Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 29 November 2014

Ulster's elite can earn Sam Maguire Cup glory

Tyrone's Aidan Cassidy and Donegal's Neil Gallagher
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte

On five occasions since 2002 the Sam Maguire Cup has come to rest in Ulster. Armagh started the ball rolling 11 years ago thus paving the way for Tyrone to win the first of their three titles in 2003, the others coming in 2005 and 2008.

Then last year Donegal claimed football's biggest prize for the second time in their history, spurning the odds and writing a totally fresh chapter in the history of the GAA through the manner in which they accomplished their feat.

Now the big question is – can 'Sam' continue to reside in the province?

I believe that the answer to this is in the affirmative. I know that a lot of people will not agree with me but I feel that having taken stock of the championship matches which have been played to date, there is every reason for thinking that at least two Ulster sides have the capacity to make a viable pitch for 'Sam'.

They are Donegal and Tyrone and if both have yet to achieve the level of performance and consistency that their respective managers would wish for, they have shown a sufficiently acceptable level of form to suggest that they can still threaten those short-odds sides deemed to be ahead of them in the pecking order.

Donegal will meet Monaghan in the Ulster final on Sunday week and while Jim McGuinness's side are strongly fancied to make it three provincial honours on the trot, it's worth remembering that the Farney county has not been too far away in terms of achieving honours in recent years.

This will be their third Ulster final in six years and they have enjoyed a stint in Division One of the league during this period.

Monaghan reserved one of their best-ever championship performances for the All-Ireland quarter-final meeting with Kerry in 2007.

On that occasion, the team, managed by the irrepressible Seamus McEnaney, were only beaten by a point (1-12 to 1-11) having had victory snatched from their grasp in the most dramatic of finishes.

Interestingly, seven of that side – Dessie Mone, Dick Clerkin, Eoin Lennon, Stephen Gollogly, Paul Finlay, Vinny Corey and Tommy Freeman – look set to start against Jim McGuinness's men on Sunday week at St Tiernach's Park, Clones which just happens to be Monaghan's home ground.

Yet for all their experience, power and commitment, I don't think that Monaghan will stay the course to become a significant player in the race for 'Sam'.

Instead, Donegal, particularly if they are at full-strength which means having the injured Neil Gallagher, Karl Lacey, Ryan Bradley and Frank McGlynn back on board, look capable of making it three in a row in the province thereby thrusting themselves into the running for the big one. They may have been stretched to the limit by Down in their Ulster semi-final but I suspect that Donegal will be all the better for having played this game.

They have strength in depth, too, with Martin O'Reilly, Ryan McHugh, Martin McElhinney, Dermot Molloy and Ross Wherity populating their bench.

Tyrone, too, look to have the resources to reach the closing stages of the All-Ireland series and, who knows, perhaps make it four All-Ireland titles in 11 years.

They have had their injury worries recently with Stephen O'Neill having missed the last two games but now that they are building up a head of steam I can see them offering a threat to more fancied sides.

I don't think any team will relish being drawn against them and I feel that manager Mickey Harte will have his players in the right frame of mind for the cut and thrust of the closing stages of the Championship.

In the qualifiers to date players like Darren McCurry, Kyle Coney, Kevin Gallagher and Sean Warnock have stepped up smartly to the mark when they have been given their chance and they will no doubt be anxious to pursue starting places for the Ulster showpiece occasion.

Reservations have, of course, been expressed about Tyrone's strength in depth but I still believe they have enough talented players to remain a force.

When you look at the experience contained in the side through such players as Sean Cavanagh, Conor Gormley, Joe McMahon, Dermot Carlin, Pascal McConnell, Martin Penrose, Mark Donnelly and Colm Cavanagh you detect right away that they won't be fazed by the challenge.

Not so long ago it was considered an achievement in itself if Ulster managed to get teams into the All-Ireland quarter-finals. But the bar has been raised considerably now for teams from the province.

They recognise that they can give as good as they get on the field of play and are aware that they carry the pride of the province on their shoulders.

While I am in no way minimising the impressive credentials of Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Mayo, I still believe that in any rational assessment of the All-Ireland title race it is absolutely essential to keep a weather eye on the overall strength of Donegal and Tyrone in particular.

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