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Comment: Tyrone's Ulster Championship reign is on shaky ground

By Declan Bogue

Lord God almighty, it's here at last.

The seven weeks since all counties downed tools after the final round of National League games, and six since the final that anyone can barely remember off-hand (Dublin beat Galway by four points), has been a painful wait for county football to return.

Yeah, sure, club football and hurling has filled the gap. And the start of the hurling Championship last weekend in Navan was a glorious day for the Antrim hurlers on a perfect pitch, but as we cast our eyes on the coming months, who doesn't feel the sap rising as you consider the Ulster and All-Ireland football Championships?

Ok, some things are a given. Dublin will win the Leinster Championship for the eighth consecutive time. Kerry will steamroll anything that stands in their way in Munster.

But the intrigue lies elsewhere. The introduction of the All-Ireland quarter-final group stages is set to have numerous effects and the tightening of the provincial games will make this the most exciting Championship in many years.

Look at Ulster. This weekend, Donegal and Cavan face each other. The week after, Fermanagh and Armagh will serve up a meaty starter on a Saturday night ahead of the main course on Sunday when Monaghan come to champions Tyrone in Healy Park.

The following week, Down will be nervously awaiting a knock on the door from Antrim on a Newry Saturday night and the next day the winners of the preliminary round face Derry. Five games in the opening three weeks. Seven in five weels when you add in the two semi-finals.

The whole thing, final and all, will be played off by June 24. The whole thing done and dusted in seven weeks. The same competition in 2017 took an extra fortnight.

That's a significant change. It puts a lot of stress on not only teams and management with shorter turnarounds, but also on the army of volunteers that help out with the upkeep of grounds, pitches, the meeters and greeters such as the venerable Cuthbert Donnelly, all doing it for nothing.

And in the middle of that flurry, the qualifiers begin on June 2. Two of Tyrone, Monaghan, Galway and Mayo will be in there, ensuring there are some big beasts to keep the backdoor fed in good games.

This is the first year of the quarter-final group stages, and that brings such a different dynamic to the competition.

There is a real chance that getting to the 'Super 8s' could be the new refrain. In 2015, Fermanagh manager Pete McGrath reacted to Ulster semi-final defeat to Monaghan by challenging his players to reach Croke Park through the qualifiers.

They got there for a quarter-final defeat to Dublin, but reaching that point means an awful lot more now. Much in the same way as Arsene Wenger used to refer to Champion's League qualification as the first 'trophy' of the season, reaching that point will become a goal in itself for aspirational sides.

And it will be an awesome thing for teams in the chasing pack. Look at last year - if the same rules applied then, Armagh might have found themselves in a quarter-finals group with a trip away to Kerry, a home game against Dublin and a Croke Park date with Mayo. How could a team not sink their teeth into that kind of programme over three weeks?

Still, inequalities remain. If Donegal or Cavan were to win an All-Ireland after losing their first game they would have to play a minimum of 11 games - the most ever for a winning team.

Whereas, it would seem likely Kerry might only have seven, taking a Munster title for granted. And it must be said that the heavy programme of games straps two arguments onto its back; for a thin squad, a few injuries here and there through a tough but successful four-week quarter-final campaign would do them in a week later in the All-Ireland semi-finals.

On the other hand, the momentum it could bring…

For some teams, it appears a last stand. If Mayo make it three consecutive defeats to Galway in Connacht, they would have to negotiate seven games in nine weeks. That's a lot of road for a team with the tyres down to the canvas and wire at this stage.

Turning attentions to more local matters, question marks hang over Tyrone's ability to become the first side from that county to capture three consecutive Anglo-Celt Cups.

The injury to Colm Cavanagh has robbed them of not only one of the cutest and most clever operators in the game, but also of a driving force most visibly shown by how he was one of the very few that held their end up while losing by 12 points to the Dubs last August.

Now, Tyrone will have to ask a Matthew Donnelly, say, to fill in as a sweeper, thereby robbing them of one of their best men when they transition after a turnover.

Perhaps Mickey Harte has identified Frank Burns as the man for the role, either way it is coming fast for them.

Their problems are well flagged up and Monaghan have the smarts to beat them.

They showed as much in their league game in Castleblayney and if it came down to who converts their free-kicks, Monaghan win all day long.

It's the Ulster final, in all but name. As Buff Egan says, 'Drink it in, maaaaaan'.

Belfast Telegraph

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