All-Ireland semi-final is the limit for Ulster sides says Paul Finlay
AN All-Ireland semi-final place is the limit for any of the six Ulster sides left in the competition, believes former Monaghan star Paul Finlay.
Donegal’s place in the last eight is assured after their first provincial title success in four years, while Fermanagh await one of the round three qualifier victors.
Monaghan are heavily fancied to dispose of Leitrim and join them in round four, while Tyrone and Cavan meet each and Armagh host Clare looking to join the four beaten provincial finalists in scraps for a Super 8s place.
Ulster hasn’t had an All-Ireland finalist since Donegal lost to Kerry four years ago, and the Ballybay man feels that while only Galway of the four provincial champions have been properly tested, the northern sides will fall short.
“I don’t [see anyone winning an All-Ireland], being honest. For all the Ulster teams that have the possibility of getting into the Super 8s, I think the All-Ireland semi-final is as far as any of them can go.
“From what I’ve seen to date, Dublin and Kerry would definitely be ahead of any team I’ve seen in Ulster. They haven’t been tested in their respective provinces so that leaves a bit of doubt as to where they’re actually at.
”But the Ulster championship, apart from a really good game between Monaghan and Tyrone, has been fairly lacklustre.
“Donegal sauntered to a title and weren’t really tested. At the minute I don’t see any of the teams having a really good cut at getting to a final.
“It doesn’t look like it at this point, but you live in hope. You don’t know what momentum will do.
“Monaghan’s target is to get into unchartered territory, get into the Super 8s in the first place and then try and break that quarter-final and get into a semi-final.
“Tyrone, Donegal, Fermanagh, they’ll all have their own goals but I don’t see them breaking that semi-final.
“If Fermanagh did get to the Super 8s, that would be great progress for them but maybe as far as they could go. Tyrone and Donegal could make a semi-final.”
Patrick McBrearty’s cruciate knee ligament injury will have a major impact on the hopes of Declan Bonner’s side, who will meet Dublin in their opening Super 8s game in just over two weeks’ time, and Finlay feels they’ve been scantly rewarded for their Ulster glory.
The Tír Chonaill men became only the fifth team in history to win the Anglo Celt from the preliminary round, with a sizeable chunk of their squad having already achieved that feat in both 2011 and 2012.
“You have to give them credit for the way they’ve handled anything that’s been thrown at them. They never looked in any trouble in any of their matches, so credit has to go to them for their consistency and level of performance,” said Finlay.
“They look to be playing well and scoring freely, but they haven’t had a really stiff challenge and nobody’s asked that many questions of them, so I suppose there is a certain unknown going into an All-Ireland series.
“It’s a massive blow to lose Patrick McBrearty, who’s one of if not the most potent forward around. [Paul] Geaney, Conor McManus and himself are the top three. To lose him is a massive blow.
“The Super 8s and the road they’ve been handed in that doesn’t appear to be advantageous for Donegal after winning an Ulster title either.
“A couple of days after coming off an Ulster title, it looks like they haven’t been rewarded as such with McBrearty’s injury, playing Dublin away and the qualifier away, and their third match at home with possibly nothing to play for.”
Finlay expects that Monaghan will get past Division Four side Leitrim in Carrick-on-Shannon this weekend, but says that his former team-mates could do with a strenuous examination of their credentials in round four, should they get there.
“In the next round there’s the potential for Monaghan to meet a really good team that can test out where they’re at mentally and in terms of their performance.
“A good, stern test after this round would possibly be a good thing to take you into the Super 8, then if you get there at least you know whether your performance levels are back to where they were pre-Fermanagh.
“I felt this Monaghan team had moved on from not holding the favourites tag very well. I didn’t see the level of performance dropping to the level it did against Fermanagh. But clearly that’s what happened.
“Fermanagh really got in their faces, didn’t allow Monaghan to get into their stride, and Monaghan struggled all day long. The expectation on the team, the favourites’ tag, they didn’t deal with it and until they put that one right, that’s going to be hanging over them.
“That’s something that will be in the back of their minds with every game in their play, I’m sure they’ll be playing with a frustration.
”You could see they flushed that out against Waterford, and they’ll go again against Leitrim. Every day they get out in the qualifiers, they’ll be looking to put things right and get consistency in their performance.
“There’s a great opportunity for Monaghan there to get back on the horse the way the draw’s been going, they’ve had loads of time to recover mentally and give the All-Ireland series a good shot.”