Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 20 April 2014

Battle in Ulster can be best ever

Matthew Donnelly (right) has brought a new dimension to Tyrone's play
Matthew Donnelly (right) has brought a new dimension to Tyrone's play

Two years ago Donegal hosted Antrim in the preliminary round of the Ulster Senior Football Championship.

It was a turgid, lifeless, boring tie that was subsequently pilloried by every media outlet in the country.

And it gave rise to fears that the competition would be stripped of much of its character and appeal.

Happily, this did not happen but the match served as a warning that a diminution in standards could have serious repercussions for the flagship tournament in the provincial fixtures calendar.

Fast forward to today and there is now a greater vibrancy, sparkle and indeed optimism surrounding gaelic football and I make this claim conscious that some of the recent league games did not quite capture the public's imagination.

There is less emphasis on the blanket defence, a greater awareness that pulling and dragging will be severely punished and rather more focus on foot passing rather than a reliance on slavish, safety-first hand-passing.

Dublin are now the benchmark for those teams who believe they have the necessary credentials to mount a meaningful challenge for success.

Their swashbuckling style and swish finishing brought an extra dimension to the league although they are still prone to being caught on the counter-attack because of their adventurous policy.

But even if they have perceived flaws, Dublin are still box-office – and not just in the eyes of their own fans.

There is a wider appreciation of their style and almost cavalier-like approach to the game – they certainly don't appear hidebound by restrictive strategies.

Tyrone, too, are looking particularly sprightly right now with Matthew Donnelly, Peter Harte and Mark Donnelly key players, especially now that an offensive mind-set rather than a defensive outlook prevails.

And of course Donegal are very much in the hunt for what would be a third successive Ulster title and, who knows, perhaps back to back All-Ireland crowns.

They certainly have the forward power to achieve this with Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden and Patrick McBrearty very much on song while the return of Karl Lacey and David Walsh is certainly a timely bonus for manager Jim McGuinness.

Yet it has to be admitted that teams which feel they cannot offer a meaningful challenge to the more high-profile sides will retreat into a defensive shell thus detracting from the quality of games.

There is now great store placed on providing quick delivery into the front runners, something that delights the fans and leads to scores.

While managers are still loath to concede scores, they will suffer this as long as their own teams put more on the scoreboard than opponents.

And there is nothing that pleases spectators more than seeing spectacular scores.

Over the course of the league we witnessed some prodigious scoring feats from players like Conor McManus (Monaghan), James Kielt (Derry), Stephen O'Neill (Tyrone), Jamie Clarke (Armagh) and Donal O'Hare (Down).

These and other players showed that they possess the skills to enrich our games and please the paying customers.

While the majority of the Ulster Championship games will be shown live on television, it is very important that fans still come through the turnstiles in large numbers.

It is always worth remembering that 85 per cent of gate money from Ulster Championship games is ploughed back into the Association at grassroots level thus ensuring even the most modest clubs benefit from such hand-outs.

While some of the games undoubtedly hold immense attraction, others might not have such magnetic appeal for the fans.

Yet the Ulster Championship draw could hardly have been more favourable this time round in terms of throwing up some gems – and Donegal v Tyrone along with Derry v Down will do for starters in this respect.

At a time when the GAA is competing with other sports for the hearts and minds of young people in particular, it is important that the Ulster Championship provides a level of entertainment and skill that helps it retain its status as one of the most compelling competitions.

While the Allianz League could be said to have provided a barometer for the provincial series, it would perhaps be wise not to read too closely into the overall performances of some of the teams because of their injury problems.

The championship title is up for grabs although you would have to concede that either Tyrone or Donegal will perhaps ultimately end up taking delivery of the Anglo Celt Cup.

But for now, enticing fans from their armchairs into the grounds is the priority.

Legendary Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor Malcolm Brodie, who passed away earlier this year, perhaps provided GAA followers with the most satisfying boast they can justifiably make after attending a particularly memorable game when they can coin his immortal declaration: "I was there!"

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