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Tyrone lead the charge for Ulster in Maguire pursuit

By Declan Bogue

For the first time since the league reverted back to four straight divisions, there are four Ulster teams in Division One.

Yes, four. Out of eight. Half of the league is Ulster based. Tyrone alone will play three games against counties that border them in Derry, Donegal and Monaghan.

Talking of Tyrone, Mickey Harte has always emphasised the importance of staying in the top flight. He makes the point that no serious team has a chance of winning Sam without playing their football in Division One.

So determined are Tyrone to return to the top table, that the news midweek of what were thought to be established players being dropped, has been taken as a statement of intent.

I suppose we might have picked up on Harte's mood last Friday week ago at the Tyrone kit launch when he said: "When you have a big panel of 35 and you can only play 15 and five or six subs, that's always a challenge for everybody."

It's the next line that has the rub: "But if there is no challenge in picking it, then the thing is too comfortable for too many. It means people have to perform if they get a chance, but it also means you have to seize your chance. That's the atmosphere I hope to create."

In recent years, the competitive nature of the National League has led many to question what it is for, exactly? Is it a competition in its own right, or just preparation for the Championship.

And the answer to that of course, lies in perception.

The example of Kerry and how they have treated the National League under Eamon Fitzmaurice would appear to emphatically contradict that thinking that you need to win a league before a Sam Maguire.

We hardly need reminding that when Fitzmaurice took over in 2013, Kerry stayed up by one point, relying on events in Ballybofey as they hung in for a win over Tyrone in Omagh at the same time Paul Mannion was pinching a point off Donegal to send them down.

Last year it was the same. They opened by losing to Dublin, Derry and Mayo. They had only a week to turn it around and they did so in sensational style, walloping Tyrone 3-15 to 0-9.

After that game in the press interview, there was no change in Fitzmaurice's demeanour. He remained as calm as he was following the defeats.

Each Ulster team will treat the league differently. Monaghan and Derry could do with a trophy, but the Oak Leafers are pacing themselves. Tyrone and Donegal need to hide in plain sight, experimenting and finding the right formula.

It was Derry that made early running, beating the likes of Kerry and Dublin, but this year there is a marked change. Reflecting after a McKenna Cup defeat to Fermanagh earlier this month, manager Brian McIver said: "Look, we set our stall out in the McKenna Cup to have a look at everybody that we have sort of been looking at over the last while and we have fulfilled that promise. We now know that we have to sit down and get ourselves sorted out before the league starts."

Monaghan come into Division One on the back of successive promotions under Malachy O'Rourke. He has continued to camouflage his intentions, but his captain Conor McManus talked this week about mixing with the quality: "It's certainly something we've been looking to do. The last two years we were looking to get promotion and this year we'll be looking to consolidate our Division One status. That will be our main target.

"It would be an achievement because there are going to be no easy games, there's nothing guaranteed particularly with the draw that we have, we have three home and four away so it's going to be difficult but we're definitely looking forward to it all the same."

Meanwhile in The Hills, Rory Gallagher's appointment has saved a few county careers. He also sounds hungry for the work too.

"We're in among the top eight teams in the country being in Division One and the pressure for starters is to survive in Division One," the Fermanagh man reflected.

Recalling the first league night in 2011, when it took a last-gasp Neil McGee goal to avoid defeat to Sligo, Gallagher said: "I remember standing on the line thinking, 'What am I doing here?' We looked like we were in danger of going to Division Three at that stage!

"This has been a terrific period for Donegal football and we want to stay as competitive as we can and maintain the standards. I'm very comfortable with the backroom team and the squad of players we have. I'm really excited by the job."

Spring is in the air. Glorious.

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