Three Ulster counties are united in their bid to fulfil a double mission this weekend.
Not only will Antrim, Armagh and Down seek to win National Football League divisional titles at Croke Park but they also hope to prove that the loyalty of their followers can compensate for the absence of Dublin from the league final proper.
Even though the Dubs overcame Tyrone in round seven, Mayo’s win over Cork on that same day paved the way for these two sides to meet again in Sunday’s decider.
And that certainly does not offer the prospect of Headquarters being even half-full for the showpiece game in what is the second most important competition in the fixtures calendar.
GAA officials, aware of the huge — and costly — journeys that Cork and Mayo fans must face and very conscious that Dublin’s appearance in the final would have brought perhaps 60,000 fans through the Croke Park gates, are now keeping their fingers crossed that Ulster fervour will prove a substitute for Dublin fanaticism.
With Antrim due to face Sligo in the Division Three decider on Saturday (7.00) and Armagh and Down preparing to cross swords for the Division Two title on Sunday (2.00) prior to the Mayo v Cork showdown (4.00), an appealing menu from an Ulster perspective is on offer.
Antrim liaison officer Tony McCollum has lost no time in urging his team’s followers to travel to Croke Park in huge numbers and his message has been endorsed by Down PRO Ronan McMahon and Armagh chairman Paul Dougan.
McCollum, who reveals that Michael Magill may yet make the cut for the Saffrons but suggests that Kevin Niblock will play no part in the game, sees the week-end Croke Park programme as an incentive for Ulster followers to show the commitment they have to their teams.
“Over the past 10 years or so many sides from here especially Tyrone and Armagh have raised the bar in terms of attracting fans to Headquarters and now we want to see followers from the province enhance the reputation that we enjoy. I know that the powers-that-be may be disappointed that Dublin are not in action but I have no doubt that there will be three top-class games on offer,” says McCollum.
McMahon, one of many Down personnel at all levels who contributed to the successful staging of last weekend’s Congress in Newcastle, believes that Mourne County manager James McCartan’s strategy of open, adventurous football will see thousands of fans flock to Croke Park. With Dan Gordon back in the squad, Benny Coulter still hopeful of being fit and skipper Ambrose Rogers leading by example, Down will enter their final fuelled by optimism.
“Although we have beaten Armagh already in the league we know that this result counts for nothing in the context of Sunday’s game. There are a lot of bragging rights at stake here,” insists McMahon.
Armagh chairman Dougan is optimistic that his county can claim what would be their first honour since he succeeded Kevin Brady in the top office.
“We have had some good results lately and Armagh generally relish playing at Croke Park but Down have obviously made great progress under James McCartan. However our own manager Paddy O’Rourke has earned us promotion and now he is more than capable of masterminding a divisional title,” says Dougan.