PREVIEW: Division 3 will be tough proposition for young Offaly footballers - Photo by Declan Gilmore
Offaly begin their Allianz Football League Division 3 campaign against Longford on Sunday, January 28, under the guidance of new manager Stephen Wallace.
The team maintained their Division 3 status last season on the last day against neighbours Laois, consigning them to Division 4, but with Derry and Fermanagh dropping into Division 3, it is starting to look like a daunting proposition.
We've taken a look at the opposition Offaly's young charges will face as they chase promotion to Division 2. Here's our county-by-county breakdown ahead of the 2018 league:
Starting with one of the Division 3 new boys first, Derry cut a sturdy figure when set against the young guns of Offaly. Their league campaign in 2017 saw them relegated on points difference after two wins, four defeats and one draw. Despite drawing with Clare and losing heavily to Meath, one of their wins came against Kildare, who went on to earn promotion to Division 1. They lost heavily to Down, Cork and Galway, against whom they conceded five goals, before earning their second win against fellow Ulster outfit Fermanagh in the final round of fixtures. In the championship in 2017, Derry were handed a tough draw against eventual All-Ireland semi-finalists Tyrone in the Ulster quarter-finals, a game they lost on a scoreline of 0-22 to 0-11. They won their first qualifier clash against Division 4 opposition in the shape of Waterford, and were dealt a seemingly cruel blow in the next round where they faced All-Ireland finalists Mayo. Despite the perceived mismatch, Derry brought Stephen Rochford's men to extra-time, but the Ulster side ran out of steam and lost by 11 points. They showed glimpses of good form last year, namely against Kildare in the league and Mayo in the qualifiers. They seem to be a bit of an in and out team, but importantly, Offaly will have to travel to Celtic Park to play them on their own patch. Offaly rarely do well against Ulster opposition and this looks a tough fixture. Verdict: Derry
Another of the Division 3 dropouts, Fermanagh are a team who also picked up just two victories in that tier last year Those wins came against Clare and Down, but their 2017 league campaign included heavy defeats to Kildare, Cork and Meath. In the Ulster championship of 2017, Fermanagh were predictably turfed out by Monaghan on a scoreline of 1-20 to 1-11, but looked far from hopeless for much of that game. Their season, much like our own, proved to be a short one as they were unceremoniously dumped out of the first round of the qualifiers by Armagh, again losing out by nine points. Fermanagh certainly look a less potent threat to Offaly than Derry but they could improve following the appointment of former Donegal boss Rory Gallagher as their new manager. Offaly will face them in Brewster Park, yet another tough away day that could prove a bruising encounter. Verdict: Draw
Armagh are looking like top dogs in this Division this year as Kieran McGeeney's men continue to improve. They just missed out on promotion from Division 3 last year despite scoring more goals and points than any other team during that campaign. Most of those scores came against Offaly when they demolished us on a scoreline of 6-22 to 0-10 points. That game was a sticking point used to jab manager at the time, Pat Flanagan, heaping pressure on him for the rest of the season. Armagh won four of their seven games last year in the league, but notably lost on two occasions to Laois, who eventually got relegated, and Tipperary. They probably should have pushed on and got promoted last year, but they look odds-on to do just that this term. In the Ulster championship last year, Armagh were beaten by Down in the quarter-finals, a result that shocked most people. They recovered well and put Fermanagh to the sword in the first round of the qualifiers, before accounting for Westmeath, Tipperary and Kildare to earn an All-Ireland quarter-final spot. They lost that badly to Tyrone but that qualifier run shows good pedigree. They have plenty of scoring forwards and will be tough to beat for Offaly when they visit Tullamore at the end of February. Verdict: Armagh
Sligo finished just a point ahead of Offaly in Division 3 last year having recorded the same number of wins (3) but one less defeat (3). Sligo managed a draw with Armagh last year, before beating Tipperary who were eventually promoted in a blistering start to their 2017 campaign. They surprisingly lost to Antrim in their next games, before beating Laois and losing to Longford. By this time, Offaly were in trouble in last year's league, and pulled off a victory against the Connacht outfit. However, Sligo finished with a victory over Louth, meaning they actually beat both promoted teams (Louth and Tipperary). Sligo had a soft introduction to their provincial championship in 2017 with a facile victory over New York before unsurprisingly losing out to Mayo in at the quarter-final stage. Sligo fell into the qualifiers where they started with a win over Antrim, appeasing for their earlier league defeat to the same team, but were stunted then as they fell to a two-point loss at the hands of Meath. Sligo and Offaly will always be a ding-dong battle but perhaps home advantage can tilt it in our favour. Verdict: Offaly
