FOOTBALL returns at the weekend, 147 days after Dublin brought an unprecedented 2020 season to a successful conclusion with their sixth consecutive All-Ireland title, just a week before Christmas.
The 2021 campaign will feel equally different on a number of fronts, ranging from the new-look league format to the Sam Maguire decider in August and rule changes as well.
The season will resemble more a sprint than a drawn-out long-distance race with some counties pulling up tents no sooner than they had them erected.
The league will continue with four divisions, but they will be split into north and south sections.
It means three games in double-quick time before another to determine promotion and relegation issues with finals pencilled in, but only if the provincial championships don’t get in the way.
There’s a tasty opener between defending champions Kerry and Galway in Tralee on Saturday in Division 1 South with the Kingdom second favourites behind the Dubs to add to their 21 titles.
The All-Ireland champions head to Dr Hyde Park on Sunday to face Roscommon in Division 1 North.
Ominously, former star Diarmuid Connolly believes Dublin are in a strong position going into the new season.
The GAA Ambassador for BoyleSports claimed a blossoming partnership in midfield will help provide a strong basis for their Sam Maguire bid.
“Dublin were missing a lot of guys last year, like Brian Howard, who was out for nearly the whole season with an injury and only came back for the All-Ireland final. He is a huge player for Dublin,” Connolly said.
“I like James McCarthy at wing-back. He is so strong there, but I’d love for the two Raheny club men to nail down a partnership in the middle of the field.
“Howard would sit a little deeper and play more of a defensive sweeper role. He has such a good foot pass and his tackling is ferocious.
“Then you have Brian Fenton. What can’t you say about the man!?”
Dublin are one of three counties, Cork and Monaghan are the others, who forfeit a home game because they were bold boys during Lockdown.
Instead of hosting Kildare at Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday, Ronan McCarthy’s side visit Semple Stadium for a 3.30pm throw-in.
Cork will also be on their travels against Laois and Clare as they aim to add to last season’s division 3 title by adding the second division equivalent, just as they did in 2009, when defeating Monaghan in the final.
The bookies fancy Cork to return to the top flight, quoting 4/1 along with 5/6 Mayo, who were relegated last season.
They’re in Division 2 North along with Meath, Down and Westmeath.
Kildare finished third behind Roscommon and Armagh in Division 2 last term, missing out on promotion by a point, but their championship efforts left a sour aftertaste.
They squeezed past Offaly by four points and led Meath by 0-10 to 0-4 at half-time in the Leinster semi-final only to ‘lose’ the second-half by 5-5 to 0-5.
Also under serious consideration are the rule changes governing cynical fouls to prevent goal-scoring opportunities, the use of the advantage rule and the temporary replacement of a player with a head injury.
Referees will get their final briefing on Thursday, when Donal Smyth, the National Match Officials Manager, addresses them.
“What we're trying to do is to ensure we're all consistent in our message and how we implement the rules and how we take the game forward from there,” he said.
“In those circumstances, a black card occurs in that area and it'll also result in a penalty and 10 minutes in the sin-bin.”
The change to the advantage rule means a referee can only play advantage if he believes the team in possession of the ball have a clear goal-scoring opportunity or another advantage 'by creating or capitalising on time and space.'
“This is a big change. They're the only two occasions now the referee can play an advantage which is going to be a major change from what we've done before.”