Joe Kernan: Romance still strong in Ulster series
The club represents the very heartbeat of the GAA. The All Ireland senior football and hurling championships may be the crown jewels in the fixtures calendar but it’s at club level that the Association derives the very oxygen that helps it retain its vitality.
Players who have earned the highest honours that the various codes under the GAA banner have to offer will tell you that winning a championship medal with their club in the company of their relatives, neighbours and friends is something extra-special.
The special bond that welds club sides up and down the country is in evidence throughout the year but at this particular time it becomes rather more pronounced when the various provincial championships swing into action.
Winter time may be upon us with the clocks going back an hour on Saturday night but you can be sure that thousands of followers across Ulster will be out on Sunday irrespective of the climatic conditions to see their teams participate in a competition that is second only to the provincial senior football championship in terms of appeal.
Indeed, the fans will create an atmosphere reminiscent of high summer when their allegiance then lies with their county sides. But for the moment their clubs will be the focus of their attention.
It’s hardly surprising that this year’s Ulster series is being awaited with a heightened degree of anticipation. Just look at some of the clubs who will be in the line-up for the trophy — reigning Ulster and All Ireland champions St Gall’s, four-times All Ireland winners Crossmaglen Rangers, twice All Ireland champions Burren and seasoned Monaghan campaigners Clontibret.
Yet the real appeal of the competition lies not in its more august entrants but in the generous ration of sporting romance that has already been supplied with the arrival of Derry shock troops Coleraine, new Tyrone representatives Coalisland, ambitious Donegal champions Naomh Conal and Fermanagh dark horses Roslea in the quarter-finals shake-up.
And without wanting to sound parochial, I firmly believe that the Ulster series will provide fare that will be streets ahead of that on offer in the other provinces.
I have watched televised action from some county finals from around the country and I must say I have been very disappointed with the standard of play overall.
That is not to suggest that the All Ireland Club champions will come from Ulster — it’s merely my opinion that the other provincial club championships will not have quite the same allure as that of Ulster.
St Gall’s indeed are not only the reigning Ulster and All Ireland champions but last month they won both the Antrim senior football championship title (again!) and collected the prestigious All Ireland Club Sevens title at the Kilmacud Crokes club headquarters. There’s consistency for you!
This twin coup will send them in against Crossmaglen Rangers in confident mood on Sunday while former Tyrone ace Damien O’Hagan will have Coalisland fired up again, this time for their meeting with Peter McGinnity’s buoyant Roslea outfit. Donegal champions
Naomh Conal, conquerors of Kingscourt Stars in the preliminary round, will be very keen to show that they really are a force to be reckoned with by beating Clontibret.
And on Sunday week there will be huge interest in Coleraine’s first appearance in the Ulster Club series when they take on Burren in Newry.
St Gall’s will parade their stars against Crossmaglen with C J McGourty, Aodhan Gallagher, Sean Kelly, Sean Burke and Kevin Niblock in the vanguard of their challenge while their opponents will look to Oisin McConville, Paul Hearty, Aaron Kernan and David McKenna for inspiration.
Coalisland can lean on Peter O’Farrell, Paddy McNeice and Brian Toner while the Sherry brothers Peter and James and the Quigleys Seamus and Sean will underpin the Roslea effort.
Indeed the raft of talent that will be on view in Ulster over the next few weeks is very impressive indeed. The four McGoldrick brothers are getting ready to spark Coleraine’s attempt to take the province by storm while defenders Declan Rooney, Kevin McKernan and Daniel McCartan along with sharpshooter James McGovern, all of whom helped to take Down into the All Ireland final, will bulk up Burren’s bid for honours.