Offaly had 16 points to spare over Wexford in the O'Byrne Cup, but it would be very harsh to judge a team's prospects based on January football. Wexford are making the jump up from Division 4 again in 2018 where they enjoyed five wins last year. They beat Limerick, Leitrim, Waterford, Wicklow and London in a flawless five from five start to the 2017 campaign. They're all teams you'd expect Wexford to beat, and in truth, you'd expect Offaly to beat them all too. The yellow bellies ran aground after that as they slumped to huge losses against both Westmeath and Carlow, most notably losing out by 24 points against Westmeath. Offaly are far closer to Westmeath's standard than Wexford, evidenced from our ding-dong battles in the Leinster chapionship last year, but Wexford can't be completely discredited in Division 3. They again found Carlow too good in the first round of the 2017 Leinster Championship, dropping into the qualifiers where they again accounted for Division 4 outfit Limerick in the first round. They were shown to be out of their depth in the next round as Monaghan steamrolled them by 19 points. We've seen nothing from Wexford that Offaly should be fearing and despite having to travel to Wexford Park, Offaly should get a victory here. Verdict: Offaly
Longford are a team Offaly are very familiar with given recent meetings, but they have been getting the better of us more often than not lately. Despite losing out to Longford by five points in the first round of last year's league, Offaly managed to finish ahead of them in the final standings. We recorded one more victory in last year's campaign with Longford's only wins coming against Pat Flanagan's men and Sligo, both home games for our fellow midlanders. One thing to be said for Longford despite the lack of wins last year, they were competitive in every single one of their games, and it is games like that offaly have tended to lose over the years. In the Leinster championship last year, Longford shipped four goals in a heavy defeat to Division 4 bound Laois in the first round. However, they recovered their form to dump Division 2 bound Louth out in the first round of the qualifier series before being strangled in a 0-12 to 0-7 loss to Donegal. Longford are capable and are improving, but home advantage can be crucial again in swinging this one in Offaly's favour. It will no doubt be a ding-dong battle, however. Verdict: Offaly
Westmeath have gotten the better of us on far too many occasions in recent years, and that is perhaps down to their superior firepower in the forward line. They have the likes of Paul Sharry and John Heslin who are classy players, and that potency eventually punished us in last year's championship when the men in maroon beat us 3-17 to 0-15 in a quarter-final replay. Westmeath are the second team coming from Division 4 along with Wexford, and pose a far more dangerous threat than the yellow bellies. Westmeath are a team that could fall straight back to Division 4 or pull off back-to-back promotions. They look to be on an upward curve again now, and are well place to threaten in Division 3. They recorded six wins in last year's league and remained unbeaten, recording just one draw against Carlow in their very first game. They eventually lost heavily to Dublin in last year's Leinster championship and then fell at the hands of Armagh in the qualifiers. However, they overcame us yet again in the O'Byrne Cup and with the game fixed for Mullingar in this year's league, they may well maintain their hold over Offaly. Verdict: Westmeath
If these predictions were to come true they would be enough for seven points for Stephen Wallace and his men, which may well be good enough for a mid-table finish. That would be a respectable start to life under the Kerry boss, but there are games there, particularly Sligo and Longford that could easily go against us. The Division is a real crucible now where any cracks will be blown open.
Offaly's first game in the 2018 Allianz Football League is against Longford on Sunday, January 28 at 2pm in Bord na Móna O'Connor Park.
Full list of Offaly's 2018 Allianz Football League Division 3 Fixtures for 2018:
Round 1: Sunday, January 28th: Offaly v Longford
Round 2: Sunday, February 4th: Fermanagh v Offaly
Round 3: Sunday, February 11th: Derry v Offaly
Round 4: Sunday, February 25th: Offaly v Armagh
Round 5: Sunday, March 4th: Wexford v Offaly
Round 6: Sunday, March 18th: Offaly v Sligo
Round 7: Sunday, March 25th: Westmeath v Offaly
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