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Danny Hughes: Championship buzz is starting to fill the air

 Pitches are being prepared for another Championship summer. Picture by Hugh Russell

ON Sunday, May 5, Mayo travel to play New York in the opening game of the 2019 Championship.

With the Ulster Championship preliminary round the following Sunday, inter-county teams are in the final phase of preparations.

You may wonder what this entails.

In my experience, there is a significant amount of physical work being undertaken.

In the past this could involve continual 80-to-200m runs with perhaps anywhere from six to eight in a set, with a 20-second to one-minute rest in between depending on the distance.

During the course of a training session, three or four sets of these types of runs would be considered adequate from a fitness perspective.

In the past, you could be looking at a fair amount of ball between the hard physical stuff.

These can mean small-sided games, high-intensity tactical matchplay and, at times, one-on-one defending v attacking.

Sometimes in Gaelic football the more complicated the drill the more irrelevant it seems. Keep it simple – that’s my philosophy.

The fundamentals of the game haven’t changed hugely, but the pace and speed at which these are being carried out has.

Tackling is such a subjective skill, open to interpretation by officials and players, that any preparation in training can easily become poorly executed by players should coaches allow the tackler to get away with being overly robust.

In the games that I have seen, the one area Armagh appear weak in is the tackle.

There is certainly nothing wrong with their physicality, but it is the discipline in the tackle which could cost them in the Championship when they face Down.

The type of referee they get in Championship matches will dictate a lot, but when this is the case, you leave the result in the lap of the footballing Gods.

Down will have enough possession to win the game but, then again, like Armagh, Down appear to be happy enough to allow the opposition to hold possession while they rely on the counter-attack.

There is no doubt that Armagh will dominate the physical exchanges.

They are big, powerful men – but the game is not as much about brawn anymore.

Tyrone play Derry in the preliminary round in less than three weeks and, while there is no love lost over the years between ex-players and supporters, the rivalry has become much less toxic.

Derry are no longer a threat to Tyrone and I don’t see any reason why 2019 will be any different.

A Division Four title is all well and good but, let’s be honest with ourselves, Tyrone have beaten Dublin, Monaghan, Galway and Cavan.

The Dublin result was in the second last game so the feeling that they can finally live with the All-Ireland champions will instil hope as well as confidence.

When you go back to the golden eras of Ulster football in the early 90s and the Noughties, there was a correlation between success at National League level and Championship level.

Some say that Down came out of nowhere to win an All-Ireland title in 1991.

People forget that Down were in a National League final in 1990, playing the great Meath team of the era and, while they were beaten, the game gave Down players a fair bit of confidence moving forward.

Revenge was sweet in 1991.

In 1992, Derry and Tyrone played in a National League final with Derry winning by a fortuitous score.

In 1993, Derry went on to capture their greatest prize.

Around that time Donegal and Tyrone were competing in National League semi-finals and finals, as were Down.

So, Ulster counties’ domination was no flash in the pan.

In the early Noughties, the trend continued, especially for Armagh and Tyrone. So, the League counts.

For this very reason, Mayo supporters and their secret admirers will perhaps garner hope that they can break their long wait for Sam Maguire.

Monaghan, without Darren Hughes, will hope to beat a Cavan team who competed admirably in the top division without landing any serious blows.

From a Cavan perspective, it is ideal preparation, while Monaghan will have to rely on all their experience and class to get a win at Kingspan Breffni.

In Malachy O’Rourke, Monaghan have one of the top five managers in the country, a class tactician and man-manager.

A lot rests on the form of Conor McManus. This is a pressure he has carried for many years now, but he has never been overwhelmed by the burden.

McManus on fire will take Monaghan a long way.

Fermanagh have become better under Rory Gallagher – much better.

They are competitive, well organised, spirited and, with an excellent National League campaign under their belts with wins against Donegal and Kildare, they are a match for anyone on their day.

Is an Ulster title out of the question? No, but the stars would need to align to give them a realistic chance.

Antrim play the winners of Tyrone and Derry, with the realistic outcome a match with the Red Hands.

The Saffrons have an inferiority complex which extends to the field.

Some of the best players in the county are not even on the county panel and, while this disconnect continues, Antrim Gaels suffer.

It is such a pity, particularly as Down clubs cheek-by-jowl with Antrim such as Carryduff and Bredagh are beginning to be serious underage and senior club sides.

As a result, some of these clubs’ best talent is now beginning to break into the county squads at minor, U20 and senior level.

I am torn between a Tyrone

v Monaghan Ulster final and a Donegal v Monaghan Ulster

final.

Either way, the surest thing appears to be that Donegal and Tyrone will meet in the last four.

But this is the Ulster Championship and you never quite know.

What you do know is that if you aren’t on your game on every given Sunday in Ulster you will get your rear end kicked.

And that’s just by your own supporters.

Dare to lose at your peril.

I can already start to smell the freshly-cut grass.

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