Kevin Madden assesses the Ulster GAA Championship battles
It seems the knives have been out for Mickey Harte in some quarters of Tyrone lately; which I find rather peculiar to say the least.
Apart from the incredible success he has brought in the past, the Red Hands are reigning Ulster champions, playing Division One football, for crying out loud.
Some folk should be careful for what they wish for and grateful for what they have.
God forbid that he ever downs tools to end up managing another county.
I can just imagine the hoards of angry, scurrilous wee men in their Tyrone hoodies belting out chants of ‘Judas’ from the stands.
Jose Mourinho experienced this recently from the Chelsea fans and I can only imagine Mickey Harte might offer a similar retort to that of the ‘special one.’
It would go something like this:
“Until the moment they have a manager that wins four All-Ireland’s for them, I'm the No 1.
“When they have somebody who wins four All-Irelands for them, I'll be No 2. For this moment, Judas is No 1.”
This time last year, there was a real air of positivity about the Tyrone Senior Football Team. The previous season had saw them put Kerry to the pin of their collar in an All-Ireland Semi-final and the confidence was there that they would kick on and win an Ulster title.
Mission was then accomplished come mid-July 2016. But after an abject performance against Mayo in the All-Ireland Quarter Final they were left cursing some of their old failings such as free-taking and running the ball too much.
But they started the league this year in blistering fashion with three wins and a promising draw against Dublin in their first four games.
But what followed was a disappointing end where they managed to lose their last three games against Donegal, Mayo and Kerry. Tyrone have lots of very good inside forwards but they need to get them firing.
It is likely to be three from six of Lee Brennan, Ronan O’Neill, Darren McCurry, Mark Bradley, Cathal McShane and Sean Cavanagh. Not a bad selection to choose from but it will be important to get the blend right.
The challenge for Mickey Harte is formulating and perfecting a game-plan that brings more kicking of the early ball, and a little less soloing.
If they can marry those things together with consistent free-taking then a Tyrone coming in under the radar are a dangerous proposition.
It is my belief that the Ulster Championship can only be won by three teams this year, namely Donegal, Tyrone or Monaghan.
I suppose that prediction shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you consider this trio have shared the last eight Anglo-Celts between them and all three will ply their trade in Division One of the National Football League in 2018.
This domination by two or three teams isn’t really new territory for the Ulster Championship. From 1999-2010 Tyrone and Armagh shared all twelve Ulster titles between them until Donegal broke that stranglehold in 2011.
But even during that period of dominance I always felt you could make a case for at least three others, who had the quality to spring a surprise or two.
My theory that the gap is ever widening looks to be shared by the book makers when you consider the odds for this year’s Anglo-Celt are Tyrone 7/4; Donegal 11/4, and Monaghan 4/1.
I’m not sure Derry have ever been 20/1 for Ulster but in some places they are that price and still unbackable in my opinion. Apart from the Down and Armagh game, it seems there is an inevitability about all the other ties which could make for a fairly predictable campaign.
Malachy O’Rourke will be hoping that his Monaghan charges are following the pattern of an Ulster title every other year, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
After being drawn in the preliminary round, it will take four games to do it. But they are arguably on the easier side of the draw avoiding both Tyrone and Donegal who would meet in the Semi-final should they dispose of Derry and Antrim.
The emergence of Jack McCarron during the league was a huge plus that will add some extra quality to their inside forward line. Conor McManus has been sensational for Monaghan in the last number of seasons but their over reliance on him for scores has been a worry.
Should McCarron manage to bring his league form forward to championship, then these two will be a formidable duo for any defence.
With Colin Walshe now playing good football at half-back they have even more pace and power coming from deep.
Both he and Karl O’Connell will be hard work for any half-forward line.
Having come so agonisingly close last year, Rory Gallagher will be desperate for his charges to get their hands on a provincial title for the first time since 2014.
With a few of the elder statesmen retiring, you could be forgiven for thinking that Donegal would have difficulty in replacing the likes of the two McGees, Christy Toye, David Walsh, Colm McFadden and big Neil Gallagher.
Then you add in the trio who opted out (Odhran MCNiallis, Anthony Thompson and Leo McLoone) and you could easily be drawn to using the word ‘transition’ when describing the Tir Conaill men.
But they had a great league campaign just narrowly missing out on making the final.
They successfully integrated some new faces from the Under 21s.
Caolan Ward, Eoghan ‘Ban’ Gallager, Michael Carroll, Jason McGee, Stephen McBrearty, Paul and Jamie Brennan are far from household names, who slipped in rather seamlessly and did well.
Add in another bright prospect Michael Langan, who kicked 0-19 in their successful Ulster U-21 championship campaign and you would have to consider replacing the word ‘transition’ with ‘rejuvenation’. I think this year we will see a fresher, albeit less experienced Donegal.
