Division Three is the clear hipsters’ choice when it comes to the 2023 league. The thinking fan’s crumpet. Nobody in it is going to trouble the All-Ireland, granted. But it has the makings of a cut-throat couple of months all the same, with the prospect of a meaningful championship season to follow.
A lot is made of the Tailteann Cup cut-off and the dangled carrot of Sam Maguire football for the teams that claw their way out of Division Three. But when all comes to all, how much of a carrot is that really? Think back to last year. Who had a better 2022 – Louth and Limerick who got promoted and were both comfortably beaten by Cork in the qualifiers next time out? Or Westmeath, who followed up a respectable third place with a run through the Tailteann Cup and a trophy to parade through Mullingar?
Well, the good news for all Division Three teams – if they choose to see it as such – is that they probably won’t have to compete for the Sam Maguire, regardless of how well they do in this league. As Tailteann champions, Westmeath have an automatic spot in the higher tier for the All-Ireland series and since a Division Four side is definitely going to be in the Connacht final, that’s going to mean no league route to Sam for the other seven there.
All of which means that they can go full-bore for the Division Three title and still end the year with a chance of carrying off silverware in the Tailteann Cup. None of them would ever say as much out loud but you’d have to suspect that every one of these counties is eyeing up the realistic chance of having two cups at their end-of-year dinner dances, and won’t be especially heartbroken by the prospect of avoiding the All-Ireland qualifiers come the start of June.
As for how it might all play out, the division is notable for the presence of four Ulster teams – the first time that’s happened in Division Three since 2013. Not only should that bring about chunky enough crowds most weekends, it will be no massive surprise if they all take points off each other at various stages. Certainly, there doesn’t appear to be a Cork or a Kildare here, no higher-up who has momentarily fallen on hard times and might leave everyone for dust.
On that score, it’s some tribute to Conor Laverty’s coaching reputation that Down are the bookies’ favourites to win the whole thing out, despite being without a league or championship victory since May 2021. Even allowing for preseason green shoots, Down have gone through such a torrid few seasons that it will be some turnaround if they’re good enough to bounce straight back up to Division Two, particularly without the supreme talents of Caolán Mooney. Laverty is one of five first-year managers in the division but already expectation is starting to bubble.
The two longest-serving are David Power of Tipperary and Cavan’s Mickey Graham. For both of them, the glories of the pandemic provincial championships are a long time in the rear-view mirror now, albeit that the Tipp players finally got their Munster medals presented to them over Christmas. Of the pair, Cavan seem to be the more upwardly mobile, retaining a good crew of the players who ended the famine for them.
Tipp, on the other hand, might have to pull a few rabbits from the hat to stay up. They’ve lost a lot of experience and talent since 2020 and will have to scrap for everything on away trips to Longford, Westmeath, Cavan and Fermanagh.
Relegated: Antrim and Tipperary