There is a general consensus that the standard of inter-county football in Ulster has declined this year.
Donegal’s Michael Murphy and Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh (above) have helped to bring their teams into the last nine of the All Ireland series – but for the remainder of Ulster counties the championship season has been frustrating
The cynics of course are having a field day right now pinpointing the dramatic demise of Down, Derry and Armagh in particular in the All-Ireland qualifiers.
But anyone who believes that the province’s fall from grace has its roots in the championship fare which spanned the past two months has failed to read the warning sides that were flashed when we were still experiencing sub-zero temperatures and crowds were being measured in hundreds rather than thousands.
Back in the February-March period, while the majority of Ulster sides were encountering difficulty in garnering National League points, the wheels of progress were turning rather more rapidly in other quarters.
Dublin were then immersed in their by now famous early-morning training sessions, Kildare’s carefully-planned stamina-building regime, which was fully operational, would have done justice to army commandos, Cork were tweaking what had already proved to be a successful side and Kerry were downplaying (not too convincingly) the ongoing absence of some marquee performers.
It is no coincidence that all four teams remain in the hunt for ‘Sam’ where they have been joined by a Tyrone side which only began to prosper in the second half of the league and a Donegal outfit that has elevated a blanket defence strategy into an art form.
Donegal poured scorn on the notion that a team can peak too early by not only winning promotion to Division One in which they have now joined Down and Armagh but claiming the Division Two title by beating Laois prior to becoming unstoppable in the Ulster championship.
There though the pluses, such as they are, end for Ulster. Tyrone and Derry missed out on promotion to the top bracket in which Armagh survived only by the skin of their teeth, Monaghan tumbled into Division Two, Antrim made an all-too-hasty return to Division Three in which they joined struggling Cavan and Fermanagh wallowed ignominiously in Division Four.
The notion too that the championship would bring compensation for any of these sides was quickly, almost savagely, dispelled. The Ulster representatives for the most part fell like ninepins as the perceived big guns showed that tradition, professionalism and utter dedication counts for a great deal in the pursuit of a major goal.
Who would have thought at the outset of the championship series that Limerick, Mayo and Roscommon would be among the last nine sides standing in the hunt for ‘Sam’ at the tail end of July with the obituaries of fancied teams like Down and Armagh already having been penned?
Some Ulster counties certainly have cause for more soul-searching than others. Fermanagh’s playing season was little short of an embarrassment, Cavan floundered in both league and championship and Monaghan’s disappointment at suffering relegation was translated into mortification when they succumbed to lowly Offaly in the qualifiers.
And while Antrim know they can take some small comfort from the qualifiers, the heady euphoria that accompanied their gallop into the 2009 Ulster final has long since dissipated.
Derry promised much under new boss John Brennan but may take rather more time to deliver on this, Down’s collapse against Cork last weekend hinted at acute shortcomings within the side and Armagh manager Paddy O’Rourke finds himself walking on thin ice following his team’s self-harm against Tyrone last Saturday.
The Red Hands, powered by new blood in the form of Peter Harte, Sean O’Neill and Kyle Coney and Donegal, bolstered by Michael Murphy, Colm McFadden, Neil McGee and Karl Lacey, carry Ulster’s hopes into Croke Park tomorrow knowing that they will be required to do even better if they are to make a serious bid to bring the Sam Maguire Cup back to northern territory.
But the graph charting the 2011 fortunes of the rest of the sides in Ulster clearly shows a downward indicator.
More worryingly, the headway being made in a number of counties outside the province suggests that there could be lean times ahead.
All very worrying.