With Dublin going for a 13th Leinster title in 14 seasons, the footballing landscape in the province has probably never looked so bleak.
The dominance of the Dubs sees most counties enter the championship with altered expectations but nonetheless, this weekend throws up some interesting pairs that will make for a very competitive first round of action.
The Carlow footballers have had a remarkable 12 months and there has never been such cause for optimism Barrowside.
Last year’s championship saw a revival of fortunes that made Turlough O’Brien’s side one of the stories of the summer.
A win against Wexford and a credible performance against All-Ireland champions Dublin primed Carlow for the qualifiers where they took care of London and Leitrim before falling to Monaghan in round 3.
They then followed it up with promotion from Division 4 of the league for the first time in 33 years, winning six games from seven before falling to Laois in the Croke Park decider.
The Scallion Eaters will go into Sunday’s clash with Louth in full expectation that they can cause another stir in Leinster this summer.
What to expect
Carlow have become comfortable with O’Brien’s ultra-defensive system that has seen them find a new competitiveness across the board.
The loss of star midfielder Brendan Murphy, who opted to move to the US this summer is a hammer blow to the county
However, after an impressive league campaign, the side will be confident that they have found a consistency of performance that will severe them well going into the Louth clash.
“The most promising thing that we took from the league is that last year wasn’t just a flash in the pan. We were able to bring that consistency into the league,” said captain John Murphy to RTÉ Radio 1.
“In previous leagues, we were able to beat some good teams but then we’d let ourselves down. We’d win three or four games but then we’d lose two. We were finishing third and fourth in the league over the last few seasons. It was so pleasing to play in the league and get promoted,” he added.
While Carlow may pose problems for Louth on Sunday, the loss of their one marquee player may put restrict their ability to put a similar championship run to 2017 together this summer.
Key Player: Paul Broderick
One to watch: Daniel St Ledger
Offaly go into this year’s Leinster championship after a dramatic league campaign that say them save their division 3 status with a final day win against Westmeath.
Stephen Wallace’s side lost the first four games of the league before beating Wexford and drawing with Sligo before the final day heroics.
While expectations in the Leinster championship may not be the same as in previous years, the Offaly men will be in buoyant mood after rounding off an exciting league campaign.
What to expect
While the year did not start well for the Offaly men, they will go into the clash with Wicklow with some momentum.
18-year-old star Cian Johnson had been a revelation for the Offaly men during the league but the Leaving Cert student will be unable to line out on Sundy due to an internal rule that commits him to the U-20 competition.
However, since Offaly’s great escape in division 3, the squad has been boosted by the addition of Cathal Mangan, Karl Dunne, Stephen Wrenn and Ruairi McNamee.
Despite the daunting prospect the winners playing the all-conquering Dublin, Offaly are looking no further than Sunday’s clash, according to team captain Anton Sullivan.
“Nothing else matters, only Wicklow on Sunday for this group of players,” said Sullivan to local media.
“It’s always a great buzz when championship is coming and preparation has gone well. I feel we are in a great place and I’m delighted with how the squad has trained and worked over past number of weeks,” he added.
Should Offaly produce the same level of performance that saw them dispatch Westmeath in the last game of the league, they should account for Wicklow on Sunday.
However, with Dublin waiting in the wings, a kind qualifier draw will be the best hope of an extended summer run.
Key Player: Anton Sullivan
One to watch: Peter Cunningham
With a divsion 4 title in the bag already, Laois go into this year’s Leinster championship with some winning momentum.
While the drop down to the bottom tier was a major disappointment for the O’Moore men, under new manager John Sugrue, they wasted no time getting back to winning ways.
Laois are rebuilding and will be looking to put a championship run together in Leinster at at least re-establish themselves in the top four in the province.
What to expect
Laois’s clash with Wexford on Sunday will be the first real test of the rebuilding job that Sugrue is doing with the county.
The Kerryman has managed to introduce some new young talent into the Laois squad, mixing them with the likes of John O’Loughlin and Ross Munnelly who are more seasoned campaigners, which has improved their forrtunes so far this year.
“There is some great young fellas with great attitudes in Laois. They have come in and they have challenged. They are hungry and they are mad to get a jersey,” said Sugrue to local media.
Despite a year down in the ranks of divison 4, Sugrue is not too worried that it will be a problem when they travel to Wexford Park on Sunday.
“I said at the start of the league that you could throw a blanket over Division 2 to 4 and the team with their focus clean and their house in order will win most games irrespective of what division they are in.”
With the likes of John O’Loughlin in the middle of the field and Donie Kingston spearheading the attack, Laois should have too much for Wexford and will fancy their chances of at least reaching a Leinster semi-final this year.
Key Player: Donie Kingston
One to watch: Graham Brody
Louth go into the Leinster campaign in difficult circumstances having been relegated from division 2 of the league after losing all seven matches.
