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End of title woe within sight for Ulster

By John Campbell

Six years have elapsed since the Allianz League football title last rested in Ulster. And just once in that period has the Sam Maguire Cup taken up residence here when Donegal triumphed for just the second time in their history in 2012.

Five All-Ireland triumphs and a similar number of league crowns in all since 2002 ensure that Ulster has dined lavishly at the GAA's top table although the vast bulk of those honours cascaded onto the province in the period up to 2008.

But what was initially interpreted as a temporary blip from an Ulster perspective when Cork became the league powerbrokers – they won the title in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – has morphed into a mini-famine.

The province's hunger for a further helping of top-level success has suddenly become more ravenous now that three significant honours have eluded its grasp within the past fortnight.

The All-Ireland club title, the Inter-provincial crown and the Sigerson Cup will not be taking up residence in Ulster this year and this has triggered an even stronger focus on the Allianz Football League.

Ballinderry's failure to get past St Vincent's in the All-Ireland club semi-final, Ulster's destruction by a fired-up Connacht in the inter-pro decider and UUJ's soul-destroying setback against UCC in the Sigerson showdown have provided considerable food for thought.

The consensus now is that the recapture of the Allianz League title by an Ulster county would not only go some way towards fermenting optimism for the All-Ireland championship, but would also provide confirmation that football here is in a healthier state than some would believe.

Optimism that the second most important football trophy on offer could head to Ulster has been fuelled by the impressive starts which Derry and Tyrone have made in the league.

Both remain undefeated after three games and Sunday could hardly provide two more alluring contests since Mickey Harte's side will travel to pointless Kerry and Brian McIver's (right) men will confront unbeaten Cork.

While Ulster Council Director of Public Affairs Ryan Feeney certainly does not pull his punches in assessing the situation in relation to the absence of major trophies, he is nonetheless optimistic that the corner can be turned.

"Obviously it's very disappointing that three significant trophies have slipped through Ulster's grasp in the past fortnight or so but it's early days and there are still major trophies on the horizon," says Feeney.

"Ulster traditionally has a good record in the league and given the manner in which Tyrone and Derry have started their respective campaigns, I think there is grounds for belief that they can make a pitch for the title."

Derry, with Mark Lynch, James Kielt, Sean Leo McGoldrick and Caolan O'Boyle currently in outstanding form, will head to Cork seeking to complete a double over Munster's big two as they have already claimed the scalp of Kerry.

And Tyrone never need any additional motivation to get the better of Kerry given the fierce rivalry that has built up between the sides since Mickey Harte assumed the Red Hands hot seat.

"Obviously these are massive fixtures and could prove defining in a sense but let's keep things in perspective," stresses Feeney. "There is some distance to go in the league yet. But you would have to say that the fans will now be out in greater numbers in all divisions because of the nature of last weekend's results."

Ulster's surprisingly heavy defeat to Connacht (2-19 to 1-7) in the inter-pro final sent shockwaves through the province, but Feeney insists that the side will be back "stronger than ever" next year.

"I believe that Ulster will learn from this experience and will be the better for it and come back stronger than ever," he declares.

Feeney in tandem with other Ulster Council officials acknowledges that success on the national stage is still regarded as the real barometer of progress within the province.

"That's why it would be great to see the Allianz League Football title come to this part of the world again. I think that our Division One teams have the capacity to make a strong push for the prize and I believe that while this week-end's matches could offer a pointer as to how the competition might pan out.

"March promises to be an absorbing month overall given the quality of fixtures that are on the horizon," adds Feeney.

Belfast Telegraph

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