GAA Football

Ulster SFC reasons to be cheerful, parts 9

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte can feel optimistic as the Championship begins. Pic Philip Walsh

I KNOW. You know too. We all know.

What? You don't really need me to spell it out, do you?

We know Dublin will win the Leinster SFC – and probably the All-Ireland. Kerry will win Munster .

Connacht will go to Galway or Mayo – and even 'ultra-competitive' Ulster is a three-horse race, albeit no longer contested by the thoroughbreds of previous years.

Isn't it?

There've been enough column inches, broadcast minutes, and social media megabytes devoted to what's wrong with the football championship format. Some of those gripes have even been here.

Yet for now, we are where we are and it is what it is.

Rather than point out the negatives, let's look for the positives.

After an unusually long wait between the end of the League and the start of the Championship, this is not a time for moaning.

There are reasons to be cheerful for every Ulster county – every single one, let me tell you.

Monaghan must feel that this Championship campaign will certainly start better than last year's ended. They have their sights set on returning to the Ulster Final, hopes and dreams looking more like reality thanks to the emergence from a long injury nightmare of another sharpshooter to back up Conor McManus, namely Jack McCarron. And they've got Malachy O'Rourke.

How Fermanagh would love to have the Devenish man back – except they've got Pete McGrath.

Fermanagh don't need me to provide positive thoughts for them – they've got the wonderful Pete McGrath.

In case he has a rare doubtful day this Saturday, the Ernemen are the first up of three Ulster counties about whom there are effectively no expectations. Well, that's not quite true – the villainous experts are pointing at them and declaring: 'No, I expect you to lose'. Yet as Pete will tell them, they can win.

Viewed even less favourably than Fermanagh, Antrim go to Donegal this Sunday not so much as underdogs but as undermice, perhaps underlice. That's how low most people rate their chances of beating their hosts in Ballybofey.

I'll help the Saffrons out here by declaring definitively that they won't win. Yet they can certainly enjoy themselves with a promising, vibrant new-look team that deserved better than demotion from Division Three.

Besides, it's really a bonus that the game is in Donegal as Belfast-based supporters will be able to find their way there.

Donegal supporters can't really complain. They've got home advantage against the current weakest side in Ulster and then they will have a great derby game to look forward to. That'll either be against Tyrone, who needed some absolute wonder scores to achieve a rare victory of recent times over the Tir Chonaill men in last year's Ulster Final, or Derry .

Yep, 'or Derry '. Oak Leaf supporters have been talking down their chances ever since the draw was made but the trans-Sperrin rivalry can always throw up surprise results, like a teenage fan on a long bus journey to Celtic Park .

Even the most negative of Derry followers (judging still ongoing in that competitive category) has been voicing this glimmer of hope: 'We're bound to at least get wired into them this year, aren't we?'

Tyrone should still fancy their chances of winning any fight – they're a tough, fit team. They can also play football pretty well, despite what the naysayers, er, say.

Mickey Harte remains one of the best managers around and he'll be working on getting a better return from the chances his team creates.

Anyway, some Tyrone 'supporters' really can't lose, namely the 'outers', as a pessimist is never disappointed.

Down fans will be dancing, obviously. They've got their long-awaited, long-demanded home Ulster opener, the first since the last millennium. Prince may have passed away but the Mournemen (and ladies) are surely going to party like it's 1999.

Sure, there may be some nerves that they're welcoming old rivals Armagh to the Marshes, but Down are due a Championship win over the Orchardmen.

In fact their only reason to worry is about all the recent rain.

Armagh will make the short journey to Pairc Esler with hope in their hearts. They scored for fun in the League. And then scored some more. And more.

Yes, they struggled to close some games out, but where's the fun in that?

Let's hope that Kieran McGeeney perseveres with his attacking approach. He's due an Ulster Championship win as a manager too.

Cavan have the greatest cause to be glum. Just as their wait for an Ulster Final appearance, never mind an Ulster title, goes on, so does their wait to play a blooming game.

Happily, they have the greatest antidote to pessimism in the shape of their manager, Mattie McGleenan. The former Tyrone full-forward shakes his famous fist in the face of doom-and-gloom merchants.

That's all the optimism got out of the way, before a football has been kicked or, much more likely, hand-passed backwards.

Normal service will resume next week.

* Maybe there is one reason to be tearful, with the announcement of the inter-county retirement of Joe McMahon.

Not really, though; the Omagh man enjoyed a great career with Tyrone, and will surely be thought of fondly far beyond his home county.

We're told that 'You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone' but Tyrone supporters are well aware of what Joe brought to the team, including whole-hearted endeavour, versatility, and tremendous game intelligence.

A smooth sweeper with the number 12 on his back, he also excelled at full-back in his two All-Ireland Finals.

His absence was notable when he was forced off with a broken jaw after 50 minutes of the 2011 Ulster semi-final, having very tightly marked Michael Murphy (who did not injure Joe). That proved a huge turning point for Donegal under Jim McGuinness – but Joe had plenty of medals already won.

'Big Joe' was an all-round footballer, with the ability to play almost any position, and he was also an all-round good guy – and surely should have been an Allstar at least once.

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