GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: Ulster football in rude health ahead of National League return

Tyrone managerial duo Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (brendancrossan@yahoo.com)

A WEEK after Tyrone’s glorious assault on the 2021 All-Ireland, I met Conor Meyler in a quiet coffee shop on Thomas Street in Dungannon.

It was a good hour into our conversation when I posed the question.

‘You’re sitting here now as an All-Ireland winner. You’ve reached the summit. Where do you go from here? There’s nothing more to climb. How do you climb thin air…’

Meyler is one of those interviewees that doesn’t need a lot of prompting.

In all likelihood, he probably anticipated the question. And if he didn’t anticipate the question he was already thinking about what it would be like for Tyrone defending their All-Ireland title in 2022.

‘The mountain has been climbed…’

“There’s another mountain,” the Omagh man replied.

“When you reach the summit where do you go? It’s something that I had been thinking about and had been speaking to a previous All-Ireland winner about.

“Somebody said to me that we are now the ‘hunted’, whereas we were always Tyrone with the chip on our shoulder, always hunting....

“I remember listening to a podcast with Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley. At that time Europe had won something like seven out of the last nine Ryder Cups and people were saying to them that they were being ‘hunted’.

“But he turned that question; he put up all the Ryder Cup winners of all-time and showed how many America had won...

“Tyrone have only won four All-Irelands,” he said.

“We’re still chasing Kerry - we’re still chasing Dublin. If we think we’re going to get ahead of ourselves after winning one…

“I find it fascinating teams who go back-to-back. You just have to look at the Limerick hurlers. It’s so hard to do and it’s hard being the hunted but I still feel we're hunting others, and that’s the way I would frame it.”

At the start of every new season no team undergoes intense scrutiny quite like the reigning All-Ireland champions.

Every rival and every media outlet read and listen intently to every morsel of information coming out of the winning changing room, looking for signs, little scars, crankiness, anything digestible.

It would have been big enough news any year when Mark Bradley, Tiernan McCann, Ronan O’Neill, Michael Cassidy and Hugh Pat McGeary stepped away from the Tyrone panel.

It’s even bigger news when they walk away after helping their county win the All-Ireland.

But, when one door closes another one opens. So what can we expect from the defending champions in Division One this season?

Given the emotional high the players experienced and all the trappings that come with being All-Ireland champions, the team holiday, the exits and the new arrivals, it’s probably a bit of a stretch for the Red Hands to win Division One this spring.

Make no mistake, however, facing Monaghan in Healy Park on Sunday is the best and worst fixture Tyrone could have opened up with.

‘Banty’ McEnaney’s wrists are probably already curled for battle. The great thing about this fixture is Tyrone will know exactly where they are as a group come Sunday evening.

Monaghan have been hunting Tyrone ever since ‘Banty’ first became Monaghan manager the first time around.

That narrative hasn’t changed.

Tyrone won’t – can’t – be interested in peaking during the spring months, whereas Armagh will feel a good start in the top division is more important to them than a more seasoned team like Tyrone.

The Orchard men have the game to hold their own in the division – consistency has been their problem, although not to the same extent as a couple of seasons ago.

A big question for Armagh is: can their defence afford to move Aidan Forker into the attack?

Can Rian O’Neill sustain the brilliant standards of 2021 that were topped off by his epic performance against Monaghan in Newry last summer?

Can ‘Geezer’ get a little more end product from his half-back line?

This is close to the best collection of players the Armagh manager has been able to assemble during his time in charge.

In 2020, Donegal had the gait of All-Ireland champions when they walked out of Breffni Park after handing Armagh an almighty beating in the Ulster Championship.

The next day they fell to Cavan. That’s been Donegal’s story over the past few seasons.

And yet, if you were able to build the ideal Gaelic football team, it would look something like this Donegal side.

But questions still surround their All-Ireland challenge.

Elsewhere in Ulster, hopes spring eternal in Antrim as they aim for back-to-back promotions under Enda McGinley – something that hasn’t been achieved since the colourful days of Liam ‘Baker’ Bradley a decade ago.

McGinley still carries that affable smile, but there’s a steeliness about the Tyrone man this year.

He knows promotion is a distinct possibility when he surveys the list of Division Three fixtures.

The fact that McGinley and his backroom team berated the Antrim players after beating Down in Newry and narrowly losing to Donegal in their McKenna Cup games says something about their ambitions.

Fermanagh are under new management in Kieran Donnelly and judging by the returnees, it will feel like the old band is being put back together again in 2022.

Ulster can expect to have two counties pushing for promotion out of Division Three.

Down still resemble a team pushing a heavy boulder up a steep hill. They can expect some turbulence in Division Two, but they have steady hands in James McCartan and Aidan O’Rourke at the wheel.

Arguably the most exciting Ulster project of the lot is Derry. In the doldrums for a few seasons, it’s amazing how quickly the landscape can change.

The entire Slaughtneil contingent are returning to county duty, the minor class of 2020 has added a bit of devilment to the attack, Conor Glass has the potential to morph into a top midfield operator, they a sufficient amount of scores in them too and one of the brightest minds on the sideline in Rory Gallagher.

Crucially, the Slaughtneil players had been attending some tactical sessions over the past six weeks and therefore the re-integration process should be quite smooth.

“We feel we’ve got all the best players we want available to us which maybe just didn’t happen for Derry over the years for whatever reason,” Gallagher said recently.

“We want to establish ourselves as a better team but that’s up to us to improve.”

On the face of it, Ulster football looks in rude health ahead of this weekend's National League's big kick-off.

But don’t we all say that in January…

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