Safe to discount Ulster Senior Championship shock... or is it?
WILL the series of unusual occurrences, sporting and otherwise, continue with a surprise champion emerging from the Gaelic battlefields of the Ulster Senior Football Championship this summer?
Leicester City stunned the soccer world with a thrilling run to the Premier League title, just what English soccer needed to break out of the doldrums of predictability. But if that was a shock, hard on its heels comes another, perhaps even more shocking shock, the shock to shock all shocks so to speak. That was when a fresh-faced, young guy named Gerry Carroll rocked the political world to its core by topping the poll in west Belfast, despite the range of seriously-strong opposition lined up against him in the assembly elections.
Sport and politics don’t mix I know, I know, but you can see what I mean. Shocks are about and is it possible that we would see the equivalent of a Leicester City or a Gerry Carroll shaking up the big players of the Ulster Senior Football Championship?
Four counties have dominated the Ulster scene over the last 16 years. Armagh may not be having the best of times recently, but they had a great run of six Ulster title triumphs in the Noughties, going on in their 2002 campaign to lift the Sam Maguire.
Similarly, Tyrone have enjoyed success, five provincial titles plus three All-Ireland final victories during that time. Mickey Harte’s squad are still very much a potent force and I feel they have that winning look about them again this year. If it’s not in Ulster, then keep a close eye on the Red Hands coming through the back door at Croke Park come September.
Donegal and Monaghan have shared the Ulster spoils this past five years. During this period, Donegal have also savoured ultimate success, lifting the Sam Maguire in 2012. Monaghan have held the Ulster reins for the past two years, so is it the turn of Malachy O’Rourke’s team to kick on to an Ulster county triumph in the All-Ireland final?
If they do, there would be some surprise but, for me, no big sense of shock. Excitement? Yes. Expectation? Yes. Celebration in bucketloads? Yes. Yes, they haven’t featured in an All-Ireland final since 1930, but this present Monaghan side have class.
I suppose, for a real shocker in the Ulster Championship, it would be safe to discount Derry, Down and Cavan. Cavan must look a long way back into their history to read of winning All-Ireland exploits, but these three sides are capable of big Ulster victories.
A shock that would measure on the Richter scale would have to come from Antrim or Fermanagh. The Erne men have never won Ulster, while Antrim’s last title celebration was back when Belfast was just coming out of the post-Second World War years.
Only one of them will be able to contest this year’s Ulster decider as they are drawn first into the fray in the opening preliminary fixture on Sunday. Both sides have enjoyed solid successes in the National League this year, Antrim topping the Division Four table before losing out in the final.
Donegal await the winners of Sunday’s preliminary clash, followed by Monaghan or Down in the semis. Derry v Tyrone, Cavan v Armagh make up the other half of the draw. Looking at that daunting path, it’s difficult to see a major shock unfolding. Much more likely, a swift exit for Fermanagh or Antrim.
But isn’t that exactly what we all thought of Leicester City and Gerry Carroll?
Thomas Hawkins, the Irish News sports editor