War for the Anglo-Celt Cup begins as Down battle with Donegal in Ulster Championship opener
LAST year Cavan's name seemed written on the Anglo-Celt Cup before a ball was kicked.
The Breffni Blues showed more bottle than the proverbial milkman and ruined betting slips and rubbished pundits' predictions with a series of stunning comebacks that saw them claim their first Ulster title of this millennium.
Well done them, but whose name is on the cup in 2021?
Donegal are the best and most consistent team in Ulster but they going to have to work their socks off to reach a 10th final in 11 seasons and win a sixth title and the long road to Clones begins tomorrow when the Tir Chonaill men cross swords with Paddy Tally's Down in Newry.
Donegal will take the field with the memory of November's Ulster final loss still fresh in their minds.
“You'd be putting it lightly to say it has been a long winter,” said midfielder Hugh McFadden with a wry smile this week.
“Not just because of the off-field situation. We had a harrowing defeat to Cavan and that's something that we'll never make peace with in one way but we just have to get up and go again. “There is nothing we'll do that will make up for the errors of that performance but the good thing about sport is you get another chance to go at it.”
The preliminary round and the extra game it requires is often viewed as the kiss of death in the Ulster Championship but this year, after just four League matches, neither Donegal nor Down can be weary. And of course there's the added incentive that one bad afternoon and it's all over from the loser.
“It's a strange situation knowing our whole Championship could be over at the weekend,” said McFadden.
“We're just finding our groove, finding our feet and it could be over... We haven't looked past Down whatsoever. Not only is there a reward of getting on in the Championship if you win but there's a reward of just getting to play football for a wee bit longer, which is definitely appetising.”
Crowds would make it even more appetising but they won't be there. 500 is the current maximum north of the border and 200 is the limit on the other side. McFadden admits that the players are getting used to playing in front of empty stands and he yearns for a return to the old days of flags and songs, head-bands and pre-match banter.
“It's definitely not the same,” he says.
“I miss the crowd and I miss the craic. You miss the experiences of places like Clones on a busy day or driving into Ballybofey… As a fan of the GAA it's not the same without the crowd and that big Donegal cheer.”
Down, with a rare home Championship game, will miss the crowd most at Pairc Esler tomorrow. Possession will be nine-tenths of the law and, if the game goes to script, Donegal should dominate it but Down have pace in their team and, if they can win enough ball then, who knows?
One thing is for sure, the walls of the Down dressingroom will be painted red and black with passion and pride before the throw-in.
This week, Mourne skipper Darren O'Hagan spoke of his pride in playing for the county.
“Pulling on the Down jersey… It's an honour,” he said with total sincerity.
The Clonduff man is not alone there.
More than half a team has walked away for various reasons and what is left is a hard-core of Down men who will give all they have to win tomorrow.
Maybe it's their name on the Anglo-Celt?