Ulster all set for stunning hat-trick
Published 26/04/2013 | 08:00
Much has been made of the fact that Ulster sides such as Down, Donegal and Antrim have suffered the ignominy of relegation in the Allianz Football League.
This has even led to suggestions that football in the province is not quite in such a healthy state.
But that would be perhaps to dwell rather too strongly on the perceived negatives.
Derry are assured of Division One football next year, Monaghan have made the leap from Division Three into Division Two and Fermanagh were just pipped in their bid to achieve back-to-back promotions.
This surely offers considerable encouragement but perhaps the best pointer to the future could be delivered over the course of the weekend.
Indeed, the strong possibility of an Ulster hat-trick is on the cards. I fully expect Tyrone and Derry to triumph over Dublin and Westmeath respectively to secure Division One and Two League honours on Sunday and, as the aperitif to this, I feel that Monaghan are capable of getting the better of Meath in the Division Three final on Saturday evening.
There are some who will probably view this as an audacious claim given the form of Dublin, the re-emergence of Westmeath under Pat Flanagan and Meath's vibrant recovery after a poor league start.
But I believe that all three counties can strike a blow for Ulster pride and indeed perhaps flash a warning that the province might contain more than one side with viable aspirations of winning the Sam Maguire Cup.
Tyrone undoubtedly face a huge challenge against a Dublin side that has blossomed under Jim Gavin.
The new manager has not been afraid to take bold steps in terms of selection and this has led to the sudden rise of players like Paul Mannion, Kevin O'Brien, Jack McCaffrey and Jonny Cooper.
Throw in a host of experienced players like Bryan Cullen, Ger Brennan, Stephen Cluxton, Diarmuid Connolly, Paul Flynn, Denis Bastick and of course the superbly gifted Bernard Brogan and it can clearly be seen that Dublin possess an eclectic mix that has not only projected the side into the frame for the league title but fuelled belief that the All-Ireland title can be won.
But if Dublin have been enthusiastically re-building, then Tyrone boss Mickey Harte has not exactly been sitting on his hands.
Ryan McKenna, Ronan O'Neill, Conor McAliskey and Darren McCurry have made a big impact this year alongside Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O'Neill, Joe McMahon, Martin Penrose and Conor Gormley so it is safe to assume that the O'Neill County will not be fazed by the challenge they will face on Sunday.
Nor will Derry be discomfited by confronting Westmeath for the second time this month. The midlanders will be much stronger this time round but I still think that Brian McIver's side has sufficient skill, endeavour and craft to lift the Division Two trophy.
Derry football has been in the doldrums and 15 years have elapsed since the Ulster Championship trophy last resided within the county.
Now McIver is keen to see his side go the full distance and capture the Division Two trophy not just because it will gladden the hearts of the county's long-suffering supporters but will help progress the careers of young players like Lee Kennedy, Daniel Haveron, Ryan Bell and others.
McIver took a bold stand at the outset of his tenure when he made it clear that he would look to youth to help restore Derry pride.
His young guns have certainly fired out a message of hope for the Ulster Championship and with home advantage against Down in the quarter-finals, Derry will feel that they can emerge from the provincial shadows at last.
They have for a long time now been reduced to the role of onlookers as Armagh and Tyrone stockpiled Ulster titles since 1999 and it's hardly surprising that many Derry fans have become apathetic.
But the ebullient McIver has instilled a new sense of belief and fresh zest within his side through his motivational skills and tactical knowledge which have earned him huge respect.
Victory at Croke Park on Sunday would prove of considerable therapeutic value within a county which has not had its sorrows to seek on and off the field in recent years.
Similarly Monaghan have struggled for real credibility for the past decade or more yet under Malachy O'Rourke the Farney side has bounded into Division Two.
I expect to see them being crowned divisional champions on Saturday evening, thus setting the scene for what could prove a triple Headquarters treat for the province.