Super 8s a chance for Ulster sides to make a big mark
By the time Monaghan complete their round four qualifier against Laois tomorrow in Navan, there could be as many as five teams from Ulster confirmed to make up the very first Super 8s of the All-Ireland Championship, where the last eight teams form two groups and play a round-robin.
The sheer Ulster-ness of it all is enough to make the eyes bleed of your average Sunday Game pundit, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Fermanagh and Monaghan would join Kerry and Galway in group one, while group three could see Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh all taking it in turns to bite chunks out of Dublin.
Five teams however, would top the previous highest representation of four. What emerges when you crunch the numbers are the years that high watermark has occurred; usually always when an Ulster team has been competing for an All-Ireland.
In 2002, there were just two Ulster teams in the quarter-finals - Armagh and Donegal. Armagh winning the All-Ireland that year appeared to spur others on and the duo were joined by Tyrone and Fermanagh the following year, Derry replacing Donegal for another four Ulster sides in 2004.
The year after Donegal won the 2012 All-Ireland, four teams were back at that point with Monaghan, Tyrone, Donegal and Cavan making their only All-Ireland quarter-final appearance.
As you might expect, Tyrone are the most consistent Ulster team with 13 All-Ireland quarter-final appearances, bettered only by Kerry who have made every single of the 17 quarter-finals, and Dublin who missed out just one year in 2003 - knocked out in the backdoor by Armagh.
Ask Down's former All-Ireland winner Conor Deegan why this phenomenon exists and he has strong views.
"What sort of Championship is the Munster Championship, in real terms? What is the Leinster Championship in real terms?" he asks.
"In real terms, there is no other Championship. Kerry are coming out of Munster at their leisure. Same as Dublin. That's the reality.
"When you analyse it, they can rubbish the Ulster Championship all they want.
"It is an easy target, always has been, always will be. Because the people on the likes of the TV panels are from Munster and Leinster by and large.
"They look up here and say we are s***. The football is s*** and so on."
The narrative being painted about teams from the northern province, and what makes them competitive, namely organised defences and a willingness to make life uncomfortable for the opposition, is one that irks the Downpatrick man.
"If Dublin were doing what Fermanagh were doing they would be eulogising it and saying it is a great defensive set-up, very hard to beat. But they are not, they are saying Fermanagh are poor. Fermanagh can't do anything else but that or else they risk being destroyed, so why would they? But young fellas are running around Fermanagh a bit more excited about their football six months ago. Of course they are. And that's how you win people over."
Tony Donnelly, right-hand man of Mickey Harte during Tyrone's three All-Ireland triumphs in the last decade, feels positive results this weekend is not even required to point to the overall health of Ulster teams.
"You are left with the last 12 teams in the All-Ireland now and five of them are from Ulster," the Augher man said.
"Well, that's a positive enough in its own right. Five out of the last 12 has to go some way to that argument. It's not as poor or as dire as some people make it to be. I think the fact it could be five or four, we have the biggest contingent of any of the provinces, which says something about Ulster football."
The new system, which provides eight extra games where the top teams face each other, meets with Donnelly's whole-hearted enthusiasm. He addresses concerns about workload on players and panel depth by pointing out the contribution the likes of unheralded names such as Shane Sweeney, Brian Meenan, Eoghan Bradley, Leo Meenan and Damian McCaul made in their All-Ireland winning years.
Deegan for one, is jealous of all those glamorous games coming thick and fast, the two rounds rattled off in successive weekends, a break before the third round and the semi-finals.
"People will play four Championship games over a month. We played five to win an All-Ireland," he laughed.
"There should be nothing wrong with playing every second weekend, or even every weekend for the simple reason that you are talking about massive panels, who are the best trained, the best medical service, all those things, so they should be able to rotate and pick up injuries and just move on with it.
"All this complaining about having to play, the games are what generates interest. You look at the World Cup, there are matches on all the time!"
While the glut of action excites him, he is realistic enough to pare down the contenders for the All-Ireland title into a narrow field. Dublin seeking four All-Ireland titles, naturally are there. As are Kerry. But the ability of any of the Ulster sides is questionable, he feels.
"The big thing is potentially there could be five northern teams in it. But of the five, how many of them are really equipped to win an All-Ireland?" he said.
"If you look of the five that have come through, how many of them have lost games in this Championship? All but Donegal, naturally. There you go. That maybe says it all.
"Donegal are probably the one team at the moment who are. I think the Paddy McBrearty loss is absolutely monumental. On a human level, terrible, but on a football level horrendous. What a wonderful player. It changes everything in my opinion and you can say what you like but you won't replace him."
Despite that, Declan Bonner's men are the only Ulster contender he feels have a chance of upsetting the natural order of things.
"The reality is that of the five, four of them have lost games to date, so they are not the cream of the cream. Donegal have won Ulster and their confidence will be good."
The other side of it is that if Tyrone see off Cork as expected, they will meet Donegal in round three of the Super 8s, and by then, everything could be on the line for both teams.
Things are about to take off. What World Cup?