Kevin Madden: no splinters in my derrière; here's my good, bad and bold Ulster Championship predictions
When I look back on the non-event that was last year’s Anglo-Celt I find it hard not to feel a little nervous that we could be in for something similar this year.
Is Ulster football that bad that no-one can get within nine points of Tyrone, our best team this last two seasons?
But even more worrying was that our two best sides, Tyrone and Monaghan, actually failed to get within 10 points of the mighty Dubs.
As we look ahead to a brand new championship what else can we do other than carry the optimism that this year will be much better?
I’m not convinced we have a serious All-Ireland contender but I do think we are in for a more competitive Ulster Championship and the optimist in me says that we could actually take up half of the places in the Super 8’s.
I genuinely believe all of the first round clashes in Ulster could go either way but don’t worry there’ll be no splinters in my derrière.
Here are my good, bad and somewhat bold predictions for the year ahead.
I’ve decided to skip the warm-up and go straight into a rating exercise sure to get the blood boiling.
Mickey Harte’s men face a really tricky first round tie in Healy Park against Monaghan.
Should they get through this and kick on, they could secure a third Ulster Championship on the trot, which would be some achievement.
Although clearly not at his peak this past few seasons, the influence of Sean Cavanagh will be sorely missed. Can they adapt their running game and mix it with kicking early to an inside forward line playing closer to goal?
The argument may be that they don’t have the personnel to do this or that they can’t afford to sacrifice the likes of Mattie Donnelly who is more effective out the pitch – and if that is the case there-in lies their biggest obstacle to securing the major prize.
I think they will have a fight on their hands with the likes of Galway for second place in group stages of the Super 8’s, but their greater experience should see them qualify.
Prediction: Ulster Champions & All-Ireland Semi-finalists
The first round tie with Tyrone really is a toss of the coin, but regardless of what way it falls, there will be a bigger picture for both sets of players and management.
The Farney men are sure to gather momentum through the back door doing enough to make the Super 8’s.
With Mayo and Kerry likely to be in their group, securing an All-Ireland semi-final place will be a difficult challenge but one that is not beyond them.
They have a chance of making the Semi’s but more likely to bow out at the group stages.
Prediction: Ulster Quarter Final and Super 8’s
Declan Bonner’s men were very unlucky to get relegated from Division one, and in many of their performances they showed great promise that a new era could be dawning.
They still have great depth of quality and experience in the form of Murphy, McGee, McNiallis, McBreaty, The McHughs, McGrath, McLoone and McGlynn.
But I think it will take them at least a year to build a new team ready to win honours.
Cavan will be tricky in the first round, and it is certainly no ‘gimme’, but should they get through they will be confident that they can take care of Derry, then the winners of Down and Antrim.
Prediction: Ulster Final and Super 8’s
I feel since the start of last year’s championship Armagh have made steady progress and there is a degree of stability about their set-up.
They may be a little short on star quality but they have a fairly settled panel and they have added the experience of the shrewd Jim McCorry to the management team. T
o beat Fermanagh in Brewster, they will have to play some game. If they can get through that tie, they wouldn’t be without a chance of beating Monaghan or Tyrone.
Prediction: Ulster Semi-final and Super 8’s
Mattie McGleenan has done a good job in taking Cavan back to Division One for next season.
On league form alone they must be respected.
But to paraphrase the gump; “Cavan are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you are going to get.”
If they managed to get past Donegal, and that is possible, then they would face every chance of getting to an Ulster final.
Prediction: Preliminary Round and Round 4 Qualifier
You can see already this season that Rory Gallagher and his backroom team are going to set Fermanagh up to be very hard to break down.
After gaining promotion back to Division 2 they were badly out of luck in the final when they lost Sean Quigley to an early black card. With the same opponent up in the first round, Fermanagh will feel they have more scope for improvement than their opponents.
This will be a fascinating tussle but I just feel Armagh are on a more advanced leg of their journey. Their progress through the qualifiers, like many, will depend largely on avoiding the big hitters from those tasty first round ties in Ulster and Connaught.
Prediction: Ulster Quarter Final and Round 3/4 Qualifier
Rating the Mournemen in 7th place could be viewed harsh enough considering they made last year’s Ulster Final. Although relegated from Division 2 this season, they had impressive wins against Tipperary, Roscommon and Louth. But rumours of disharmony in the camp since, and players leaving, makes their first round tie against Antrim a potential banana skin. The surprise factor of Connaire Harrison will be gone as opposing teams will be better prepared to negate his influence. Down have some very good players in the likes of Harrison, O’Hare, Maginn, Mooney, O’Hanlon, McKernan and Johnston but they are significantly weak in some other positions.
