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GAA Football

Gerard O'Kane: Questions to be answered by Ulster teams

24 February 2018; Connor McAliskey of Tyrone in action against Drew Wylie of Monaghan during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 4 match between Monaghan and Tyrone at St Mary's Park in Castleblayney, Monaghan. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile.

We have reached the half-way point of the Football League and it’s amazing to think that most Ulster counties will have played three McKenna cup games and four League games, meaning at seven matches most teams are over half-way through their quota for the year before the end of February.

This has all been squashed into a mere seven weeks, leaving the next four months (five or six if you are lucky) to play out the remaining county games.

It’s at this point that a lot of teams will reassess their early season goals and look at where they are at, where they want to go and how they would like to get there.

Looking at Tyrone, Ulster champions for the last two years, they always seem to divide opinion and generate the most column inches.

Sitting with one victory from four games, and with three very tough games to come, it would seem that relegation is a realistic possibility for Mickey Harte’s men. While all football supporters want success and want it instantly, I’ve a feeling that Tyrone may be looking long-term in a bid to try to bridge the gap which exists between them and the top two or three teams.

There is no doubting the ability and quality of their players but they have fallen short in the last two years against Mayo and Dublin.

While some people have been calling for a major overhaul of their system, maybe just minor tweaks would get them back to an All-Ireland final.

The League is the perfect arena for trying out new systems. Last weekend against Monaghan, Tyrone started with nine attacking players on the pitch. A Tyrone team of 12 months would not have tried this tactic. Tyrone ultimately lost the game by a point, but it could be a signal of intent that Tyrone do intend to commit more men to the attack further down the line.

The question is: do they stick with this new tactic or do they revert to the tried and trusted to retain Division One status? The result against Donegal on Saturday night will determine which of them is facing a serious relegation battle.

That said, credit must be given to Monaghan on Saturday. At this stage of Malachy O’Rourke’s tenure, in his sixth season, it is a disservice to say they are punching above their weight.

Monaghan have shown a level of consistency over the last six years to more than fully justify their two Ulster titles, numerous All-Ireland quarter-final appearances and playing top flight football every year.

They have developed a style of football which mixes skill and power and is hard to counteract. An All-Ireland semi-final appearance would be seen as progress but they have unfortunately been drawn against Dublin in three of the last five quarter finals.

Ironically, the two quarter-final defeats to Tyrone, when Monaghan were Ulster champions, are the ones they will look back on as missed opportunities, but this does not take away from the Ulster medals in their back pockets.

Other Ulster teams such as Antrim, Armagh, Fermanagh and Cavan are all pushing hard for promotion in their respective divisions and each to date has acquitted themselves extremely well.

With 16 games played between the four teams and 14 wins and two draws recorded, it’s a positive start for all four sides who will look to push on now as the League enters the home straight. Down should also have enough experience to remain in Division Two for another year.

Unfortunately for my own county, Derry have been unable to get the start they so badly craved under Damien McErlain.

While one victory from four is not ideal, all is not lost with the return of the Slaughtneil contingent. These fellas will not suddenly transform the side but I do think they will bring a level of leadership and experience across the next three games.

A bit like Tyrone, Derry face a question over how to approach the rest of the League. Should Damian add the Slaughtneil contingent and stick with what he has been doing in the hope of building for the long term or does he focus on the next three games in order to secure Division Three status?

As other club teams across the country are starting their season, Slaughtneil’s is only just ending. I can’t help but think that if the All Ireland was played off in the one calendar year they might be sitting with the Andy Merrigan Cup right now.

After winning Ulster, Slaughtneil were coming off the back of so much momentum and playing a brand of football that was shooting the lights out each week.

Fast forward after a 12-week break, most of which was spent juggling commitments with hurling and trying to find a suitable grass surface to train on, and they were at a massive disadvantage compared to Nemo Rangers, who have two Cork league games under their belt already.

That’s not to say Nemo were not deserving of their victory and, while other teams may feel they know how to beat Slaughtneil, ‘knowing’ it and doing it are two different things.

While the rest of us are in the middle of our pre-season. Slaughtneil will take a well deserved rest but the thought of five-in-a-row in Derry will never be too far from their minds.

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