Donegal to open Ulster title defence against Tyrone
Donegal players may be in the middle of playing a game of catch-up with their club Championship but 32 other county teams — when you include New York and London — are looking ahead to the 2013 Provincial and All-Ireland series following the draw which was made live on television last night in Croke Park.
What a confrontation this will be — two teams who have gained five All-Ireland titles between them in the past two decades in a quarter-final that could fill Croke Park if it were taken there.
And, irony of ironies, Derry, under new boss Brian McIver, have been matched with Down, the team with which he has been closely associated as James McCartan’s No 2 for the last two years.
Armagh and Cavan will meet in the preliminary round with Fermanagh awaiting the winners while new Monaghan manager Malachy O’Rouke will see his side take on Antrim.
After retaining the Ulster title, coming both years from what was a notoriously dangerous preliminary round, the next goal for Donegal will be to retain the Sam Maguire.
That old adage about good teams winning the All-Ireland but great teams retain it was always going to be a crude measure of ability but it is the Everest that all champions wish to conquer.
Since the National League went to a year-round calendar, only Kerry have managed to retain the title, in 2006 and '07.
Before that, three league games would be played at a more leisurely pace pre-Christmas, allowing teams to tailor their training in the New Year without the distraction of a demanding series of weekly fixtures.
Cork were able to capture Sam Maguire in 1989-90, Meath achieved it in 1987-88, and Kerry managed three-in-a-row between 1984 and 1986.
Only Cavan (19'47-48) and Down (1960-61) from Ulster have managed to put All-Irelands back-to-back, but Armagh came very close in 2003, when they were denied by Tyrone's first triumph.
Joe Kernan spoke earlier in the week about how once he won Sam in 2002, his focus shifted to the next year.
“I remember going up the driveway of CityWest Hotel and that was only two or three hours afterwards, and you were wondering if you could do it again next year,” he revealed.
“Ulster people now believe that they can win All-Irelands, and somebody's going to win them back-to-back. If Donegal perform to the level of this year — and improve because they improved by 25% from last year — if they can do that, who knows?”
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte is clearly relishing the prospect of meeting a Donegal side that on Jim McGuinness’s own admission were extremely fortunate to win the Ulster semi-final meeting between the sides during the summer, and the Red Hand boss has already taken steps towards strengthening his backroom team.
The acquisition of Gavin Devlin is viewed as a bonus with Harte speaking about what the Ardboe man will bring to the set-up.
“From I noticed him first as a minor coming to a trial, he was playing his game and directing the rest of the players who he didn't know anyway,” Harte stated.
“He's a great motivator, has great passion for sport, great passion for Gaelic games and for Tyrone, that's very useful around any squad.”
New Antrim hurling manager Kevin Ryan will be keenly anticipating their Leinster Championship clash against Westmeath — the team that plunged Antrim into mourning when they won the key meeting between the sides earlier this year.
It may surprise many — but not those familiar with the curious grading systems the GAA employs — that it is Galway, and not Kilkenny, that will be seeded in the Leinster hurling Championship, by virtue of winning the provincial title a few months ago.
The Tribesmen go straight into the semi-finals — and there is even the possibility that they could meet Antrim there.
Preliminary Rd: Cavan v Armagh
Quarter-Finals: Cavan or Armagh v Fermanagh
Donegal v Tyrone
Antrim v MOnaghan
Derry v Down
Semi-Finals: Donegal or Tyrone v Derry or Down
Cavan/Armagh/Fermanagh v Antrim or Monaghan
(Venues and dates to be confirmed by |Ulster Council)