So that’s my top three contenders.
Before I make my outright predictions for the Ulster and All-Ireland campaigns, let’s look ahead to each individual tie.
Monaghan v Fermanagh
The preliminary round to kick things off might be a much closer encounter than people think. Fermanagh may have had a disappointing league campaign that ended in relegation but the huge strides which they have made under Pete McGrath won’t have evaporated that quickly. Fermanagh have a big game in them and to be fair weren’t so far away from dumping Mayo out of last year’s qualifiers. They have some excellent players but not just enough to cause an upset in my opinion. In essence, Monaghan look like they have improved from last year, whereas Fermanagh have probably plateaued or even regressed a little.
Donegal v Antrim
The national broadcaster are fairly confident there won’t be much entertainment in this particular tie. When RTE announced it’s championship schedule, this was the only fixture of the entire campaign they deemed unworthy of live TV coverage. Antrim may be just about bottom of the pile in the province, but it is almost an annual trend now that no matter who they are playing, the same coverage will not be afforded. That should be another nugget of motivation to ensure we go to Ballybofey and fight for our lives. Antrim will have a stronger hand to pick from than what they used during the league. Boosted by the news that Matthew Fitzpatrick had his one match ban rescinded, they will also have captain James Laverty and marquee forward Tomas McCann back in contention for places. When Donegal pulled off a draw at home against Dublin back in February, that extended their league and Championship unbeaten run in Ballybofey to 32 games. I don’t know for certain, but I am thinking that perhaps Antrim were the last team to actually win there back in 2009. Could this be an omen? Will we see the mother of all shocks here on May 21st? Unfortunately, I can’t see that happening and recent league form will tell us that. Back in February Donegal were drawing with Dublin, whilst Antrim were getting tanked in Offaly. Three divisions separate the sides and I’d expect Donegal should have too much quality and experience.
Derry v Tyrone
In last year’s championship this corresponding fixture was over after about 20 minutes. Defensively, Derry were all over the place and in the end all they had to offer were acts of frustration that saw them reduced to thirteen men. At that stage it was far too late for war. I not sure we will see an epic ‘Battle of the Bogside’ this time around either, but if the Oak Leafers can compete for the first thirty five minutes, then we could at least be treated to a closer, more exciting contest. With the Slaughtneil contingent back to bolster the defence, and young exciting talents such as Danny Tallon likely to feature in attack, Derry have the ability to compete. Compete they may, but I am not so sure they will have the belief that they can win.
Down v Armagh
This should be closest to call out of all the first round ties as there seems to be little to separate both teams. Down somehow managed to stay up in Division two of the NFL after scraping a draw away to Cork on the last day. At the same time, Armagh ruined their promotion challenge as they hit the self-destruct button in the dying moments against Tipperary. I do feel however, that Armagh have more scope for improvement and in attack they have some really good options with Jamie Clarke, Rory Grugan, Stefan Campbell and Oisin O’Neill a real handful for any defence. If there is to be a dark horse of this year’s Ulster Championship, I feel it could be Kieran McGeeney’s men.
The Ulster Championship draw has been good to Monaghan in recent years, particularly when they won it in 2013 and 2015. In 2013, wins over Antrim and Cavan were enough to set up a final meeting with Donegal. In 2015, they disposed of Cavan and Fermanagh before beating Donegal again in the decider. This year, the path to the final is more difficult with a tricky tie against Fermanagh in the preliminary round which would be followed by an even tougher game against Cavan in Round one. Should they get through that, they would face the winners of Down and Armagh in the Semi-Final. It is a longer road, but arguably the easier side of the draw as they yet again crucially avoid the big two of Tyrone and Donegal. It’s just seems to be an every two years type of thing.
As much as it pains me to say, I don’t believe Ulster has a serious contender for this year’s All-Ireland. If Tyrone can address some of their previous failings they have the potential, but there was little evidence of this during the league and since 2015 they seem to have fallen a bit further behind Dublin and Kerry. Monaghan look like they have scope for improvement and their All-Ireland path will be worth watching closely. A fresher, rejuvenated Donegal will be an interesting prospect but inexperience may cost them. So a bit like Ulster, my feeling is that this year’s All-Ireland will be a scrap between three teams: Dublin, Kerry and Mayo. The men from the Kingdom will be buoyed by their league triumph over the Dubs and with a few new faces in the fold they look to be coming strongly. Mayo, you feel, will get over the line some of these days but they have been the gallant loser for so long, it has become hard to back them with any strong conviction. So that leaves you know who. Dublin are going for three in a row, a feat which hasn’t been seen since the great Kerry side of 84, 85 and ’86. And who’s to stop them?