All Ireland Championship: Tyrone can reign supreme, yet again
The Allianz Football League, which climaxes on the Easter weekend of April 23/24, has provided mixed fortunes for the nine Ulster counties, and as the focus now switches to the provincial and All-Ireland Championships, John Campbell assesses the prospects of each county as the GAA season moves into overdrive
ANTRIM: Relegated back into Division Three after just a year, Liam Bradley’s side have no real grounds for optimism. They may have been in the Ulster final two years ago but they are currently handicapped by long-term injuries and have been drawn away to high-riding Donegal in the Ulster Championship. The best they can hope for is a favourable passage through the Qualifiers.
ARMAGH: Two wins from seven league outings do not bode well for the Orchard County. Manager Paddy O’Rourke is still striving to formulate his best starting 15 with the return of Ronan Clarke more a possibility than a probability. Even home advantage at the Athletic Grounds against neighbours Down in their opening championship tie may not help them launch a meaningful challenge for the provincial crown.
CAVAN: Having wallowed in Division Three in which they only assured themselves of safety at the last hurdle, the Breffni side are some way off emerging as a championship force. Their most recent performances perhaps offer a modicum of encouragement but the fact that they have been pitting their limited skills against extremely modest opposition to date will surely limit their ability to make an impact in the Ulster series.
DERRY: If manager John Brennan gets some of his walking wounded back on board and restores morale following the failure to win promotion to Division One, then the Oak Leaf side are capable of making an impression in the provincial championship for the first time since 1998. There is experience, scoring power and an element of steel within the squad — should these attributes be more effectively harnessed, Derry could make their presence felt for a change.
DONEGAL: Jim McGuinness has breathed new life into Donegal since succeeding John Joe Doherty as team boss and having piloted the side into Division One, he will be keen to complement this with championship success. The north-west county has flattered to deceive in Ulster’s flagship competition since 1992 – don’t be surprised if they reach a last four meeting against perhaps Tyrone this time round.
DOWN: Having reached the All-Ireland final last year, James McCartan’s side will be enriched by the experience they gained. They remained in contention for a place in the league final up until last week-end when they were just pipped by Kerry and will feel that if they can get past Armagh in their opening championship assignment then a provincial title — at least — could be within their grasp.
FERMANAGH: No county has endured the trials and tribulations which have afflicted John O’Neill’s squad. Decimated by defections and burdened by uncertainty, a largely inexperienced side gained some semblance of credibility in the latter stages of the league but with an away match against Derry looming in the Ulster Championship the Ernesiders’ hopes of making any significant progress look slim indeed. A planned end-of-season review could come all too soon.
MONAGHAN: Ill-luck bedevilled the Farney county’s league game. Beaten by just one point in no fewer than three games, afflicted by injuries at a critical juncture and carrying a batch of raw yet impressive new recruits, they ultimately made the drop into Division Two. Eamonn McEnaney’s side could have asked for an easier championship opener than an away trip to reigning provincial kingpins Tyrone and they may have to seek solace via the Qualifiers.
TYRONE: A five-match unbeaten sequence failed to earn the Red Hands a place in Division One after their faltering league start but a third Ulster Championship title on the bounce is now their prime target. With key players coming back from injury and the overall appetite for success still palpable, Tyrone must be short-odds favourites to reign supreme yet again. And don’t rule out the possibility that they will make a bold bid to reclaim ‘Sam’.