GAA Football

Kevin Madden's take on the prospects for all the Ulster counties

Cathal McShane (above) could form a formidable partnership with Mattie Donnelly over the course of the Championship
Picture by Philip Walsh

Kevin Madden casts his eye over which Ulster counties are likely to do the most damage on the national stage and who will be the last men standing come the end of the summer...

 

TYRONE

There was sufficient evidence through the league that Tyrone are ready to properly evolve their style of play to involve a more direct kicking game. Not only could this make the Red Hands a more attractive team to watch, but it can push them to another level that will allow them to be in the mix once again for the Sam Maguire.

Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly could form a formidable partnership, but I can’t see Donnelly staying inside for prolonged periods. Through the league, McShane really impressed in the ‘target man’ role as the ball was kicked consistently without fear or hesitation. Against Galway in the league, 2-4 came off these long deliveries, including 0-4 from McShane, a penalty he won and another deft flick that he made for Conal McCann to net.

If Tyrone can find the right way of making this work, it can also make their running game more effective as their opponents drop one and two men in to protect that space. I think they will win Ulster, but my feeling is they will fall just short of the big prize.

Prediction: Ulster champions and All-Ireland semi-final

 

MONAGHAN

After their shock defeat to Fermanagh in last year’s Ulster Championship, Monaghan went on to reach the Super 8s before topping a group that included Kerry and Galway.

On a day where both teams played well below par, Tyrone pipped them by a single point in the All-Ireland semi-final. They were so so close to an appearance on All-Ireland final day and there is no doubt that will have left a burning desire to get there this year.

But the question is can Monaghan reach those heights again and is there any margin for improvement? You get the feeling that the kitchen sink will be thrown at it and next year could see some retirements and even a change in manager. Make no mistake, Malachy O’Rourke is a man for getting blood out of a stone and has done a fantastic job in the Farney. But I feel that his team may have already reached the summit.

The loss of Darren Hughes is a huge blow and I fear they will fall just short this year.

Prediction: Ulster finalists and Super 8s

 

DONEGAL

Let’s be honest about it, Donegal absolutely strolled last year’s Ulster Championship. Eight, six, 10 and 12 points were the winning margins of their four encounters against Cavan, Derry, Down and Fermanagh.  But crucially, they managed to avoid their biggest two challengers in Monaghan and Tyrone. The chances of that happening again this year are very remote, with a likely pairing against Tyrone in the semi-final.

The number of drop-outs from the Donegal panel must be a concern to Declan Bonner, but he will also be confident in the depth of talent in the county right now. But the one he will undoubtedly rue the most is the hugely talented Odhrán Mac Niallais.

I do believe that the potential is there in Donegal to win an All-Ireland in the next three or four years, but I feel they aren’t ready to make that leap just yet. The return of Paddy McBrearty is a huge plus, but how close will he be to his best? Returning to top form after a cruciate ligament operation can prove very difficult.

I feel Tyrone are at a more advanced stage of their development cycle and, should they meet in the semi-final, Mickey Harte’s men will come out on top.

Prediction: Ulster semi-final and Super 8s

 

ARMAGH

If there is a dark horse in Ulster this year, I feel it could be the Orchard county. Considering they haven’t won an Ulster Championship match in the previous four years, this is quite a bold prediction.

Not only that. It is remarkable to think that, apart from Cavan, Armagh are the only county not to have reached an Ulster final in the last decade. Yes, I know what you are thinking. Even little old Antrim (2009) have participated in an Ulster decider since Armagh’s last appearance in 2008. Add in the fact that Fermanagh beat them by five points in the Championship (no offence to my Erne brethren) last year, then you could be forgiven for thinking I am completely off my rocker.

Armagh will have their work cut out beating Down in the Marshes, but I think they will have the edge in this one and, if that happens, they have every chance of beating Monaghan or Cavan in the Ulster semi-final. With exciting forwards such as Jamie Clarke, Rian O’Neill, Stefan Campbell, Andrew Murnin, Ethan Rafferty and Rory Grugan, they have enough firepower to upset the odds.

But when the heat comes on against a really good side, I feel they may just fall short.

Prediction: Ulster semi-final and round four Qualifiers

 

CAVAN

The Breffni men may have been relegated from Division One but, given the standard of competition, this was hardly a shock.

Monaghan are first up and they don’t come much harder than that. Anytime these old rivals come up against one another, it makes me think of a Mark Sidebottom special told live on TV commentary a few years ago. It went something like this: Mark: “Kevin, do you know what Monaghan and a pregnant cow have in common? Kevin: “No Mark, what do Monaghan and a pregnant cow have in common?” Mark: “Well.. they are both very close to Cavan.”

I expect there to be only a kick of the ball in this one, but I fear it’ll be the Breffni men who will have to go an ‘udder’ route and 'moo-ve' on via the back door.