Prediction: Ulster Semi-Final & Round 3 qualifiers
This year marks a very significant juncture for Derry football. It is 25 years since Henry Downey lifted their only Sam Maguire. But more significantly it is a crazy 20 years since their last Ulster Senior Championship title.
During this time Derry schools have won five McRory Cups; Derry Clubs have won eight Ulster Championships and the county minors have coveted four Ulster titles.
But yet and all, with all this pedigree, the Oak Leafers find themselves plumped in Division 4 for next season with little optimism about doing well in championship. Perhaps this could work in their favour though if they have got the house in order since then.
It is a big IF but should they produce one big first round victory against Cavan or Donegal, I’d actually fancy them to get to an Ulster Final. On their Mayo performance of 2017, it is a possibility, but probably an unlikely one.
Prediction: Ulster Quarter Final & Round 3 qualifiers
It is hard to make a case that my native county should be in any other position than bottom. We were the only Ulster team in Division 4 this year and we failed to gain promotion. But we do have some very good forwards who will cause the Down defence problems by running at them. If there were to be a major shock in this year’s championship this could be it.
Down will be nervous, but once again, having to play away from home, won’t be in our favour.
Prediction: Ulster Quarter Final & Round 2 qualifiers
What might the Super 8’s will look like:
Group 1: Kerry, Mayo, Monaghan and Donegal
Group 2: Tyrone, Dublin, Armagh and Galway
Something Tactical to look out for:
I think we are almost certain to see a more attack minded focus this year with teams pushing up on opposition kick-outs.
The simple maths would say that when the ball goes dead and there are more defenders back than attackers forward then the chances of an easy restart for the goal-keeper are high.
Especially when you consider the speed at which goalies now operate.
But say for example a team has a scoreable free-kick. Watch how the attacking team will all press forward to ensure no free bodies are left unmarked.
This full press strategy is a risky one as it could leave massive space out the pitch which could lead to a bigger problem should a team lose the opposition kick-out.
So I think what we are more likely to see is a zonal approach where players mark spaces and push up in three or four lines to cover the diameter of the pitch. No matter what the approach it should be fascinating and I expect that goal-keepers will be under more pressure than ever as one simple error could prove fatal.
Something that is going to fudge people right off:
I don’t think we have ever seen as much despondency among the GAA grass-roots when it comes to our games and the direction they are heading. The war between club and county around fixtures lingers on.
The fallacy that the month of April was to be the ‘month of the clubs’ has only added insult to injury. There is a clear disconnect between grass-roots and the elite that only seems to be getting wider.
The fact that BBC and RTE are now showing two live games out of a possible eight in the Ulster Championship will frustrate the masses even more.
To put in context, this is the least coverage our provincial championship has seen on our TV screens since 1990.
We know that RTE and Sky have the rights to all the games, but this year we have the ‘Super Dooper 8’s’ which will take up more of those slots, leaving less room for provincial games to be aired.
It is hard to fathom that the eagerly-anticipated first round tie between Tyrone and Monaghan won’t be shown live.
If like me, you are already pay your TV licence and a hefty enough Sky Sports Subscription, it’s ok, calm down; the GAA will not be found wanting in bringing these games to you.
There’s another pay per view mechanism that you can access called GAA Go which will kindly help you see some of the games missed by TV.
Before you start complaining, the GAA are only conforming to the same tactics as those other global professional sports. Can you taste the sarcasm?
Where will Sam end up?
Only a fool would predict anything other than four in a row for Dublin.
I honestly believe that the only team standing in their way is Mayo.
Beaten in the last two finals by a single point, I think they will be back again in the mix come the business end. They seem to be the only team with the experience and the game to really trouble them.
What is they say: third time is a charm?
We keep saying that in order for Dublin to beat Mayo in an All-Ireland Final they need absolutely everything to fall right for them. But the reality has been had they just managed to avoid catastrophe they would have at least one title in the bag.
But it has to be this year as Stephen Rochford, Tony McEntee and co. will probably step aside at the end of the season.
Churchhill once said; “The greatest lesson in life is to know that even fools are right sometimes.”
So with that in mind…