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Dr McKenna Cup can still set the tone for bigger tests

By Declan Bogue

Word reaches us that the poor, misguided fools of the Leinster Council are planning to allow games to have unlimited substitutions in the O'Byrne Cup from this weekend.

Bad enough that every manager and player that has ever looked sideways at an O'Neill's size five is going to be asked their impressions of 'the mark' which is also coming in on Sunday, but for subs to float off and on the field of play, willy, and indeed nilly? Such folly. Such disrespect. Where is it all going to end for January football?

No chance of that happening up in this proud, defiant province. If anything, our players won't even choose to take 'the mark' even in the event of a clean catch. When someone is telling you to do something, you never struggle to find an Ulsterman to cover their face in spittle as they bellow 'NO!' in your face.

For players, this Sunday represents that light at the end of a tunnel filled with 200 metre sprints, evenings in the gym and a Christmas that brought nothing but guilt during those furtive glances at the big tin of Roses.

Make no mistake, the Dr McKenna Cup is big-time. For some players who delight in joining a training panel in late September only to be casually tossed aside prior to the National League, this is as good as it gets. A half hour against Antrim in Glenavy. Twenty minutes even, in a team struggling to get the ball up to you, standing shrivelling at corner-forward, wondering if you have the moral authority to call for the ball to be played into your general postcode.

Some careers are defined by the McKenna Cup. A good friend of mine once made a brief appearance for Fermanagh at midfield, marking some similarly unknown Derry youngster by the name of Anthony Tohill. He claims he never got a kick all day. We, however, talk about him as the man who cleaned Tohill out and his failure to win multiple All-Stars clear evidence of the decrepit prevailing coaching system.

Since it found a bijou home in January and the introduction of the three colleges of Queen's, UUJ and St Mary's, allowing for a group format (Ulster, along with Connacht, were the first to do this), the McKenna Cup has become the Hipster's Favourite.

It represents the chance to form instant opinions on players for the future, analyse the latest rule changes and try out all the knitwear that came your way over the festive season - and see Jamie Clarke back playing football.

This year, the Ulster Council are introducing a 'Competition Ticket', available this Sunday. It's £20 for all the group games involving your own county, both semi-finals and the final.

Six games for a score. Given how a decent portion of Ulster Council funding comes from staging the McKenna Cup, this is a significant gesture to get fans through the turnstiles. And, as important as this weekend is, there is absolutely no chance the days will return of 19,631 people through the gates of Casement Park to see Tyrone and Armagh, as they did in 2006.

In fact, there is a real danger that things could flag in January.

All over Christmas, we gorged on the amount of sport that was available to anyone with a Sky subscription. Even on Christmas night, we marvelled at the desperation that Cleveland Cavaliers fought with against 2016 final opponents Golden State Warriors and Kyrie Irving's clinching fadeaway shot to seal it.

Televised sport has become so pervasive, that there is a clear battle to attract people to actual sporting events.

Now, nobody with a grip on reality would suggest that the McKenna Cup truly, really, deeply matters, although there are plenty in Tyrone that feel that a winning start to the season - specifically the way in which they won last year's final against Derry - is essential.

But while it is on, it's all-consuming. For a whole host of college kids, good enough for Varsity football, not quite good enough for county stuff, it is the pinnacle of their career.

The McKenna Cup is real sport, with real people.

Most importantly, it imbues upon the observer a certain moral authority.

And nothing boosts an argument like the line that begins, 'I remember seeing him making his debut in the McKenna Cup...'

Belfast Telegraph

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