Paul Fitzpatrick previews this weekend's Senior Football Championship opening round.
Killygarry v Cavan Gaels
Fri, 7.30pm, Lacken
In the betting for the Cavan SFC title, Cavan Gaels lead the way at 6/4, followed by Ramor (4/1), Kingscourt (9/2) and Castlerahan (5/1). Next in line are Killygarry and Lavey, both at 16s.
Yet while the Stars have pedigree and know how to win Senior Championships, by any other objective measure, Killygarry must surely be regarded as their equal this season (Kingscourt beat them by rwo in the league).
Last year, Killygarry beat them well in the group stage before losing to the east Cavan side by a point in a low-scoring quarter-final in which they were denied by a magnificent save in injury time.
So, it could be argued that the Crubany men, outside of the 'big three', are the best of the rest. On that basis, they should be entitled to push their parish rivals close out in Lacken this Friday evening.
Declan Sheridan's men didn't tear up any trees during the league – they finished eighth, with wins over the four sides below them and second-placed Ramor only – but they have kept their squad together since last year, with Darragh Gannon (in the US) and the injured Mattie McKenna the main absentees.
They have lots of experience by now and have integrated some young talent but the likes of Padraig Cahill, Donal Thomas, Eoin Smith et al will know that the time to make that leap to a final is now.
If Conor Smith and Martin Reilly can catch light up front, a repeat of their 2012 quarter-final win is not impossible. As for the Gaels? Well, we know all about them. Most of their side are household names in the county and their recent league final loss to Castlerahan may have given them a timely warning against complacency.
They have a few injuries and there are question marks over the depth of their squad – Micheál Lyng's comment last year that it was the most talented Gaels panel he has been involved with seems off to us but he would know better, obviously – but the town side's stellar achievements over the last 18 months mean they are undoubtedly the team to beat and a loss here would be regarded as a major shock.
Still, there were only three points between them in the league, a not insurmountable gap, either.
Verdict: Cavan Gaels
Castlerahan v Cootehill
Sat, 7.30pm, Virginia
While some in the Castlerahan camp privately expressed disappointment at the performance against Cavan Gaels in the league final, to our eyes the last half hour, which Donal Keogan's men won by 2-7 to 0-3, was revelatory.
Fergal Reilly, Paul Smith and Cian Mackey were key to that success, as was Enda Flanagan – all four are full of running and comfortable on the ball and the emergence of youngster Karl Cosgrove, a player with a soccer background and a high skill level, adds another option, with Sean Brady as classy as ever.
With Kerryman Shane McSweeney returning and Meath native Brian Ennis arriving (both will start if fit), the joke was that Keogan had been busy in the transfer market. Corny one-liners aside, his team look stronger than before but they will need to be.
Cootehill, meanwhile, started the league slowly and while they are still struggling for consistency, they ended it much more brightly. After losing their opening five matches, they have won four of their last seven, including eye-catching victories over Gowna, Crosserlough (to retain their league status) and, most pertinently, a 0-11 to 0-10 away win over Saturday's opponents.
John McCutcheon and Enda Hessin (who combined for 1-7 from play from the 2-12 they scored against Crosserlough) remain key figures. Goalkeeper Ryan Carroll is also going well but big games will be needed from Sean O'Connor, Eoin Roche and Co at the back if they are to hold off a Castlerahan attack who seem to be hitting their stride.
Gowna v Ballinagh
Sat, 7.30pm, Cornafean
While Gowna are ranked as 33/1 outsiders to win the championship, their results in the league against the better sides bely those odds. Gowna beat Kingscourt and Killygarry and drew with Cavan Gaels, losing by a point to Crosserlough, five to Castlerahan and four to Ramor.
They are coming on strong, with youngsters such as Conor Brady, Robbie Fitzpatrick, Cian Madden and Oisin Pierson now settled in and experienced heads around them such as David Hyland, Raymond Keogh and Mark McKeever, who has been lining out at full-back.
After a decent start, they lost three in a row at the end of the league which is in stark contrast to Ballinagh, who lost their first three matches before picking things up.
