Donegal may be the reigning Ulster senior football champions, but their thunder was certainly stolen when the draw for next year’s provincial championship was made last night.
Jim McGuinness side will surely feel they have drawn the short straw now that they have been pitted against Cavan in a preliminary round tie — the sides met at the quarter-final stage this year — but this clash will be dwarfed by the magnetic appeal of yet another Armagh v Tyrone confrontation.
Perhaps neither of these two sides particularly distinguished themselves this year, but this will not dilute in the slightest the allure of what is the ultimate Old Firm derby in a GAA context.
Throw in an intriguing Fermanagh v Down quarter-final and a potentially explosive clash between Monaghan and Antrim and it can be quickly seen that the Ulster series outguns the other provincial draws in terms of overall quality.
Even should Donegal beat Cavan, they will then face a difficult mission against John Brennan’s Derry, the team they beat in this year’s Ulster final.
If McGuinness’s men face a hazardous path in attempting to retain their title, then Tyrone manager Mickey Harte knows that charting his team’s redemption will be far from straightforward. Faced with the prospect of some other players bringing down the curtain on their county careers and charged with finding a new skipper to succeed Brian Dooher, Harte is aware that a big challenge lies on the horizon.
Philip Jordan, Kevin Hughes and Brian McGuigan are among the Tyrone players who have still to decide if they will be involved next year — the carrot of renewing a fierce rivalry with Armagh might just tempt them to respond in the positive.
Harte’s Armagh counterpart Paddy O’Rourke, who has been joined by Paul Grimley and Brendan Hughes in his managerial set-up, knows that this year’s first round victory over Down proved more of a flash in the pan than anything else and that to claim the Red Hands scalp, irrespective of their perceived weaknesses, will prove a monumental task.
Down manager James McCartan will take nothing for granted against a Fermanagh side which may or may not be under the baton of John O’Neill next year while new Antrim strength and conditioning coach Andy Ward and selectors Paul McFlynn and Gearoid Adams face into a tough touchline championship baptism against Eamon McEnaney’s new-look Monaghan side.
Ulster natives also face major championship tasks outside the province. Kieran McGeeney’s Kildare have been drawn against Offaly in the Leinster championship — they should win here — and could then confront Meath, thus further honing a rivalry that has already gained a sharp edge.
Justin McNulty’s Laois have been paired with Longford, with the winners due to meet Wexford and McNulty will be hoping his side can step up on their performances of this year.
And in Connacht, Maghera man Mickey Moran will expect to see his Leitrim side overcome London before earning a crack at reigning title-holders Mayo, a match that will certainly ask big questions of his players.
Antrim will play in the Leinster championship for the fourth year on the trot and will fancy their chances of beating Westmeath in the opening round although the winners face a difficult tie against Galway at the next hurdle.
Patience is the virtue that John O'Mahony believes should be closest to Mayo hearts as he appealed that supporters back James Horan next season —even if things don't run smoothly.
The former manager was impressed by what he saw from his old charges this season as they reclaimed the Connacht title and knocked-out All-Ireland champions Cork before succumbing to Kerry at the semi-final stage.
O'Mahony said: “I think it's very important that Mayo are patient with James Horan in his second season.
“Its something that the Mayo public and the Mayo county board need to do. He made huge progress this year, but everything isn't solved yet. We need to be patient to allow him to do that.
“The main thing I have seen in counties that have won something is that there has been patience with the manager and the rebuilding of the team.”
Ulster SFC: Preliminary round:
Cavan v Donegal
Cavan or Donegal v Derry, Fermanagh v Down, Monaghan v Antrim,Armagh v Tyrone.
Leinster SFC: Quarter-Finals:
Westmeath v Louth, Longford v Laois, Meath v Wicklow.
Westmeath or Louth v Dublin, Longford or Laois v Wexford, Meath or Wicklow v Carlow, Offaly v Kildare.
Connacht SFC: Preliminary Rd:
New York v Sligo, London v Leitrim.
Galway v Roscommon.
New York or Sligo v Galway or Roscommon,
London or Leitrim v Mayo.
Munster SFC Semi-Finals:
Clare v Waterford or Limerick, Cork v Kerry or Tipperary.
Leinster SHC: First Round:
Westmeath v Antrim, Laois v Carlow.
Laois or Carlow v Dublin, Offaly v Wexford,
Galway v Westmeath or Antrim.
Galway or Westmeath or Antrim v Offaly or Wexford, Dublin or Laois or Carlow v Kilkenny.
Munster SHC: Semi-Finals:
Clare v Waterford, Cork v Limerick or Tipperary.