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Ulster title race will go right to wire, says Peter Canavan

By John Campbell

Tyrone legend Peter Canavan believes his county can make it a hat-trick of Ulster Senior Football Championship titles this year but warns that Mickey Harte's team must be prepared to do it the hard way.

Canavan, who tasted more success when his Holy Trinity College, Cookstown side lifted the All-Ireland 'B' Colleges title (Paddy Drummond Cup) last weekend, believes that the recently-completed Allianz League laid down a marker as to just what teams can expect in the championship.

And he predicts that the nine-point winning margins which abounded in the flagship competition last year will be more of a rarity this time round.

"I know that last year's Ulster series provided some lop-sided encounters if the truth be told but when you reflect on the recent Allianz League you begin to see why the forthcoming championship promises much," insists Canavan.

"Time was when teams did not take the league too seriously but for me the competition which has just ended offered further confirmation of two facts - football is no longer a 70-minute 15-man game and a strong substitutes' bench is essential if success is to be achieved."

Canavan, always considered to be ahead of his time on various aspects of GAA, singles out three league games in particular that "rammed home the message" in relation to the very thin line that can separate success and failure.

"When you look at the way Fermanagh got a point in the 74th minute to clinch promotion against Longford, Conor Madden's score for Cavan in the 75th minute against Tipperary that saw them go up and Kevin McLoughlin's 74th minute point for Mayo that earned them a draw against Donegal which relegated Declan Bonner's side, does this all not tell you how tight things can get?" queries Canavan (right).

"These games rammed home the message that it's never over until the final whistle sounds."

And the man who made history by taking delivery of the Sam Maguire Cup for the first time for Tyrone in 2003 believes that it's not only players who will be under additional pressure in the Ulster Championship but suggests that managers will really feel the heat.

"Look, gaelic football at the top level is an almost 80-minute, 21-man game - forget about your 70-minute, 15-man games, they are a thing of the past," stresses Canavan.

"And this being the case, managers are under great scrutiny now when it comes to getting their substitutions right. In most team sports, mistakes can be made by players maybe towards the end of the first half and certainly towards the end of the second half when they are fatigued.

"Managers now have the task of making what are often bold decisions - decisions that can mean the winning or losing of a game. I think this will be brought into greater focus in the Ulster Championship.

"And players who believe they can get away with time-wasting are only kidding themselves. Referees will now play the full 80 minutes if they have to.

"Over the course of the recent league as a whole, a lot of matches were decided in the very last moments and this shows you the level of application and commitment that is needed.

"While I believe that the championship will provide us with plenty of thrills, it will also assuredly highlight a ration of heartbreak for a lot of teams," he adds.

"I'm now suggesting that they should be mentally geared for what lies ahead and take cognisance of what occurred in the league."

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