“If we lose any more players, we’ll be down to the floorboards,” was manager Pete McGrath’s assessment after the league campaign as the Louth men struggled following the loss of level key members of the squad that saw them win promotion under Colin Kelly.
The standard of the likes of Cavan, Tipperary and Roscommon proved too much for the Louth men and they will have to regroup for the championship in an attempt to register their first win of the season.
What to expect
Despite the abysmal league campaign, McGrath is believes that it was a learning curve for his players that has them well prepared for Sunday’s clash with Carlow.
“I think that we will be better for that,” said the former Fermanagh manager to GAA.ie
“I think playing against the likes of Roscommon, Cork, Tipperary, Down and Cavan…for our players that was a very steep learning curve. And even though we lost those matches, as I said earlier we put it up to these teams for large parts of the games.
“Going towards the championship, I can assure you morale is high, there is positivity, there is enthusiasm, there’s confidence and we’re looking forward to the game against Carlow,”
While McGrath will be without Jim Mc Enanaey and John Bingham, the positive news is that Ryan Burns has recovered from injury and is likely to start.
A resurgent and resilient defensive Carlow will certainly be a difficult proposition for the Louth men but with the division 2 experience, the Wee County should have enough to progress.
Key Player: Ryan Burns
One to watch: Gerard McSorely
Wexford endured a torrid time in division 3 of the league, only managing one win in seven games as they fell down to the bottom basement.
While the Wexford men will be wearing a commemorative jersey against Laois on Sunday to mark the centenary of the four-in-a-row team from the early 1900’s, the outlook for the 2018 championship looks less optimistic.
The loss of several players from last year’s squad that won promotion from division 4 has not helped manger Paul McLoughlin who must consider Wexford to be in at the rebuilding stage.
With a difficult first round task facing the yellow-bellies, a decent qualifier draw might be what many are hoping for come Sunday evening.
What to expect
Wexford have endured a massive turnover of players since their defeat at the hands of Monaghan in last year’s championship making it difficult to set up the way they might like.
Despite a disastrous league campaign, McLoughlin’s side still managed to put Kieran McGeeney’s Armagh to the sword, a performance that the Kildare man will hope they can repeat in the championship.
“We’ve had a difficult league campaign but at least we competed well today which gives us something to work off for the championship opener with Laois. Although relegated it was encouraging to end the league on a winning note,” said McLoughlin to the Irish Times.
Sundays’s clash will be an intriguing one but on the surface of it, they look like teams moving in the opposite direction and it is unlikely that the centenary celebration will be marked with a championship win.
Key Player: Ben Brosnan
One to watch: Donal Shanley
After finishing bottom of the pile in division 4, football in Wicklow is at a very low ebb as they prepare for the Leinster championship.
The Garden County managed just two draws, with Waterford and Antrim as they endured a nightmare campaign in the bottom division.
With new manager John Evans taking on the mammoth task of rebuilding the squad, the outlook overall for 2018 does not look overly positive as they take on Offaly on Sunday.
What to expect
For Wicklow boss Evans the immediate aim for Wicklow is to “give a good account of themselves” against Offaly this weekend.
The former Tipperary man is realistic about Wicklow’s position in the grand scheme of Gaelic football at them moment and sees his work as a long term project to develop structures in the county.
“You must do the groundwork, as in the minors, U-21s and bring them up to senior. In Wicklow at the moment, we have Kevin O’Brien taking the U-16s and U-17s, I’m taking the U-20s. So we’re trying to create that conveyor belt which will hopefully enhance the belief. Kevin will get guys going and eventually after three years, we’ll see some semblance of pride in the jersey.”
While Offaly themselves may not be firing on all cylinders, it is difficult to see Wicklow advancing to take on the might of Dublin in a quarter-final and given their current state, it might not be a bad thing.
According to Evans, “it will be like killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Key Player: James Stafford
One to watch: Gearoid Murphy
Leinster Senior Football Championship Fixtures
Wexford v Laois, Saturday May 12 6:30pm, Innovate Wexford Park
Louth v Carlow, Sunday May 13 2:00pm, Portlaoise
Offaly v Wicklow, Sunday May 13 4:00pm, Portlaoise
Fixtures to be played between May 26-27. Throw-in times to be confirmed.
Westmeath v Laois/Wexford
Kildare v Louth/Carlow
Dublin v Offaly/Wicklow
Longford v Meath
Laois/Wexford/Westmeath v Louth/Carlow/Kildare, Sunday June 10 2.00pm
Offaly/Wicklow/Dublin v Longford/Meath, Sunday June 10 4.00pm
Semi-final winner v semi-final winner, Sunday June 24th. Throw-in times TBC.
Senior columnist for GAA Wrap.