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Qualified optimism is keeping Ulster teams to the fore

By John Campbell

Ulster could be set to enjoy its highest representation in the All-Ireland quarter-finals for some time if qualifier results go according to plan this weekend.

That's the view of leading administrator John Connolly as the countdown continues to four vital matches that could help define the championship narrative.

With Donegal and Monaghan already through to the Ulster final, and both looking more than capable of challenging strongly for the Sam Maguire Cup, Armagh, Fermanagh, Tyrone and Derry get the opportunity over the next 24 hours or so to advance in the All-Ireland title race.

Last year, three teams from the province ­- Armagh, Donegal and Monaghan - reached the last eight in the race for the Sam Maguire Cup but Connolly predicts that an enhanced representation is now on the cards.

"Obviously we don't want to be over-confident, given the nature of some of the upsets that have been recorded just lately, but there are grounds for thinking that Ulster can make a real stab at getting its hands on the big one," says Ulster Council spokesman Connolly.

"I think that the outcome of this weekend's qualifiers will have a big bearing on the championship race. There are still an awful lot of matches to be played before the All-Ireland final but let's just say that the signs are encouraging from our perspective."

But nothing is being taken for granted.

Armagh boss Kieran McGeeney is convinced that a lot of quality sides are still very much in the mix even though they may have exited their provincial championships.

"From our own perspective, we are going in against a Galway side that contains a lot of good players - people like Paul Conroy, Gary Sice, Damien Comer, Danny Cummins, Michael Lundy and others - and they certainly put it up physically to Mayo in the Connacht semi-final.

"Any team that can do that deserves to be respected. We will be looking no further than them on Sunday," points out McGeeney.

His caution is shared by Fermanagh boss Peter McGrath who will be hoping that his side can chalk up a second qualifier victory within a week when they host Roscommon at Brewster Park, Enniskillen on Sunday.

The Ernesiders put up a gallant show before going under to Monaghan in the Ulster Championship but recovered quickly to end Antrim's season last week-end and now McGrath is anxious to see his players breathe in the more rarefied air of the closing stages of the All-Ireland series.

"I thought for most of the game against Antrim we served up a pretty good performance. Obviously Sean Quigley got a lot of scores for us and we now have Ryan McCluskey back after a one-match suspension so we have selection options which is always a good thing at this time of the year," states McGrath.

Fermanagh's cause may be helped by the fact that Roscommon could still be without key players because of injuries but the wily McGrath is unlikely to derive any false comfort from this especially as the visitors will arrive boosted by that fine win over Cavan last Saturday.

With Derry expected to maximise their home advantage against Wexford at Owenbeg, the chances of Ulster being strongly featured in the draws for the remaining rounds of the qualifiers are bright.


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