Sport

John McEntee: Universities finding McKenna going tougher and tougher

Armagh's Stefan Campbell and Monaghan's John McCarron during Wednesday evening's Dr McKenna Cup clash in Armagh Picture by Declan Roughan

FEW teams would dare begin a competition without having first tested out budding stars or new patterns of play in game situations.

This is where challenge games are beneficial. However, the psychology of challenge games are such that they are always approached with a friendly attitude, whether the manager likes it or not.

In this respect, the concept of the Dr McKenna Cup, as with the other provincial competitions, has something positive to offer. It is a proper competition and there will be an overall provincial winner.

There are no negative consequences in terms of demotion, but it would be naive

to think repeated hammerings aren't embedded into a players' psyche. Repeated losses can make players think their likelihood of achieving success in the League or Championship is lessened.

Research shows that repeated failure automatically distorts perceptions of goals and makes them seem more unattainable. Furthermore, it can make a player believe he is not as good as his opponent. I can't help but feel this is the primary reason Mickey Harte wants to always win the McKenna Cup.

When they won each of their six in-a-row they didn't party like the Gaoth Dobhair lads. Instead, a clear message was being circulated that the Tyrone team were very fit and focussed and they meant business. Donegal echoed that same message last year.

So, where does this leave university teams? After the

first two rounds of games, and before last night's matches

Ulster University, Queen's and

St Mary's sported scoring

deficits of -8, -24 and -25 respectively.

Paddy Tally's appointment as the Down manager allows him to view the McKenna Cup through a different lens than in previous years when he was manager of St Mary's.

I'd be interested in hearing whether he thinks this competition is good for university teams' preparations for the Sigerson Cup, which begins on January 30.

In particular, I'd be interested in his views on how the obvious competitive mismatches influence psychological resilience in university players or how they could possibly develop systems of play when they are repeatedly thwarted and overturned.

The notion that you control the controllables – that his players focus on the things they can positively influence – struggles to hold when the opposition is largely in control of everything. It maybe the case that universities only compare their progress against other university teams, thereby ignoring their losses week in, week out.

This is an effective strategy

but it makes me wonder what benefits there are to their continued involvement in this competition.

I sense more teams are treating the McKenna Cup with a degree of respectability in 2019. It is perhaps a consequence of the rising pressures felt within

inter-county football to be fitter, faster, better prepared, brought on by the introduction of the Super 8s last year.

Eight out of nine teams in Ulster have been training upwards of three months prior to the McKenna Cup. No longer is it perceived as a pre-season competition, rather it is thought of as essential preparation for the League.

The evidence for this observation can be seen in the number of star players togging out each week to fight for their places and in the serious approach of many managers as they select teams in a bid to win games.

Furthermore, it is apparent

that the decent club footballer who is not your archetypical county pro in terms of physique and commitment is no longer going to get a county appearance within the competition. So,

does it make the games more attractive? Absolutely not. Mismatches are never attractive, never mind value for money for the paying punter.

My trip to Pairc Esler for the Down v Donegal game to see what the Mourne county have to offer at this early stage of the year was as disappointing as realising I wasn't the winner of that £114 million Lotto jackpot.

If I am looking for six lucky numbers, Paddy Tally is on the look-out for six more players to begin moulding a team. I fear the chances of either of us finding happiness in either objective is slim.

It strikes me that Down might have 15, perhaps 16, quality players who will be competitive come Championship, but their input thus far in the McKenna

Cup demonstrates a severe

lack in depth which will be concerning for him and the Down faithful.

By his own admission in this newspaper on Monday, he is fully aware that they have a mountain to climb to be competitive with the Donegals and Tyrones of this world. Fortunately for him and his team, their League competition avoids the top teams.

Down is a beast that thrives from winning – and they need to start doing it before the fear of failure sets in.

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