Since beating Kingscourt by 13 points away on April 21, they have beaten Cuchulainns, drawn with Lacken, lost by a couple of points to Arva, beaten Killygarry by eight and Cootehill by three to climb to sixth in the table before losing well to Ramor in a dead rubber last time.
The Ballinagh reserves also picked up a title along the way, always an indicator of a squad that is in good fettle.
Key to their improvement has been the form of Eamon McEvoy, who has been outstanding from frees and play, while Niall McDermott is also coming back to his best. Defender Niall O'Reilly is starring as well, with young forwards Sean Keating and Shane Finnegan taking the scoring burden off McDermott.
This one has stalemate written all over it.
Crosserlough v Shercock
Sun, 1pm, Lavey
Crosserlough are one of those young sides, like Gowna, who can quite rightly see themselves as dark horses for an extended run in this championship. In Dara McVeety, they have Cavan's stand-out performer but it's far from a one-man show.
Pierce Smith must surely be worth a call in to the Cavan squad by now too and the next wave of young players – Mark Stuart, Stephen Smith etc – have settled in well to senior football, as has promising young midfielder James Smith, a player of huge potential albeit one with plenty to learn yet, too.
Shercock's recent league form has been patchy but when they are at full strength, as they showed in the knock-out stages of the IFC last year, they are quite formidable. As they prepare for their first Senior Championship match since the 1980s, they have three county panellists in Killian Clarke, Niall Clerkin and Damien McIntyre and another man, last year's captain Brian Sankey, who was there for a number of years too.
They will need them all motoring well, however, to hold the Lough on this occasion. If the Kilnaleck-based side are to contend for the title, they need to be winning this match with a bit to spare.
Kingscourt v Lavey
Sun, 6pm, Bailieborough
That the Stars are rated as third favourites for the title is based mainly on the fact that they know better than most how to win it – certainly, their last championship match, an abject performance in defeat against the Gaels in last year's semi-final, would not inspire confidence and their league form (six wins, five losses) was middling by their lofty standards.
After bottoming out with a 3-24 to 0-7 loss to the Gaels on June 1, they have improved, bagging seven goals in wins against Cootehill and Cuchulainns. But the Stars, who will be minus the services of Joe Dillon (who is in Chicago), are in transition and have fast-tracked some younger players into the side including the likes of Kevin Curtis and Shane Duffy, who have done well.
Barry Reilly remains their main source of scores, with Padraig Faulkner also chipping in with a few from midfield and the returning Philly Tinnelly usually good for a couple as well.
Lavey, who could have made the county final in 2016, don't appear to have kicked on (they had three draws in the group stages last year so the glass was either half full or half empty) but they are a very good, honest championship team.
The likes of Gerry Smith, Karl Duke, Chris Conroy, Ray Cullivan and Shane Tierney would make any side but the latter two are out injured and that could swing it Kingscourt's way.
Again, though, there won’t be much in this and Kevin McDonnell’s side will take heart from the fact that they beat Kingscourt in the opening round two years ago.
Ramor United v Lacken
Sun, 7.45pm, Mullahoran
This is a really interesting game between the 2016 champions and a team who have been knocking on the door for a while. Midfield has not been the strongest area on the Ramor team whereas Lacken are blessed with three tall, powerful men around the middle in Niall McKiernan and Thomas and James Galligan, which should give them an edge in the aerial battle (remember those?).
Playing outside of Kingspan Breffni should, one would imagine, suit the Celtics but there is a question mark over their recent form. Their win over Castlerahan on April 27 marked a fifth in succession but they have yet to get over the line in six matches since, although there were draws against Arva and Ballinagh and a one-point loss to Cavan Gaels in there too.
Ramor, meanwhile, suffered from second season syndrome last year but are humming again and, the sense is, determined to re-affirm their position as top dogs. James McEnroe (in the States) will be absent but they have quality all over the field, with Brían O'Connell at centre-back, Conor Bradley at 11 and Jack Brady among the key men.
If Ramor can halt the gallop of the Galligans and McKiernan around the middle and hold Ray Galligan they will win but that's a lot of ifs. When they met in the league, the Virginia men won by three and this game is likely to be similarly close but the venue may suit Lacken who get a very tentative vote.