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Ulster Championship flying the flag

True colours: Fans enjoy the Cavan and Armagh Ulster Championship replay at Clones
True colours: Fans enjoy the Cavan and Armagh Ulster Championship replay at Clones
Declan Bogue

By Declan Bogue

Of all the trends emerging from the action in Gaelic games this summer, the one that no-one saw coming was the technicolour revolution and reinvention of the Ulster Senior Football Championship. Hot take or not, it's the truth!

For many decades, the northern Championship was held at arm's length by observers. A veritable snuff movie of sport.

A codeword for grim and grisly activity. A tool for an analogy that you'd rather do anything than sit down to an afternoon of sporting activity coming to you live from Clones, Ballybofey or Breffni Park.

Ulster handball. Ulster all-in-wrestling. The festival of pulling and dragging. The insults are numerous and, hey, nobody backed off.

This year, however, it has emerged as a hipster's choice. Your cool indie kid cousin who you rarely get to see. That craft beer that's only worth having with a block of strong cheese and fresh grapes.

And there is an element of what is rare, is wonderful. The decision of RTÉ to front-load hurling fixtures towards the start of the summer has squeezed football out slightly, the deferred coverage on BBC coming at a time of the evening when most people have other stuff to be getting on with.

People may know it's on, sure, but most will wait for the glossy highlights package all the same.

Look around the provinces though and there is a deeper appreciation for what is happening this year with Ulster football.

Prior to the start of the competition, the assembled pundits were eager to predict that Monaghan and Tyrone - two teams that contested the All-Ireland semi-final last year, would be the pairing for the provincial final.

Instead, Donegal's demolition of Tyrone and Cavan's humbling of Monaghan before slipping past Armagh in a thrilling replay has blown the doors open.

For the most part, the football has been pretty good. Derry gave Tyrone a game of it. Armagh and Down was more noteworthy for the plethora of mistakes they made, adding to the gaiety of the nation.

Fermanagh's efforts to stymie Donegal required nine points from play kicked from 40 metres or more by the winners. There are some who object to this but most will take that over a complete mismatch.

A quick stat, if we may. Cavan's semi-final replay win over Armagh produced 40 scores. Only two other games in the entire history of the Ulster Championship gathered this tally; the 2016 Ulster semi-final replay between Tyrone and Cavan (42) and Tyrone's quarter-final replay against Down in 2008 (41), though that second example included a period of extra-time.

That shows some insight to the quality of the football produced by Cavan this summer. They only shot one wide in the second half, and that came deep into injury time.

Few Championships have benefitted from being run off faster than Ulster. Nowadays, you cannot get a week's lead in to a game such as, say, Donegal beating Antrim in 2011, which was a horrendous day in Ballybofey when Jim McGuinness whipped the covers off his 'system' in all its unsophisticated, unoiled horror as sheets of rain fell.

There was a week of recriminations after that. Mercifully we don't get that anymore. It's a game and then a game on top of that. No harm and no need for the over analysis.

With Cavan making the Ulster final this year, it leaves it that every Ulster county has appeared in their provincial decider over the last eleven seasons.

That's a hell of a lot more competitive that other provinces. Even allowing for Connacht's smaller size and excluding New York, to have every county in the final has taken 18 years.

In Munster it is 58 years and Leinster shows the huge disparity of 121 years.

While we are on Leinster, the farce that was Sunday's double header of semi-finals says it all. A measly crowd of only 36,126 showed up for a day featuring some of the most populated counties of Ireland and the team going for the record-breaking fifth consecutive All-Ireland title.

Nobody cares any more. Leinster football is being eaten from within.

There is a certain facelessness to some other provincial Championships and their proponents. Fair enough, you couldn't say it about the other thriving provincial tournament that is Leinster hurling, with its Cody's and Davy's and Greg Kennedy's fetching quick frees from TJ Reid. Leinster's got it going on right now.

Up in Ulster, there is a whole load of character at the moment, whether it be the brooding stares and the shoulder of Kieran McGeeney getting into Down's Kevin McKernan, the stewing rage that bubbled up within Mickey Harte last Saturday or even the ear-splitting volume of Rory Gallagher bellowing on instructions from the sideline, there's a lot of personality out there.

And as Samuel L Jackson's Jules said in Pulp Fiction: "Personality goes a long way."

Belfast Telegraph


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