Kenny Archer: Ulster provides toughest test of club championship mettle
THERE’S something magical about the number seven. Seventh son of a seventh son and all that.
But the fact that a seventh different club in seven seasons has won the Tyrone senior football championship doesn’t magically make it ‘the toughest’ of them all to win, as some have suggested.
It’s certainly the most competitive county senior football championship in Ulster at present, but that’s a very different thing. There are a lot of clubs of a similar, fairly high, standard ‘among the bushes’, but arguably there are other clubs who are better in other parts of Ulster. Logically, those other county championships are tougher because better teams need to be beaten to win them.
Killyclogher were hugely impressive in disposing of Coalisland in Friday night’s final replay, beating the Fianna by an astonishing 14-point margin. But the true test of quality is still on the provincial scene.
And in recent times, the dominant counties in Ulster have been Armagh, Derry, and Antrim, with the trophy only being shared around clubs from those three over the past 13 seasons.
The representatives from those counties should still be among the favourites this year, and Derry’s Slaughtneil definitely are, not least because their quarter-final is against Fermanagh’s Derrygonnelly, whom they thrashed last year. No club from the Erne county has won Ulster, and their last finalist was Enniskillen Gaels in 2002. The decade before that was largely dominated by Crossmaglen and Derry clubs.
Yet, there are question marks being placed over both the Antrim and Armagh champs this season. Antrim’s Cargin travel to Tyrone to take on Killyclogher, which explains some of the doubts over the Toome team’s chances.
However, it must be remembered that Omagh in 2014 were the first finalists from Tyrone since Errigal Ciaran in 2002; what’s more, the Dunmoyle men remain the only Tyrone outfit to collect the Seamus McFerran Cup, having done so that year and in 1993.
Armagh’s champs are being overlooked this year too. Of course, that’s because Armagh has mostly equated to Crossmaglen, who had a virtual monopoly on the Gerry Fagan Cup over the past two decades, losing out only in 2009 - and in this year’s semi-final.
Cross’ conquerors Cullyhanna were then deservedly defeated in the county final by Maghery. Yet, Maghery will be determined to demonstrate that there is more to Armagh club football than Crossmaglen, even if the latter is an exceptional club.
For Maghery, that will mean winning Sunday’s quarter-final as an absolute minimum, then competing strongly in the semi-final against either Kilcoo or Glenswilly.
There are several bonus factors for Maghery in terms of achieving the first part of that. Firstly, they will have had a fortnight between their county final and Sunday’s entrance into Ulster.
Secondly, they are at home, or at least back at the county venue of the Athletic Grounds. Thirdly, they’re facing Ramor United, the champions of Cavan, a county that has never produced an Ulster Club SFC winner and hasn’t even had a finalist since Baileboro lost out to Mullaghbawn in 1995.
Fourthly, they were able to scout their opponents on Sunday due to the Cavan SFC final replay being delayed from a week earlier because of adverse weather.
Even the potential disadvantage for Maghery, that they are first-timers in Ulster, is cancelled out by the fact that Ramor last won Cavan 24 years ago, so none of their players will have played in the provincial competition then.
Back in 2009, Pearse Óg did fairly well, losing by just two points in their quarter-final against eventual champions St Gall’s, especially as that was an away game for the Armagh side.
Consider that the Milltown men went on to beat Clontibret by 10 points in their semi-final and overcome the Loup by an 11-point margin in the decider and the Armagh champions’ performance looks even better in hindsight.
The dark horse may be the ‘all blacks’ of Kilcoo, Down’s champions for a fifth year in-a-row, who will be at ‘home’ in Newry against Donegal champions Glenswilly.
There’s no doubt Kilcoo are a very good team. Indeed in three of their five provincial campaigns they have been beaten by the eventual champions.
Crossmaglen defeated them in the decider in 2012, Ballinderry in the 2013 semi-finals, and Cross again at the last four stage last year. Clontibret, another quality side, were their conquerors in 2014, while the Loup edged them in the 2009 semi-finals.
The question is whether Kilcoo can transcend their county’s relatively poor record in the Ulster club. Down hasn’t had a winner since Burren in 1988.
It clearly helps Kilcoo’s chances that they are so dominant in Down, having won the five finals by an average margin of seven points, with two 11-point successes sandwiching an eight-point win over the past three seasons. They haven’t been just limping out of a weak county.
Still, I wouldn’t discount any team containing Michael Murphy, not unless it was a team in a ‘Squeezing through a mouse-hole’ contest. Even then he’d probably force his way through.
It was mind-bogglingly surprising why Glenswilly were available at such long odds - 5/1, or even 6/1 - for their fourth Donegal final appearance in six seasons, having won the title in 2011 and 2013. They went on to reach the Ulster final three years ago.
Basically, the only team I’d put much money on to win this weekend is Slaughtneil - and I wouldn’t go over £20. The toughest championship to win? Ulster.
ON THE subject of Slaughtneil, it’s not surprising that there’s more than one ‘secret’ to the south Derry club’s ongoing success story.
Their footballers recently completed a hat-trick of Derry SFC titles and their assistant manager John Joe Kearney put the club’s remarkable achievements across various codes down to hard work at all levels.
Then, after adding the Ulster senior hurling crown at the weekend to the football version they’d won two years earlier - the first time ever for a Derry hurling side - captain Chrissy McKaigue revealed that “the secret is the players drive it. Not the management, committee, chairman - the players drive it”.
Yet, Hitting the Target has noticed something else - perhaps the real secret. Slaughtneil footballers and hurlers have both been led to their successes by outside bosses whose initials are MM - Mickey Moran and Michael McShane.
That bodes very well for Cavan’s footballers next year under Tyrone man Mattie McGleenan.