GAA Football

Rarely has Ulster putting its best foot forward mattered more

It wasn't until months afterwards and the vote for championship reform that it became apparent the summer's Ulster final in Croke Park might have been the last one of any significance.

IF ever there an Ulster Championship that needed to parade around in its Sunday best, then it is the 2022 version.

After more than 130 years of glorious, edgy rivalry, it was close to being waved off with all the fanfare of being kicked off the WhatsApp group.

It would at least have been retrospectively fitting had the Croke Park meeting of Tyrone and Monaghan been the last time the Anglo Celt mattered. Because while there are many reasons to support change to the championship structure, nobody was buying the idea that the provincial championships would matter in the slightest if they were moved to spring and de-linked from the All-Ireland series.

The debate will come back. Change will almost inevitably happen. But when it comes to protecting the status of the provincial championships, it's Ulster they all look to for leadership.

This afternoon's draw has been downgraded from a TV event to radio. You won't have to try very hard to miss it.

And yet by the time the action rolls around next summer, we could be gearing up for an Ulster series that could derail the train that's driving reform.

The entire province distancing itself from the cannibalism of ultra-defensive football allowed Tyrone to thrive last year.

If the trend continues, 2022 could be something else.

The straight knockout format that was dusted down for the two Covid seasons is condemned once more to the past. In all likelihood, it will never be seen again.

Returning to a back-door system may turn the wine back to water. If all that existed in Gaelic football was an Ulster Championship then its best format would be one-off, kill-or-be-killed football.

But as Derry were squeezed out in Ballybofey, then Donegal lost Neil McGee, Michael Murphy and missed a penalty to succumb to Tyrone, who edged out a more ambitious Monaghan side than in recent seasons that had won its thrilling grapple with Armagh, it became apparent that the All-Ireland series had lost at least four of its best 12 teams much too soon.

Tyrone's subsequent All-Ireland success wasn't viewed as anything close to a likelihood when they emerged from Ulster, but that Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher brought fearlessness on the bus to Croke Park has reignited the self-belief that courses through the northern spirit.

It had come to feel for a while like winning Ulster had become its own end.

Now, with four counties coming from a base of Division One football next spring and with Derry on a very definite upward trajectory in Division Two, it feels that the renewed competitiveness of the province is indicative of a growing threat on the national stage.

At some point in Declan Bonner's reign, Donegal are going to win that big game. They have too much talent at their disposal to ever be discounted.

Armagh haven't managed to find the right formula yet but their steady progression under Kieran McGeeney leaves them in a strong position. Monaghan were impressive throughout 2021 and completely outplayed Tyrone in the second half of the Ulster final, only to fall short by the narrowest of margins.

A late-November championship draw will look like very little on paper until form lines start to emerge out of the spring's Allianz Leagues.

Will Down or Fermanagh get a bounce off new management and propel themselves to underdog status? Can Antrim sustain their good start under Enda McGinley? And can Cavan win Division Four with the degree of comfort that makes people reassess their true standing?

There is a top five and a bottom four as it stands. Two, if not three, of them will feel they are genuine All-Ireland contenders. Another handful will all feel they are in with a great shout. The bottom few rely on an Ulster Championship to give them something worth winning.

This afternoon will lay out the blueprint for the Ulster Championship that almost didn't matter.

In terms of holding on to its future, rarely has it mattered more.

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