Prediciton: Ulster quarter-final and round three Qualifiers

 

DERRY

The men from the Oak Leaf county are bound to be wondering what they have to do to get a break. This will be the third pairing with their arch rivals Tyrone in just four years. In those two previous meetings, the Red Hands romped home by 11 points. Derry can do better than that.

Damian McErlain’s men will be buoyed by a strong National League campaign that saw them bounce straight back to Division Three with eight consecutive victories. On their day, guys like Ciarán McFaul, Sé McGuigan and Emmet Bradley will give anyone their fill of it.

But it’s a bit like putting a winning point-to-pointer into the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The gulf in class becomes evident before long.

Prediction: Ulster quarter-final and round three Qualifiers

 

FERMANAGH

No matter what way you say, it is hard not to sound patronising when one praises Fermanagh and the job Rory Gallagher has done there thus far. An Ulster final last year was backed up by a really strong Division Two league campaign that saw them come close to gaining promotion.

In a repeat of last year’s Ulster final, they are faced with a really tough opener against Donegal. This won’t be a classic as Declan Bonner’s team have too much pace, skill and scoring options for the Erne men to go toe-to-toe.

I expect a tense, tight affair for about 45 minutes before Donegal open up and win by four or five points.

Prediction: Ulster quarter-final and round three Qualifiers

 

Paddy Tally has his work cut out to make Down competitive in this year's Ulster Championship  

DOWN

A bad start and a bad finish was the story of Down’s National League Division Three campaign. Five consecutive wins were sandwiched between two home defeats - a six-point loss to Laois in round one and a one point defeat to Louth in round seven. Ultimately, that Louth game cost the Mourne men what seemed a certain promotion to Division Two.

They can give anyone a game on their day, but their form is patchy and I’d say it may take Paddy Tally more time to make Down into a team that can challenge for any honours. Armagh are waiting in round one and there is so much at stake for both teams, I make this the tie of the round.

Losing to Armagh in the Marshes is an unbearable thought, but I feel it is an experience they will suffer.

Prediction: Ulster quarter-final and round three Qualifiers

 

ANTRIM

After a disappointing league campaign where the Saffrons finished with three wins from seven outings, it is hard to be optimistic about our chances of causing the upset of all upsets in the Ulster Championship.

With Tyrone, the probable opponent in the first round, we can only really hope to deliver a performance where we can stay competitive in the game for as long as possible. The temptation may be to go ultra-defensive, concede their kick-out and hope to play a counter-attacking game. But that was tried last year against Down and failed miserably as being competitive in a game with only 30 per cent possession is almost impossible.

Should it end up Tyrone, I feel Antrim would be better served by pressing their kick-out and contesting some key battles around the pitch. We won’t win, but to deliver a strong performance and have a real cut at it would be a stepping stone of sorts.

Progress through the back-door to round three would be great, but we will need the draw to be kind.

Prediction: Ulster quarter-final and round three Qualifiers

 

THE BUISNESS END

Provincial champions: Ulster: Tyrone; Leinster: Dublin; Connacht: Mayo; Munster: Kerry

Super 8s: Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo and Kerry are the top four teams in the country and I believe they will enter the Super 8s as provincial champions. Donegal, Galway and Monaghan are not far behind, but it is difficult to predict who else might make the breakthrough. Armagh may have a chance. Kildare cannot be ruled out either. But Meath are a county with a strong tradition, who appear to be on an upward curve. So my Super 8 are as follows: 1. Dublin, 2. Mayo, 3. Kerry, 4. Tyrone, 5. Galway, 6. Donegal, 7. Monaghan, 8. Meath.

All-Ireland semi-finals: In my opinion, the four provincial champions I have predicted will have prevailed by the end of the Super 8s. With the Munster and Ulster winners in Group One and Connacht and Leinster in Group Two, we could have a repeat of last year’s All-Ireland final between Dublin and Tyrone. But I feel it may end up Tyrone v Dublin and Mayo v Kerry in the semis.

 

CAN THE DUBS DO FIVE IN-A-ROW?

The short answer to this question is of course they can.

I have tipped Mayo too many times now and, each time, they have fallen short. Winning the National League will have been a big boost and, with James Horan back in charge, they will be there or thereabouts. Tyrone are not without a chance, but I am not convinced they will have improved enough to beat two of those other three teams in back-to-back games. Kerry, I believe, are a year or two early as their defence and midfield doesn’t match up to their attacking talent.

I wouldn’t view Dublin’s subdued league campaign as a concern for them. They are, for the first time in a long time, being talked about as being beatable, which will do them no harm as they chase an  unprecedented five in-a-row.

Who can stop them? Unfortunately, no one.

All-Ireland prediction: Dublin

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