Fight is now on to regain pride
A cloud of apprehension currently hangs over several Ulster counties as the provincial senior football championship looms ever nearer.
The optimism, vibrancy and confidence that marked the start of the Allianz Football League has in many cases been replaced by caution, worry and uncertainty as the biggest domestic competition prepares to unfold.
While the province has tasted a generous measure of success since the start of the year, the reality is that at county level the garden is not quite as rosy as it once was.
Loughgiel, Crossmaglen, Tyrone and Fermanagh have certainly helped to fly the flag in style but this should not be allowed to disguise the fact that four teams from this part of the world will be in Division Three of the league next year.
That is a sobering thought and gives an overview of football in the province which is not particularly flattering.
Certainly the fact that Down are in the league semi-finals — they will meet Cork on Sunday — is a plus-factor and the expectation is that James McCartan’s side will stretch the Leesiders at Croke Park.
Down will be without Danny Hughes and Dan Gordon but they still look capable of unhinging the Rebels’ defence which is not the most consistent unit in the country.
Aidan Carr, Mark Poland, Benny Coulter and Conor Laverty are playing well in the Mourne attack and they could rack up scores on Sunday if plied with decent possession.
But with Armagh having been relegated from Division One, Monaghan sliding from Division Two into Division Three, Derry not exactly covering themselves in Division Two and Cavan extremely lucky to survive in Division Three it can be clearly seen that such counties will enter the championship under considerable pressure.
Armagh’s fall from grace was not totally expected and although there were extenuating circumstances — the absence of their Crossmaglen players, the unavailability of Steven McDonnell and injuries to several panellists including Rory Grugan, Gavin McParland, Malachy Mackin and Peter Carragher — it can be clearly seen that manager Paddy O’Rourke has a tough battle on his hands.
No team in the country indeed will envy Armagh’s task against hitherto unbeaten Tyrone in the opening round of the Ulster championship.
This is just as hard as it comes for the Orchard County and unless O’Rourke has a full complement of players available to him, Armagh’s woes could be extended.
Similarly, relegated Monaghan face a mountainous task in their bid to regain credibility after a league campaign which has brought only anxiety and heartbreak for hard-working manager Eamonn McEnaney. This is the second year in succession in which Monaghan have been forced to bite the bullet of relegation and this does nothing to massage players’ confidence.
They are joined in Division Three by Antrim, Cavan and Fermanagh and while the former two counties have done nothing to enhance their reputations since the start of the year, Fermanagh’s renaissance under Peter Canavan holds out the hope that they might yet have a surprise or two in store come championship time.
They certainly have much more grounds for optimism than either Antrim, who flattered to deceive in the league, or Cavan whose woefully erratic form bodes ill for their championship prospects.
And we still have the Seanie Johnston transfer rumbling on — something that does nothing for the image of Cavan even though they could be said to be going by the letter of the law in this long-running farce.
Derry manager John Brennan (pictured) did not pull his punches when assessing that poor performance against struggling Westmeath.
Brennan labelled his side “an embarrassment”, adding that some players simply did not perform.
Brennan will now come under close scrutiny during the championship and the ebullient Lavey clubman acknowledges that Derry need to produce the goods to make up for their anaemic form in the league.
Not since 1998 have Derry won the Ulster crown and that’s a lengthy famine which is a source of great concern within the county.
The feat of current Ulster champions Donegal in retaining their status in Division One is being hailed this week but there is no team in a better place than Tyrone at this moment in time.
They are unbeaten in 12 games, have gained promotion to Division One and will start favourites against Kildare in the Division Two final.
Manager Mickey Harte has used 34 players in the league to date and the assertion that he could field two teams of equal quality will brook little argument from any quarter.
Tyrone are not only in pole position to win the Ulster championship but they could be in the frame to lift ‘Sam’.
Manager Harte will not subscribe to speculation at the moment as he keeps his focus on the game against Kildare.
However, you can be sure that the prospect of frying bigger fish both excites and challenges him in equal measure.