IF there are two words you’ll read more than any other this week, except maybe ‘spooktacular’ and ‘fangtastic’, it’s ‘bonus’ and ‘territory’.
Although Scotstown beat Derrygonnelly a couple of weeks ago in a preliminary round battle of four-in-a-row county champions, the Ulster Club Senior Football Championship kicks properly into gear this week, with one quarter-final on Saturday night and three on Sunday afternoon.
That preliminary round clash, which Scotstown impressively pulled away in to win 2-17 to 2-11, wasn’t just a match-up of sides on a run of domestic dominance, it was a game between the only two clubs to successfully defend their county title.
Two years ago the majority of the teams in action in the provincial series had played in it the previous year, so it’s no surprise that this year’s competition is the most open one betting-wise in years, with plenty of teams in that magical ‘bonus territory’ after winning a county title that doesn’t come their way that often.
A large part of that is due to the absence of Slaughtneil, two-time defending champions, and winners of three of the last four Ulsters, who went out of the Derry championship at the quarter-final stage after a replay against eventual champions Coleraine.
With no Slaughtneil, a familiar name have eased into the favourites’ position – but only just. Crossmaglen are back in Ulster after two years kicking their heels watching Maghery then Armagh Harps fly the flag for the Orchard county.
The last time they were in the provincial championship they won it – their record, by a mile, 11th title – thanks to an epic extra-time final win over Scotstown. Those two are probably the only clubs of the eight left for whom ‘bonus territory’ talk doesn’t apply. Notwithstanding the past two years, Cross will be heading into Saturday’s clash with Tyrone champions Coalisland with the Seamus McFerran Cup in their sights, and they’re generally 5/2 favourites to take it, while also being a best priced 1/2 (Paddy Power) to beat the Tyrone champions.
Behind Cross, Scotstown and Donegal champions Gaoth Dobhair are virtually inseparable at 10/3 (Ladbrokes/Coral), with Coleraine a little further back on 6/1 (Boylesports), Down champions Burren on 8/1 (Boylesports), Coalisland on 10/1 (Paddy Power), and Cargin from Antrim and first-time Cavan champions Castlerahan bringing up the rear on 33/1, Cargin with Boylesports and Castlerahan with just about everybody else.
Scotstown are a popular choice to lift club’s first Ulster title since 1989, thanks in part to the draw, with the other two clubs around them in the betting – Cross and Gaoth Dobhair – set to meet in the semi-final if they get past this weekend’s challenges.
Scotstown face Burren in Newry and are 8/11 to win in 60 minutes, but since they came so close to winning it in 2015, the Monaghan side – Rory Beggan, Conor McCarthy, the Hughes and all – fell at the first hurdle the past two seasons, losing to Kilcoo and Kilcar.
They’ve managed to avoid that this year with their Derrygonnelly win and should have enough to account for Burren, although their match is one where the odds on a draw, 15/2 (General), appeal. Coleraine are warm favourites at 8/15 (Boylesports) to provide the semi-final opposition and, although they must travel down to Kingscourt to face Castlerahan, the McGoldrick-powered side have enough about them to go through.
The Ulster Championship isn’t anything new for Cargin, with the big-name core of the team – the McCanns, Justin Crozier, Kevin O’Boyle, Tony Scullion – having been involved as far back as 2006. That year they lost a quarter-final replay to Clontibret, but in the two campaigns since the Toome club exited at the first attempt, to Crossmaglen in 2015 and Killyclogher the following year. Despite having home advantage of sorts at Corrigan Park, they’re 7/2 (Boylesports) underdogs against a Gaoth Dobhair side that are slightly better odds to win the whole thing.
The Donegal champions impressed hugely on their way to a first county title in 12 years. They negotiated a brutal group stage that saw them grind out wins against 2016 champions Glenswilly and beaten finalists in 2017 winners in 2015 Naomh Conaill. They then cut loose in the knockout stages, scoring eight goals to beat Bundoran in the quarters before thumping Sean McCumhaill’s in the semi.
The final, a rematch with Naomh Conaill, was expected to be a tight affair, but Gaoth Dobhair powered away in the second half against a 14-man Glenties side to score 0-17 in winning by seven.
County star Odhran Mac Naillais starred in the win, with current and former Donegal standouts Neil and Eamon McGee and Kevin Cassidy – now deployed at full-forward – also making big contributions.
However, the core of this Gaoth Dobhair team is made up of a clutch of members of the hugely impressive U21 side that earlier this year won the Ulster title.
Niall Friel, Daire and Naoise O Baoill, Gary McFadden, Michael Carroll, Odhran McFadden-Ferry, Eamonn Collum and Cian Mulligan all won provincial U21 medals in February before starting the senior county final two weeks ago. Mulligan, who scored a hat-trick in that U21 final win, and three points from play against Glenties, is a massive attacking complement to Mac Naillais.
While a trip from one side of the province to the other on Sunday isn’t an easy way to begin their campaign – and with Crossmaglen lurking after that – the Gaeltacht club have the look of a side with enough talent to make a real impression and become the first Donegal team to win Ulster since St Joseph’s in 1975. What a bonus that would be.