John Campbell: Donegal and Tyrone can fire up the 2020 Ulster Championship in style
The Leinster Senior Football Championship may be labelled a non-event in many quarters because of Dublin’s dominance and the seemingly eternal Kerry v Cork rivalry in Munster is certainly wearing thin, but Ulster still continues to come up with the goods in terms of a meaningful Championship draw.
It would surely be hard to surpass the appeal of the Donegal v Tyrone opening quarter-final pairing lined up for next year’s series while in his first provincial Championship outing new Derry boss Rory Gallagher will get to pit his wits against Armagh’s Kieran McGeeney.
And in what will be his Ulster series debut as Gallagher’s successor in Fermanagh, triple Tyrone All-Ireland winner Ryan McMenamin is already eagerly anticipating locking horns with Down.
Antrim may be starting 2020 as the only Ulster side in Division Four in the Allianz League as things stand, but when they take on the winners of the Monaghan v Cavan preliminary round tie in Ulster the Saffrons will be very much in the big picture with manager Lenny Harbinson keen to see his side flourish.
Undoubtedly, though, the clash between Donegal and Tyrone will have appeal far beyond the boundaries of the province given that Declan Bonner’s side swept the Red Hands out of this year’s provincial Championship while they themselves strode imperiously to a second successive title.
It can be safely said that in what is the last year of his current deal Tyrone manager Mickey Harte will see his side’s meeting with Donegal as a seminal challenge, a domestic peak to be scaled as a precursor to even more mountainous tasks.
In retaining their Ulster crown, Donegal underlined that their fusion of youth personified by Niall O’Donnell, Oisin Gallen, Michael Langan and Eoin McHugh and their raft of experience that incorporates Michael Murphy, Ryan McHugh, Leo McLoone, Patrick McBrearty and Neil McGee can carry their provincial dominance into 2020.
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But with Cathal McShane, Ben McDonnell, Michael McKernan, Richie Donnelly and Brian Kennedy among Tyrone’s ambitious young guns alongside the more seasoned Ronan McNamee, Peter Harte, Matthew Donnelly and Niall Morgan, the prospect of a truly fascinating opening quarter-final is already taking shape.
With a challenging campaign ahead in Division Three and now a head-to-head with Armagh in the Ulster Championship, new Derry boss Rory Gallagher will surely be grateful that he undertook a painstaking trawl of talent in the county Championship.
Derry have not won the Ulster crown since 1998 but having already taken charge of Donegal and Fermanagh, Gallagher has acquired a greater depth of inter-county management experience that could help cushion his role with the Oak Leaf county.
His team’s Championship mission against Armagh will be a stern test, particularly as the Orchard County appear to have unearthed two precious jewels in Jarlath Og Burns and Rian O’Neill.
Ryan McMenamin, who was Gallagher’s right-hand man in Fermanagh, is now in sole charge of operations in the Erne county and while the team failed in its bid to gain promotion to the top tier of the league, this in itself has fuelled the hope that they can make more meaningful progress next year.
McMenamin has watched players such as Ultan Kelm, Kane Connor, Jonny Cassidy and Ciaran Corrigan blossom impressively and is aware that their growing maturity can further underpin his side’s bid to recapture the limelight in which they basked in 2018 when they reached the provincial final.
Fermanagh are the only county never to have won an Ulster title and the passionate McMenamin will see his team’s quarter-final meeting with Down as the first step towards perhaps overturning this chilling statistic.
Seamus McEnaney, meanwhile, spent six years in the Monaghan hot seat before handing over to Malachy O’Rourke who steered the county to two Ulster titles and now that he is at the Farney county helm again McEnaney is particularly keen to build on this progress.
Like every other manager, he would have preferred to avoid an Ulster Championship preliminary round assignment but it’s this year's beaten finalists Cavan who will test his side in the provincial championship opener.
Mickey Graham is about to embark on his second term as Cavan boss having masterminded their surge into this year’s decider and is aware that a local derby will form a major assignment for his side who ultimately flattered to deceive to a certain extent this year.
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