Belfast Telegraph

Declan Bogue: New rules, experimental selections and Tyrone will probably win - it's McKenna Cup time

Cool runnings: The McKenna Cup is the traditional season-opener in Ulster but it is not for the faint of heart
Cool runnings: The McKenna Cup is the traditional season-opener in Ulster but it is not for the faint of heart
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

There's no point in even having a column unless you can unburden yourself of even the most petty of thoughts.

So when people talk about 'working the turkey off' after Christmas, I want to ask what they thought the lean meat of a turkey was doing, exactly?

How about the eggnog, the pounds upon pounds of Celebrations, the roast spuds caked in goose fat, the sherry, the mince pies, the white bread sandwiches crammed with sauce and stuffing, the beer, the porter, the puddings, what was that all about?

But anyway, whatever it is we have to work off, the good news is that you can do it on the terraces of Brewster Park, Inniskeen and Kingspan Breffni this Sunday as the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup gets under way.

You might think it's a tad early for all that intercounty malarkey. But it's already trailing behind last year's version, as it began on a wet Saturday in Derrygonnelly, December 15, 2018 when Fermanagh drew with UUJ.

Some thoughts, then so.

Right now, counties have already been in training. Some years ago there was such a thing as a winter training ban brought in, but there is more than one way to skin a cat. Counties simply ignored it, or else brought in players to present a training plan they can stick to in the gym over the winter. In this day of schools asking players to train on Christmas Day, it's a wild west of ridiculous demands being placed on players.

If there's one thing players resent less than training in December, it's playing matches. Again, a number of counties have already played each other in challenge matches going back weeks. In order to stage one of these, they need clearance from authorities.

If the demand is there, then there may as well be a competition.

The Ulster Council, like all the other provincial councils, have the Conor McGurk and the McKenna Cups. In light of what we have just said, this is a good thing. There is a semblance of a competition here.

There was a launch hosted recently in the spectacular Riddel Hall in Belfast. Players and management were available for interview. The draw was streamed live by the BBC. The Ulster Council certainly held their end up in presenting this as an attractive proposition.

However, when you are standing or sitting at the first game, you might bear in mind that December days are not the easiest for a nervous debutant making their way in the intercounty world.

As well as battling nerves, they will be playing a higher level of football than they will have experienced before. The pitch may not be in great shape. The weather is rotten and substitutes often fear getting the call to go on as their feet have morphed into two frozen blocks.

The established new rules will be in place for these games. They might well be noted in the matchday programme.

But it won't stop the inevitable frustration experienced by players, supporters and matchday officials over the vagueness of what constitutes an advanced mark, if a ball was played over the 20-metre mark, and exactly how many minutes elapsed since a player was black carded and then got back onto the field.

In time, nobody will truly care how Fermanagh and Down got on this coming Sunday, but about the reaction of managers and players in adjusting to some pretty trippy playing rules.

The price is the price. Hey, don't @ me. I may be sitting in a press box and because of the nature of my work gain entry through my press pass. But you received fair warning. This is December, not mid-summer, so don't expect a mid-summer team or performance.

Teams will try stuff out. They might have a score concession in mind and try to limit their opponents to three points in the first half. This is their best chance to try something like that out. Getting upset about how many times a team passes the ball back to a goalkeeper has all the effect of shouting into a bucket.

Tyrone will probably win it.

For the first time since they joined in with the Dr McKenna jamboree in 2004, the Ulster university teams are all out. The Sigerson Cup scheduling has left them in a pickle, but this has been coming ever since the first wrangling over players happened in the middle of the last decade.

Last year one Ulster county played a university and, without blatantly throwing the game, felt it would be better to be knocked out quickly and get on with their league preparation. Trouble was, the university had a similar idea, picked a second string and won in a non-classic of its genre.

Finally, there is every chance that the final will be an absolute cracker.

We have seen them before when Queen's just fell short of beating Donegal in 2009.

Or the 2019 final between Armagh and Tyrone with 11,318 hardy souls present.

A different dynamic is brought to bear when there's a cup up on the plinth.

Good luck to all, and wrap up warm.

New rules for sake of them will mean more pain for players and fans

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Jonnny Cooper
 

There's no point being wise after the event; we make the prediction here and now that the new rules are going to stink the place out in December, January and every month after that.

The point of having a Standing Committee on Playing Rules is to look continually at actually improving the game.

But when you look back at the All-Ireland final of 2019 you realise there is nothing really wrong with the game.

Part of the problem for many is that some influential media voices have decided to embark upon their own sense of populism.

Therefore, everything is broken, bad and nothing will be the same until they personally fix it.

The GAA's leaders have become remarkably weak-willed and have allowed themselves to be influenced so, therefore, they tolerated the committee that came back with the suggestion of an advanced mark, where a ball caught inside the opposition 45-metre mark becomes a free-in for the attacker.

Just like Aussie Rules. Nothing like Gaelic football, however.

Think about it.

In this year's final, one of the highlights of the first game was how Jonny Cooper of Dublin could cope with David Clifford. With Paul Geaney feeding Clifford sympathetic passes, he then had the time to go at Cooper and eventually, terrified at getting 'done' by Clifford, Cooper had to resort to a series of fouls which eventually led to his second yellow card.

Now, Clifford can just catch the ball, put his hand up and he has 15 seconds to take a free. Something is badly amiss here.

All that aside, this is one of these rules that simply cannot work further down the food chain.

When a referee comes to take charge of a club game, he is reliant on the host club and visitors to act as the seven other matchday officials.

He will have players, selectors and management howling at him over most decisions, not to say what will come from the bank in a bad-tempered encounter.

How can he judge if a ball travelled 20 metres?

How can he keep track of players on black cards and how long they have spent on the sin bin with the hundreds of other decisions and judgements they have to make in real-time?

If it works out, then feel free to pull us up on it.

But we doubt it.

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