Danny Hughes: Monaghan have what it takes for another Ulster title
As I sit down to write this, I have just returned from club training. I am slower, less mobile and much more cranky, yet there is just something about this time of the year that lifts your spirit regardless.
The most unique and probably one of the greatest amateur competitions in the world has started.
Far away in the bright lights of New York City, the GAA Championship started off with a bang.
While I still ask the annual question as to why the GAA don't make a bigger deal of the opening game, whether this is in the USA or London, the ‘bang' in this instance was the match itself.
Neither New York nor Leitrim would fill out Croke Park and there are plenty of people who will question Leitrim's pedigree.
But it was never going to be easy to travel to the States and win a Championship game regardless of the team or indeed their pedigree.
With a scattering of inter-county Ulster exiles in their ranks, New York would be no walkover and I actually fancied them to come through as winners, especially with Jamie Clarke lining out at centre-forward.
The fact that the contest had to go to extra-time to eventually give us a winner is perhaps a sign of things to come as far as the Championship is concerned.
But it's a time for some realism.
Who will win Ulster? Well, I am tipping Monaghan.
I have looked at the League and they have been very consistent, taking a few scalps along the way.
I know what many will say; ‘Sure it's just the League'.
But it's not as simple as that.
Believe it or not, there is a correlation between your form in both competitions.
Yes, you get the odd result that goes against this theory, however, as Dublin have proven in the last few years, the League winners and the Championship winners are largely taken from the same pond.
So if betting is your thing, look no further than the top division. I just think that this Monaghan side are a team who really suit Ulster Championship football.
They are prepared to go into the trenches and dig out results and, in Conor McManus, possess a forward of the highest quality.
If I am backing Monaghan to win Ulster then obviously I fancy them to beat Tyrone in the opening round of the Championship.
Firstly, Tyrone have the players to win an Ulster title. But I don't think that they realistically have the players to win an All-Ireland.
I think that Tyrone are max-ing themselves currently and, minus the retired Sean Cavanagh and a less than fully fit Colm, it just makes things that much harder this year.
Tyrone's Achilles heel remains up front. The question one asks is this; Would any of the current Tyrone forwards get into the Dublin forward line?
This is the bar. The great Tyrone teams of the past possessed incredibly talented forwards who could – and did – win games by themselves.
In this cycle, though, which teams invariably go through, they just don't seem to be available to Tyrone at the minute.
In the other provinces, the winners are no-brainers, with the exception of Connacht. I fancy Galway to overcome Mayo there, which won't be the first time in recent times that Mayo will be headed for the scenic route.
I still think Mayo will easily qualify for the Super 8s. It is too early to simply say that they are ageing and the talent well has run dry. They remain a serious force and tend to get better during the year with the more games they play.
Kerry and Dublin will win Munster and Leinster respectively, both at a canter I would suggest. That means that the Championship now will really only reach fever pitch around July/August and those Super 8s.
It is hard to jump to conclusions on the new format. We have to give it a chance and the fact that businesses will benefit in provincial towns countrywide is surely a good thing.
Dublin will have to travel and it is likely that taking that wagon on the road will certainly bring a carnival atmosphere in tow. Again, this is a good thing. So there is much to be excited about.
So aside from Monaghan and Tyrone, where is everyone else in Ulster?
Donegal are a bit of an enigma.
The ‘bounce' one expects from a team with a new manager didn't exactly go to script, the Tir Chonaill men having suffered relegation from Division One.
However, you could see that Declan Bonner (below) was trying something new with Donegal.
Building a gameplan around an offensive strategy is certainly an alternative to what was the first ultra-defensive county. However, this can't just be done over a few games in a season. It takes time and a significant amount of patience and Donegal players and supporters may have to take the short-term pain for longer gains. That said, they remain one of three Ulster teams I think will reach the Super 8s.
Cavan is a long outside bet for an Ulster Championship title and Mattie McGleenan is doing a really
sound job there. He was the first to acknowledge his disappointment in results in last year's competition, so he will want to post an improved set of performances. And after a strong League showing, I think Cavan can make further progress this year.
The Armagh and Fermanagh game is just too tight to call. I genuinely think that one score will separate this contest.
Rory Gallagher will have Fermanagh very well-organised and fit. Kieran McGeeney's men will certainly not be lacking in either of the two latter areas and the hurt of those two very disappointing showings against Down and Tyrone in 2017 should give the Armagh players that desire to re-establish themselves as a force to be reckoned with in Ulster.
Down will see the Antrim game as a potential banana skin and I would tend to err on the side of caution in calling this one. Antrim are no fools and, yes, the League has not gone well for them in terms of promotion, but neither has Down's League campaign and, having suffered relegation from Division Two, there are not many places separating them currently.
Super 8s are the new Champions League and, while Down have to win an Ulster title before they even consider an All-Ireland, securing a place in the Super 8s would be a significant achievement.
Poor Derry. You look on their situation as one of pity now.
A terrible League campaign. Their confidence can't be great going into the Ulster Championship and it is hard to see any light at the end of the tunnel.
They have a young management team who need time and, most of all, patience and support to lift players to the appropriate standards. However, even in the long-term, will they break the Dublin stranglehold on Sam Maguire? Highly unlikely.
There are not many out there who will and I think Jim Gavin's men have enough for four in-a-row.