Danny Hughes: Rory Gallagher in a good position to guide Donegal to an Ulster title - The Irish News
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Danny Hughes: Rory Gallagher in a good position to guide Donegal to an Ulster title

Rory Gallagher will have his eyes fixed on taking Tyrone's Ulster title this summer Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

IT is great that the positive reviews from the National League final will have given the forthcoming Championship some added impetus.

In the past, a half-empty stadium and a dour final signalled the end of the spring competition and the focus turned to the provincial Championships. Because the final was such a great contest, I am looking forward to May to get things started.

Where else in the world could you get

20-30,000 supporters heading to a provincial town on a Saturday or Sunday to watch an amateur game?

These stadia are equivalent to the Roman coliseums, with the result no less important than life and death for some in those times.

When the Gooch decides to return to Killarney or Croke Park, he will experience something he never thought much about before. He will yearn to be warming up, hitting the goal-stop, instructing his

team-mates.

He will experience the walk to the ground, the hellos from the strangers he doesn’t know, but who certainly know him.

He will smell the burger van, the whiff of onions and hear the sound of a generator keeping the whole thing ticking over.

No more will the clunking of football boots and the smell of deep heat and tiger balm be missed so much as in that first Championship match after retirement.

The roar of the early spectators to the minor game will be heard in the walk to the ground.

‘Flags, hats and headbands’, will be heard too.

He may or may not pull on an old Kerry jersey, separated from the others because it has a number on it.

In some way you would like to blend into the crowd as they do, but then again you don’t want them think, ‘do you not know me with this jersey on’?

A couple of seasons ago, I met Philly Jordan at a Down vs Tyrone game and while I chose the smart casual look, Philly had the jersey, tracksuit bottoms and everything else bar the hat. I reckon you can do that sort of thing when you have three All-Irelands in your pocket.

But then again the Gooch could probably rob a bank and get away with it, such is the love for the man.

While I don’t see any reason why Kerry will relinquish their Munster title any time soon, I see Ulster as a bit more open than in previous years.

It remains the most competitive provincial Championship by far.

However, even the best in Ulster will struggle to match the levels set by Kerry and Dublin in recent years.

The National League was just that, but if anything the last few years has taught us not to take it for granted, it is the fact that the League remains a pretty good indication of what lies ahead for teams in the Championship.

On that note, I have put my neck on the line and considered where each team lies in Ulster’s pecking order.

1 DONEGAL

IF the U21 victory in Ulster is anything to go by, then Donegal have a strong conveyor belt of talented young stars coming through. Rory Gallagher has handled the changing of the guard well and has taken on a very challenging job after the McGuinness years.

Ciaran Thompson has been a real gem and their hope is that he can continue his good form into the Championship. I see them regaining the Anglo-Celt Cup.

2 MONAGHAN

THE League form was good, with the performance against Dublin particularly encouraging. The issue was the always around the over-reliance on Conor McManus. If McManus is Batman perhaps Jack McCarron will be his Robin. The Ulster final again must be a realistic ambition at this point.

3 TYRONE

IT all looked so good for them at the start of the year. McKenna Cup and opening wins in the League gave them a sound basis for the year. Successive defeats have once again re-opened the conversation around their playing style. How can Tyrone continue to play so negatively without the penny dropping? They need to be more expansive. Commit more men forward and attempting to go man-for-man and not ‘give-up’ kick-outs so easily would be a start. They still have warriors and some real talent in their ranks.

4 CAVAN

RELEGATED but showed some real spirit and fight. A draw against Kerry and the performances in general were very encouraging from a Cavan perspective. McGleenan will continue to develop the team and a great deal of young players will benefit from his experiences. Cavan will put it up to any team.

I foresee a good run in the Qualifiers and they are a worthy outside punt in the Ulster Championship.

5 FERMANAGH

I KNOW they seem high in the pecking order. Really the top three are in a mini-league of their own, while the rest could be hard to separate.

An opening day win against Down was as good as the League got for Fermanagh and their failure to put away Derry was a big disappointment. Progress is a real crack at an Anglo-Celt but it’s outside their reach.

6 DOWN

SUSTAINING their status in Division Two was a significant achievement after two defeats from the opening two games. The team was in crisis mode, but things have settled down and a last minute equaliser against Cork took some real character. The opening game against Armagh will be a brilliant test of this character and pits two teams of equal abilities against one another. Still some way off challenging for an Ulster title.

7 ARMAGH

Rumblings of frustration from the stand won’t faze Kieran McGeeney much. The frustration from an Armagh perspective will be the fact that in most of the games they lost, they had played well and still managed to concede major scores in the form of goals and this ultimately cost them promotion. They lack the ‘killer’ instinct that Armagh were once famous for in closing out games. Locally, if they beat Down in Newry all will be forgiven. If they don’t then progress will be hard to gauge.

8 DERRY

I feel for Damian Barton. He has done admirably well considering the lack of appetite there appears to be for inter-county football in Derry. They almost got to a quarter-final last year and instead of building on it, have regressed. It appears that this was not of Barton’s making but a realisation that Derry county football appears to be well down the list of priorities for talented players in the county.

9 ANTRIM

Maintaining their status in Division Three was the priority, which they were unlucky not to achieve. They had their chances during the campaign and almost got something from games against Armagh and Tipperary. These are the positives.

I would not run down their chances in Ulster but it is hard to see anything other than a decent back-door run.

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