard to fathom for a team that pushed the All-Ireland champions to three points two years ago. Then again, given the departure of some players after the Louth defeat last year, can the supporters really be blamed for staying away?
That backdrop makes the continued excellence of Padraig McMahon and Ross Munnelly all the more admirable, and John O’Loughlin and Donie Kingston showed in the league that they are perhaps ready to deliver on their potential.
Laois have injury problems in defence, with Mark Timmons and Denis Booth out, and that makes their trip to Aughrim, where they will attempt to win their first Leinster championship game since 2011, all the more daunting. Getting through that and showing some pride in the jersey against Dublin is the best they can hope for.
Verdict: Leinster quarter-finalists.
Manager: James Horan (87%)
Why the long faces? When a more humdrum era comes, Mayo fans might reflect that getting to follow a team that wins almost nine out of 10 of its championship games was not such a bad deal.
Yes, there were no compelling discoveries during the league, save for Jason Gibbons showing that he is good enough to provide yet another midfield option.
But they were never going to pull All-Stars from nowhere in a matter of months. And with Lee Keegan as good as ever, Kevin McLoughlin in 2012 form, Ger Cafferkey solid, Keith Higgins and Aidan O’Shea knowing no betters, and Cillian O’Connor still racking up the scores, the need for them to find footballers has been greatly exaggerated.
Mayo are clearly the second-best team in the country and cutting out the concession of silly goals and building on the ability to stifle Dublin they displayed this spring would leave them awfully close to glory.
A more likely probability is that 63 years of waiting and wishing will turn to 64.
Verdict: All-Ireland finalists.
Manager: Mick O’Dowd (50%)
It says it all about falling standards in the Royal County that making a Leinster final from the weak side of the draw and being reasonably competitive thereafter represented success.
Satisfaction levels will drop, however, if that feat is not repeated. Their likely semi-final against Kildare would be a 50-50 game. Meath are the more stable of the two counties these days, but on the debit side, they have lost a potent weapon with Eamonn Wallace’s injury.
As well as that, they will not have a serious warm-up, unless Carlow pull a performance from nowhere. That might lead to a fatal lack of sharpness for O’Dowd’s charges.
Verdict: Leinster semi-finalists.
Manager: Malachy O’Rourke (50%)
The league could not have gone much better but now, as rehearsals close and show time nears, there is the sense that things could not be going much worse.
Conor McManus will miss at least their championship opener, Kieran Hughes has picked up an annoying hand injury, and Owen Lennon is also a major doubt.
There is more to Monaghan than McManus but they are most likely playing Tyrone, and the scale of that task would be daunting enough with all hands on deck.
The silver lining is that they are good and determined enough to make that game an epic tussle regardless of the personnel available, and to rebound should defeat to Mickey Harte’s team prove their lot yet again.
Verdict: Ulster and All-Ireland quarter-finalists.
Manager: John Evans (17%)
Evans and Roscommon are at the point where the promise of underage and now league success must be translated into championship results.
In their favour is a strong defensive spine and attacking options, even if these are offset by a weak midfield.
Success this year should include comfortably dealing with fired-up Leitrim, living with Mayo for 40 or more minutes, and reaping a meaningful qualifier win or two. Failure will lead to fresh doubts about their manager, league title or not.
Verdict: Connacht semi-finalists.
Manager: Mickey Harte (74%)
An inconsistent spring campaign and a path to Ulster glory that consists of Down, Monaghan and probably Cavan and Donegal or Derry means that uncertainty again surrounds the Red Hands.
But do not forget that only the top teams have dumped them from the championship in recent seasons (Mayo, Dublin, Kerry) and that last year included convincing and hard-earned wins against three teams just below the elite (Kildare, Monaghan, Meath).
Any improvement on that must be based on the hope that young forwards such as Ronan O’Neill and Kyle Coney supplying the sort of cutting edge that only Darren McCurry hinted at in 2013. There were glimpses in the league, not least in Coney’s display against Cork, that suggest this is a realistic ambition, and therefore Tyrone can negotiate the toughest route through the toughest province.
Verdict: Ulster champions, All-Ireland semi-finalists.
Manager: Paul Bealin (38%)
If Pat Flanagan was ditched because excellent league results were accompanied by below-average returns in championship, then how will Paul Bealin be viewed if his team fails in both competitions?
Those circumstances mean defeat to Louth this Saturday would be a disaster. But Westmeath are good enough to win that game, particularly as they have shown signs in recent challenge games that seven hammerings in the league has not damaged their self-belief beyond repair.
With a win under their belts, they would be a danger to Kildare in the quarter-finals, but another underwhelming summer is a more likely outcome than glory. That would prompt the obvious question of why they traded a competent manager for one with an unimpressive record.
Verdict: Leinster quarter-finalists.