By Damian Dolan
The provincial junior football championship of Britain returns on Saturday. For the victors, no All Ireland title to aspire to – no crack at Kerry or the like – but still the right to call themselves champions of Britain.
From 2022 the two finalists from Britain will slug it out in Ireland against New York and Kilkenny.
For some, therefore, the 2021 competition is a steppingstone for next year, which offers the realistic chance of being the first British team to be crowned All Ireland junior champions since London in 1986.
No Kilkenny then this year after they took the British title across the water in 2018, 2017 and 2015, but it will still be fiercely competitive.
Indeed, Saturday’s opening round throws up a rematch of the 2019 final, as holders Scotland face Warwickshire in Leeds.
If it’s anything like the sides’ last meeting, then Saturday has a lot to live up to.
The 2019 final proved to be an epic with Scotland edging it by 3-12 to 3-11 at Pairc na hEireann to lift the trophy for just the second time.
Adrian Dawson’s late free for Scotland proved to be the winner, although Warwickshire twice had chances to level and take the game into extra-time.
For Warwickshire, it was a third consecutive final defeat. They also lost out in 2014, 2011 and 2008, and have to go all the way back to 2006 for their last All-Britain title.
Hoping to end Warwickshire’s drought is new manager Charlie O’Donnell. The Donegal-native is entering his fourth season as manager of Finbarr’s in Coventry.
The club reached the intermediate championship semi-finals last year, having enjoyed intermediate championship cup success in 2019.
Before that, he took Naomh Padraig of Leicester to a senior county semi-final where they lost out to Warwickshire powerhouses Sean McDermotts by a solitary point.
O’Donnell’s London counterpart, Stephen Lynch, will pick from an all-London born team – a development given the green light by Croke Park – as he looks to guide the province to a first All-Britain win since 2009.
Since then, London have reached the final three times only to lose out on each occasion to Lancashire. It remains to be seen exactly what panel Lynch has been able to assemble, given the delayed 2020 football championship finals only took place across the weekend of 5-6 June.
He won’t be able to select the likes of Liam Gavaghan, Philip Butler, Liam Gallagher, Sean Hickey and Killian Butler, all of whom played senior for London in the 2020 National Football League.
It also remains to be seen to what extent Covid has impeded preparations. Defending champions Scotland returned to full matches later than their opponents.
Saturday 12th June – Round 1 Fixtures
Scotland v Warwickshire
London v Lancashire
Pairc na hEireann, 3pm
Hertfordshire v Yorkshire
London, Lancashire, Scotland and Warwickshire make up Group A. The top three teams will advance to the semi-finals, where they’ll be joined by the winners of Group B, which is made up of Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire and Yorkshire.
Lancashire’s last title came in 2016, having completed four-in-a-row between 2010-13. Their ‘drive for five’ in 2014 was ended by new additions Kilkenny at the quarter-final stage.
Gloucestershire famously took the title home in 2008 and Yorkshire were last champions in 2001, while Hertfordshire’s success in 2000 ended their 26-year wait for a provincial title.
Just how strong each county is, will only become truly evident when they set foot on the pitch this weekend.
London open their campaign against Lancashire in Birmingham. The last time the sides met, in 2019, they shared a 1-11 a piece draw.
But London failed to make it out of the group in 2019 – their Round 3 defeat to Warwickshire (2-10 to 1-10) at McGovern Park put an end to their involvement.
Lynch and London will have a chance to avenge that defeat when Warwickshire return to McGovern Park in Round 2 on 19 June.
Lancashire went on to the semi-finals in 2019 only to be put to the sword by Warwickshire (6-21 to 1-9). The other semi-final saw Scotland end Kilkenny’s three-in-a-row hopes in Glasgow by 1-15 to 0-11.
London will not relish their Round 3 trip to Glasgow, especially if qualification for the semi-finals is on the line. Scotland are a very difficult prospect on home soil.