Joe Kernan: Gulf in Ulster class is wider than many care to admit
It is always with a degree of reluctance that teams embark on their journeys in the All-Ireland football qualifiers. After all, it has to be recognised that they do so as losers, having forfeited their chance to succeed in their respective provincial championships.
This being the case, managers are invariably faced with the huge task of restoring morale and rekindling enthusiasm for what is regarded as the ‘second tier’ competition even though it can still lead to ultimate glory.
This season, I feel that the qualifiers will take on particular significance from an Ulster perspective.
It is clear that Donegal and Tyrone are well ahead of the field in the province in terms of playing resources, tactical planning and general conditioning.
And that’s with the greatest of respect to both Down and Monaghan who are both still in the mix for the provincial title.
This being the case, the gauntlet has now been thrown down to the other Ulster teams to prove that they are not as far behind the chief title contenders as they are believed to be.
Obviously this will impose its own pressure on these counties and their managers but if attitudes are right, commitment is forthcoming and supporters keep the faith then a recovery process can be initiated.
Two teams who will be particularly keen to prove themselves are Derry and Armagh.
That drubbing which John Brennan’s side received at the hands of Donegal last Saturday was nothing short of an acute embarrassment – just how a side which had reached last year’s Ulster final could have slipped off the provincial radar to such an extent is hard to fathom.
While the qualifiers is regarded as a safety net, it is also a competition in which insult can be added to injury – just ask Fermanagh.
Brennan’s side are down to play revitalised Longford on Saturday week and this will be an immense task for a side that is low on morale, limited in resources and short on creativity.
Yet Derry made a habit of winning National League titles in the 90’s and even though they have not won an Ulster title since 1998, they have still produced some outstanding players.
What was the most worrying aspect of their capitulation to Jim McGuinness’ side was their lack of intensity, urgency and ambition with heads dropping long before referee Marty Duffy had sounded the final whistle.
Skipper Paddy Bradley, who never ceased trying, was an honourable exception to criticism and he now has the task of trying to stimulate his demoralised team for the challenge against a Longford side that boasts superb players in Paul Barden, Sean McCormack and Brian Kavanagh – and that’s just for starters.
Armagh for their part can take heart from their feisty performance against Tyrone and now confront a Roscommon side well beaten by Galway in the Connacht championship.
Paddy O’Rourke has persevered with a youth policy and now young players such as Aidan Forker, Gavin McParland, Caolan Rafferty, Eugene McVerry and Rory Grugan are beginning to come to the fore although they are still relatively inexperienced.
They should get a further chance to show their capabilities against a side that tends to rely rather heavily on the gifted Donie Shine for scores.
In much the same way, Cavan would appear to be placing their trust in Eugene Keating as a marksman judging by his superb input in the Ulster Championship quarter-final defeat to Donegal.
He will have a key role against a Fermanagh team which will be without the enigmatic Seamus Quigley but which will have home advantage at Brewster Park, Enniskillen.
Both teams are anxious to prove that they can make progress in the qualifiers as are Antrim who go to London, a trip which will impose financial pressure on the county board.
Not so long ago teams travelling to Ruislip could have regarded this as something of a jaunt — but not now.
Last year Fermanagh came a cropper there and Liam Bradley’s side will be picking their steps carefully on what is a compact ground with, at times a questionable playing surface.
Three years ago Antrim were in the Ulster final but have not quite been able to build on the progress they made then even though players like Paddy Cunningham, Tony Scullion, Justin Crozier, Michael McCann, James Loughrey, Thomas McCann and Aodhan Gallagher are still part of the fabric of their side.
Instead, they have slipped back in the rankings and are still marooned in Division Three. Bradley badly needs to see his side get a decent run in the qualifiers if they are to have any chance of regaining credibility.
If they get over London and perhaps are rewarded with a home draw in the second round of the qualifiers then they might just get the chance to make people sit up and take notice.
But for now the chasm between Ulster’s front runners and the rest remains wide — much wider than many people are prepared to admit.