Sport

McKenna Cup might be one to remember - Pele certainly was

Kenny Archer

Kenny Archer

Kenny is the deputy sports editor and a Liverpool FC fan.

Tyrone's trouncing by Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup game at Kingspan Breffini Park last January set the tone for a poor season by the Red Hands.
Tyrone's trouncing by Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup game at Kingspan Breffini Park last January set the tone for a poor season by the Red Hands.

Honestly, without checking I couldn't have told you who won last year's McKenna Cup. I knew it wasn't Tyrone, or Antrim or Fermanagh or Down. However, of the other five in Ulster, I probably wouldn't have plumped for the county which did collect the trophy.

Part of the reason for that is I didn't report on the semi-finals or final (at least as far as I can recall); another factor was that I knew the stock answer was incorrect.

Tyrone won it a round dozen times under Mickey Harte, and didn't always add major silverware, but it tended to set the tone for the season ahead.

That was certainly the case last year – but not in a good way. A rot had clearly set in with the reigning All-Ireland champions.

The Red Hands were absolutely atrocious against Cavan, lucky to only lose by 15 points, and although they put up a much better fight against Armagh, they still lost – as they were to do against the Orchardmen in both League and Championship.

Indeed Tyrone managed only one point from three League games against Ulster rivals – an opening draw at home to Monaghan – and only beat Fermanagh in the Championship, before defeats to Derry and Armagh.

A better record against Ulster opposition this season will be much-needed, with Armagh, Donegal, and Monaghan up there again in Division One.

The Red Hands are in Section B, which pits Derry manager Rory Gallagher against his native county Fermanagh and his mother's home county of Tyrone. The trans-Sperrin showdown at Owenbeg in round three a week from now – weather permitting – should decide which team tops the table.

Section A is 'the Group of Debut', with new managers for all three counties – Donegal, Down, and Monaghan. Mourne County boss Conor Laverty is unlucky in being pitted against two Division One teams, although that may lessen pressure/ expectations somewhat.

All Down fans can/will seriously expect is greater commitment from their panel of players; Laverty will demand and inspire that, but he's not a miracle worker.

New Donegal manager Paddy Carr – and his back-room team including Derry's Paddy Bradley and the much-travelled former Armagh star Aidan O'Rourke – is already under scrutiny. There'll be much more goodwill towards Monaghan boss Vinny Corey, a popular player who has stepped up to be the main man on the sideline.

Section C is Armagh's to lose, with the Orchardmen up two Division Three teams in Antrim and Cavan. Kieran McGeeney's squad should contain more than enough depth of talent to see off both of them, even if the Breffnimen should be at least a top 16 side.

Antrim, under the new management of Meathman Andy McEntee, have much to prove in terms of commitment and desire. Earning promotion looks like a long shot for them, so the McKenna Cup could be an opportunity for them to raise hopes ahead of a probably Tailteann Cup campaign.

The Saffrons would probably have to beat Armagh, Cavan, and Donegal or Down in the Ulster Championship in order to qualify for the Sam Maguire Cup. Competing well against Armagh and Cavan in the McKenna Cup would be a decent start.

Of course not too much should be read into the McKenna Cup, given that Monaghan didn't do too much last year after defeating Donegal in the decider.

Yet there can be lessons learnt, by new managers and old, by experienced players and newcomers.

Armagh might wish they'd practiced penalties more after their semi-final loss to Monaghan, while Donegal might be glad of a tune-up against top flight opponents after an easier route last year.

With the League feeding into the All-Ireland Championship(s), this quick-fire McKenna Cup may well be one to remember.

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My earliest awareness of the late, great Pele came from a soccer annual, which included a feature about his retirement match in 1977.

Obviously, old as I am, I'm still too young to have had the fortune to see him play live.

What impressed me most from that article was the fact that he played one half for New York Cosmos and the second half for opponents Santos, completing the circle of his club career. Pele was always going to be a winner on that occasion, but – of course – he did score a free kick for the hosts in the Giants Stadium in a 2-1 Cosmos victory.

Watching video clips of him in the years since then, he was an absolute marvel.

His combination of pace, power, skill, bravery, resilience, and game intelligence was extraordinary. He was two-footed, great in the air, and industrious. Pele had everything.

I don't subscribe to either nostalgia or recency bias.

Greats would be great in any era.

Yes, the game was slower back then, but Pele would have benefited from modern training and preparation methods and been even quicker and stronger than he was.

Sure, football was rougher, tougher back then – but Lionel Messi would have been able to bite back at hackers, and his teammates would also have put manners on the thugs.

Diego Maradona was probably the greatest pure talent, but his off-pitch demons hampered his career.

In 2016, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Ballon d'Or, France Football magazine assessed alternative winners before 1995, up to which time only European players were considered for that prestigious accolade.

Pele was awarded that title seven times. Seven. From 1958 to 1961, and again in 1963, 1964, and 1970. For comparison, Diego Maradona received that retrospective recognition twice, in 1986 and 1990.

Like Messi, Pele was remarkable for his longevity and for being a team player.

The only man to win three World Cups, he also collected two Copa Libertadores with Santos and added the Inter-Continental Cup on both occasions, beating Benfica and AC Milan.

Had Pele signed for Real Madrid, their tally of European Cups would surely now stand at close to 20. If he'd gone to Barcelona they wouldn't have had to wait until 1992 to win their first.

Heck, he could even have taken Everton onto the winners' podium, he was that good.

As with Muhamad Ali outside the boxing ring, Pele transcended his sport.

The fact that both were black is important. Both were subjected to racism, but they helped at least some idiots realise that what mattered was ability, not skin tone.

They gave pride to people of colour, both proving that far from black men being 'soft', 'lazy', or inferior, they could actually be the best.

The King has gone, but he'll never be forgotten.