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Which county has the Ulster Championship 'there for the taking'?

On the eve of the 2017 edition of the Ulster Championship, Declan Bogue takes an in-depth look at how each county is shaping up.

ANTRIM

Management: Frankie Fitzsimmons enters his third season as Antrim manager and for the last two years has had Gearoid Adams as his partner. Joe Quinn and the popular Pat Hughes are team selectors, while former boxer Brian Magee remains as their physical trainer.

Form Guide: WLWLD - Drew with Longford on final day of the season and relegated to Division Four on score difference as a result. 

Key Man: CJ McGourty brings a cutting edge to attack.

Captain: Cargin’s James Laverty (right).

Big Loss: Kevin Niblock will not play this summer through injury.

Bookie’s Odds: 100/1 for Ulster, 1,000/1 to win the All-Ireland. Rank outsiders.

VERDICT: First round exit at the hands of powerful Donegal. Hoping for a favourable draw in the qualifiers.

ARMAGH

Management: Kieran McGeeney is in his third year as head man, and over the winter he lost selector Aidan O’Rourke. Paddy McKeever is now in the backroom.

Form Guide: WWWWL - A slow start to the league cost them as Tipp stole promotion from them in the last play.

Key Man: Plenty of people are excited to see what Jamie Clarke can bring on his return to Championship football.

Captain: A joint captaincy role between Rory Grugan and Aidan Forker (right). 

Big Loss: Kevin Dyas’ ongoing struggles with injury have robbed them of dynamism.

Bookie’s Odds: 12/1 to win Ulster, 150/1 for the All-Ireland. Somehow their odds for Ulster have shrank from last year.

VERDICT: A possible win in Newry over Down, but no further this time round.

CAVAN

Management: After five years of Terry Hyland’s service, the Cavan faithful have former Tyrone player Mattie McGleenan as manager, Finbar O’Reilly and Martin McGovern as selectors, while Lorcan Martin looks after conditioning.

Form Guide: LLWDL - A win over Mayo and a draw with Kerry had them dreaming of Division One survival, but last day defeat to Roscommon took them down.

Key Man: Gearoid McKiernan is the man to make a difference.

Captain: Killian Clarke (right).

Big Loss: They could do with David Givney on the edge of the square. 

Bookie’s Odds: 8/1 to capture an Ulster title, while their odds have shortened to 66/1 for an All-Ireland.

VERDICT: Will be leaping out of their skins for a quarter-final against Monaghan, but that could be their glass ceiling. 

DERRY

Management: Damian Barton is in his second year in charge, describing it as the ‘hardest thing he has ever done’. Brian McGuckin and Tony Scullion remain as selectors.

Form Guide: WLLLW - Relegated to Division Three on score difference.

Key Man: Chris McKaigue is key to plugging a leaky defence as a starting point, and you can add Brendan Rodgers into that as well.

Captain: Enda Lynn (right) has taken over the mantle from McKaigue, who was tied up in Slaughtneil duties.

Big Loss: Derry have lost one of the tightest markers in the game with Dermot McBride’s injury.

Bookie’s Odds: Last year they were 7/1 for Ulster and that has doubled to 14/1. It’s 250/1 for an All-Ireland. The bookies are using sound logic.

VERDICT: No other possible outcome than a Tyrone win in Celtic Park. The following week could be full of defections to America.

DONEGAL

Management: This will be Rory Gallagher’s sixth summer of working with Donegal footballers, third as sole manager. Selector Jack Cooney is gone from last year, but former Tyrone player Richard Thornton has become a prominent figure as trainer.

Form Guide: DWWDL - Third in Division One.

Key Man: Ryan McHugh has become an enormous part of the Donegal strategy.

Captain: Michael Murphy (right) is still the man they all take their cue from. 

Big Loss: Odhran MacNiallais has decided to take a break, robbing Donegal of a real stylist.

Bookie’s Odds: Ulster is temptingly priced at 11/4, but 20/1 for Sam is one that really intrigues the hipsters who admire Donegal’s new model.

VERDICT: Everything hinges on a semi-final against Tyrone. Win that and Ulster should be there for the taking. 

DOWN

Management: Eamonn Burns is in his second season, having served as selector for James McCartan in previous years. Aidan Branigan and Gerard Colgan are selectors.

Form Guide: WWLLD - Recovered from a horrible start to seal Division Two survival with the last kick of the league season.

Key Man: Caolan Mooney (right) has the type of pace that can make a difference in Ulster Championship games.

Captain: Darren O’Hagan has taken over from Kevin McKernan and he is the main man-marker. 

Big Loss: Paul Devlin chose to walk away from the panel during the league. Down’s loss. 

Bookie’s Odds: 16/1 for Ulster, which have shortened somewhat from last year, and 200/1 for the ultimate come September.

VERDICT: A first round game in Newry against Armagh could go either way, but that will be the end of the line.

FERMANAGH

Management: Pete McGrath has made the gruelling journey from Rostrevor to Lissan for four years solid now. On the sidelines, Raymond Johnston and Simon Bradley are selectors while Brian Treacy and Leon Carters are trainers.

Form Guide: LLWLL - Fell through the Division Two trapdoor.

Key Man: Ryan McCluskey’s ability to man the defence will be crucial after a shocking run of score concessions in the league.

Captain: Eoin Donnelly (right) is the undisputed leader of the group.

Big Loss: Ryan Jones and Ruairi Corrigan are both out for the opener, robbing Fermanagh of their power and creativity in the half-forward line.

Bookie’s Odds: 66/1 for Ulster and 250/1 for an All-Ireland triumph. Provincial honours seem as far away as ever.

VERDICT: They just have too much player turnover and injuries to reach their potential.

MONAGHAN

Management: Malachy O’Rourke becomes the second-longest serving manager in the game as he enters his fifth summer with the Oriel men. Coaching staff includes Leo McBride and Ryan Porter.

Form Guide: WLWDL - Only lost twice in seven Division One games.

Key Man: Conor McManus has provided the vast majority of scores but he will have ample help this summer with Jack McCarron’s emergence.

Captain: Colin Walshe (right) is a flinty defender in the ideal Monaghan mould.

Big Loss: Dick Clerkin’s experience is now snugly settled into the Sky TV commentary box.

Bookie’s Odds: 4/1 for Ulster and 40/1 for Sam.

VERDICT: Well-balanced, experienced and with a route to the final that should not bend them completely out of shape, they could take their province, while winning a game in Croke Park is a major target.

TYRONE

Management: It’s the 15th season for the evergreen Mickey Harte. Gavin Devlin is his assistant, while Peter Donnelly takes on the majority of the physical training.

Form Guide: WWLLL - A bad fade out on their Division One return.

Key Man: Niall Sludden (right) has become that rare thing — a prolific playmaker. His contribution will be crucial.

Captain: Sean Cavanagh is now in his 16th season and is testament to a lifetime of dedication.

Big Loss: The loss of Jonathan Monroe, with his biting contribution to last year’s Ulster final win, is a puzzle after he left the panel.

Bookie’s Odds: Out and out favourites to retain their Ulster crown at 7/4, and 9/1 to win an All-Ireland. You just never know...

VERDICT: Possible Ulster Champions, but so much hinges on the likely provincial semi-final against old foes Donegal after the Derry clash.

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