The action begins this weekend in Connacht as four of the seven counties bidding to land the Nestor Cup go head-to-head.
With three division one teams, including this year’s the league finalists, current provincial holders and last year’s All-Ireland finalists, Connacht looks to be one of the most exciting championships on this summer’s agenda.
Leitrim go into the Connacht championship on the back of a disappointing league campaign during which they lost the opening three games, gave London a walkover and saw their final game against Waterford cancelled.
This was hardly ideal preparation for a tricky opener against a New York side that have shown major signs of improvement in recent years.
The return of Emlyn Muligan to the ranks will be a major boost for Brendan Guckian’s side that will hope to recapture the form that saw them post 2-15 and 2-18 against Wicklow and Limerick respectively in the latter stages of the league.
What to expect
Leitrim may not harbor realistic ambitions of lifting a provincial title in 2018 but they will certainly want to avoid defeat against a New York team that have never won a championship game.
“Leitrim will always have that (fear of getting caught). You’d be trying to instill that into players,” said selector Seamus Quinn to RTÉ Sport.
“Of course, they are looking at Leitrim as one of the weakest counties in Connacht so they’ll be saying this is their chance. We are trying to make our players very aware of that,” he added.
While Leitrim successfully negotiated an opening round trip to London last year, poor form that saw them win just two league games this year makes them very vulnerable to a fastly improving New York team.
Despite hammering New York 4-19 to 0-07 in the same fixture five years ago, both teams have changed significantly and this could indeed be a short Connacht championship for the team that has only ever won two provincial titles.
Key Player: Emlyn Mulligan
The return of the experience wing-forward Mulligan will be essential to Leitrim’s hopes of progression in the championship.
Mulligan featured in the last two games of the league after a 10-month cruciate injury absence giving Leitrim a much-needed cutting edge up front ahead of the Connacht campaign.
One to watch: Domhnaill Flynn
Midfielder Domhnaill Flynn is one of three debutants entering the fray for Leitrim on Sunday.
The Mohill clubman did not feature in the league but starred for the Juniors that won the Connacht championship last year and will give his side some extra exuberance around the middle third.
London kick off their Connacht championship by welcoming Sligo to Ruislip as they hope to repeat the 2013 triumph over the Yeats county.
The Exiles had a mixed league campaign winning one, drawing one and losing four with the last game against Leitrim written off as a dead rubber.
With an ever-growing Irish presence in England’s capital, London are striving to reach a level that allows them to consistently compete.
What to expect
Having reached the Connacht final in 2013, the Londoners have failed to build on it but they will see the visit of a vulnerable Sligo as another opportunity to cause a shock.
Despite the limitations in terms of resources, London will provide a stern task for the visitors from Sligo as they continue to work in unique inter-county circumstances.
“We feel some of the work we are doing here would be punching up there with the big boys in Ireland, it’s just that with some of the limitations in terms of resources, it takes a bit more time to come to fruition,” said Ross Bennett, who works alongside manager Ciaran Deely.
“We’re doing stuff that is on par with top elite academies and I’m not sure every county team is getting that kind of set-up, so hopefully it can come out on the pitch,” he added.
The Exiles however failed to impress in the league and it is unlikely that Sligo will be caught again in the same manner as 2013.
For London, a a favorable qualifier draw may be their best hope for exposure this year.
Key Player: Liam Gavaghan
Gavaghan, one of seven London-born players that are likely to start on Sunday has been one of the most consistent performers for the Exiles over the last number of seasons.
New York go into the Connacht championship with the shortest odds (around 11/8) to win a championship game ever with optimism growing that their 20th attempt will be a successful one.
The acquisition of former Armagh sharpshooter Jamie Clarke has boosted manger Justin O’ Halloran’s options ahead of a clash with Leitrim on Sunday.
Despite falling to a 1-21 to 1-13 defeat to Sligo in last year’s championship, O’Halloran’s side showed signs of improvement and a recent challenge match win over All-Ireland club champions Corofin suggests that they will be at the races this year.
What to expect
New York are not likely to get a better chance to register a win against a struggling Leitrim side who had a poor league campaign.
With the likes of Clarke, Mayo’s Tom Cunniffe, Dalton McDonagh of Meath and Roscommon’s Neil Collins, they boast a quality that was not there in the past.
While New York’s aspirations may not be equal to that of their rivals in Connacht, a first championship win is a realistic target this year.
“Personally, it would be my best day on a football field ever,” said Justin O’Halloran to the Irish Times.
“I know for a few of the lads, they would have had bigger days at home. But as a group together, it would be absolutely huge,” added the man who played in that first game 20 season ago.
With optimism brewing in the Big Apple, this could be the year for the New Yorkers to cause a stir in the Connacht championship.
Key Player: Jamie Clarke
2017 All-Star nominee Jamie Clarke is likely to have a major impact on New York’s championship after opting out of Kieran McGeeney’s plans for this year.
The dynamic attacker will provide quality in the forward line that New York have been lacking in recent years.
One to watch: Dalton McDonagh
Former Meath forward Dalton McDonagh adds another dimension to the New York attack and alongside Clarke, the ex-Na Fianna man will be an essential part of what could be a monumental season for Justin O’Halloran’s side.
Sligo embark on the provincial campaign with a tricky fixture away to London where they were humbled in 2013 with the Exiles going on to reach the Connacht final.
The Yeats county saved their division 3 status in the league with a final day victory over Derry and will be hoping to book their place in a semi-final against the winners of Mayo/Galway at the expense of the Londoners.
While they had a mediocre league, manager Cathal Corey did manage to blood some of last year’s U21 Connacht finalists.
What to expect
Similar to the position of Leitrim, Sligo go into the game on foreign soil hoping to avoid defeat against what may be considered as an unknown quantity.
Luke Nicholson and Liam Gaughan will make their first Championship appearances as Corey continues to search for a balance between youth and experience.
According to veteran attacker Adrian Marren, Sligo are acutely aware of the danger of falling to the same fate as 2013 against the Londoners.
“We underperformed that day and they performed and we took them for granted slightly,” Marren admitted to RTÉ Sport.
“They got the result and had a great summer that year.”
“Everyone wants to get a small bit of revenge. We were known for the first team to get done over in London.
“We don’t want to be that team again. London are on their home pitch and have had five or six home games.
“They have a great set-up with their manager and we know we’re in for a ferocious battle.”
While London will undoubtedly pose a major cahllenge to the Sligo men, it is unlikely that we will see a repeat fo the 2013 drama.
Key player: Adrian Marren
After a spate of high profile retirements over the past year, the experience of full-forward Adrian Marren will be crucial for Sligo’s campaign.
The veteran, who made his debut in 2004 will spearhead the attack and provide much-needed guidance for the new faces in Cathal Corey’s outfit.
One to watch: Sean Carabine
Described by Marren as “the future of Sligo,” Sean Carabine is one of the brightest young prospects coming out of Sligo.
The attacker’s Connacht campaign will begin with a head-to-head clash with his brother David, who will line out for London.
Connacht Senior Football Championship Fixtures
New York v Leitrim, Sunday May 6th 7.15pm, Gaelic Grounds New York
London v Sligo, Sunday May 6th 3.30pm, McGovern Park Ruislip
Mayo v Galway, Sunday May 13th 4.00 pm, MacHale Park Castelbar
Leitrim/New York v Roscommon, Saturday May 26th 7.00pm
Mayo/Galway v London/Sligo, Sunday June 3rd 3.30pm
Semi-final winner v semi-final winner, Sunday June 17th 4.00pm
Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.