Ulster gets ready for another spectacular
If you ever find yourself confused by the opprobrium showered on Ulster football on an annual basis, you need remember just one thing - it's the best that's out there.
What do we mean by that? Well, the best teams in the country are those that occupy the top 11 positions in the National League. Five of those are Ulster counties, three are Connacht, two are Leinster and Munster has just Kerry.
Given the league is the truest reflection of a team's abilities over a sustained number of seasons, it stands to reason that the standard of competition in Ulster is greater when taken in an overall context.
What are the alternatives?
Let's take a look at the Munster Championship. Since Conor Counihan stepped down as Cork manager, his achievements in winning the 2010 All-Ireland and keeping Kerry honest in their province have been overlooked. Last year there were five games played in their provincial Championship and the average winning margin was 14.4 points.
The final itself was a 17-point stroll for Kerry against a Cork county that is swimming in mediocrity. Kerry's semi-final win over Clare was a 22-point victory. This year, they go for their seventh consecutive Munster title.
In Leinster, the excellence of Dublin has been said to overshadow everything else but that ignores the odd alarming result. Across 10 games, the average winning margin was 10.5 points.
Westmeath and Laois, who met in this year's Division Three league final, played last year in a game that Laois won by 10 points.
As impressive as Carlow's rise over the last couple of seasons has been, their detractors deliberately ignore their attacking potential. They compiled 2-17 against Louth in an 11-point win and 2-14 in an impressive win over Kildare.
But apart from that, it was a washout. Longford's win over Meath should have resided long in the memory without instantly being blotted out by the madness of going man-to-man against Dublin in the semi-final and losing by 19 points.
As much as the potential five All-Ireland titles for Dublin is capturing the imagination, the potential to claim nine consecutive Leinster titles shows how much the challenge from other quarters has withered.
Since James Horan's departure from Mayo after 2014, Connacht has become liberated. Galway, Roscommon and Mayo have claimed the province since 2015. Go back to 2007 and you see Sligo winning a glorious Nestor Cup.
Apart from that, there are always things to look out for in Connacht. That New York and London get to open the All-Ireland Championship every year is a quirk that certainly adds a slice of character and, although it's not fashionable nowadays, a sentimental nod to the time of cruel hardship and emigration.
Occasionally someone will pop the head up and go for the lowest common denominator by claiming that neither deserve their place in the All-Ireland Championship, but New York were seconds away from claiming their first-ever win last year, and London were in the Connacht final as recently as 2013.
For all that charm, there was an average of an 8.8 points winning margin last summer.
Now, for all its faults, Ulster had an average of 6.5 points per game.
No doubt, there were a few stinkers. Antrim and Down had all the competitiveness of Tommy Robinson versus a milkshake. Cavan didn't seem to have any idea how to play against Donegal in the preliminary round and the final itself was a non-event.
But there was plenty of what we might term 'grimly fascinating' all the same, not least Fermanagh's smash and grab against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final and how their support turned Clones into a green valley on the day of the final.
Asked if the provinces are acting as a straightjacket for football, and perhaps with a bit of imagination we could have the Bacchanalia that was the Munster Hurling Championship of 2018 for the big ball, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte turned his nose up at their pre-Championship press event in Garvaghey.
"Could you tell me, what are you offering to the counties that are developing their games at this stage and not contesting All-Irelands, or even making the last eight on a regular basis?" he asked.
"If you took away the possibility of a provincial final from them, I think you are taking away a lot of potential of something they are striving for and capable of getting to.
"That's why I would want to still keep the provincial Championships. There is an opportunity for four underdogs to make a big day in the GAA and if you take that away… I am not sure what qualifying system, Champions League style thing you bring in. It is no big deal if you finish second in your league group and were beaten and never appear in the final. I don't think it would be good for people."
Surveying the scene in Clones last June, perhaps he is right. Change is not always for the good.
Over the last decade, only Armagh and Cavan have failed to make a provincial decider. Those days alone have kept the interest in football in their own counties sustained.
There is always hope in Ulster.
The old saying that any team can beat any team on their day is of course overstated, but there exists the possibility, whereas nobody will come within 10 points of Kerry in Munster this year, and something similar for Dublin in Leinster.
Let the games begin!
Management: Lenny Harbinson heads into his second Ulster Championship. Manager of St Gall’s when they won the All-Ireland Club Championship in 2010, he has been handed a rough draw with the winners of Tyrone and Derry in the quarter-final. Without a home venue, the game will probably be fixed for Armagh.
Form Guide: LWLWW — Three opening defeats ended their hopes of promotion from Division Four.
Key Man: Paddy McBride will be the attacking threat.
Captain: Lámh Dearg’s loyal servant Declan Lynch leads the team.
Big Loss: Peter and Kristian Healy never returned after the great St Enda’s run came to an end.
Bookie’s Odds: 150/1 for Ulster, 2,000/1 to win the All-Ireland.
VERDICT: Quarter-final exit. Hoping for favourable qualifiers draw.
Management: Kieran McGeeney is in his fifth year as manager and is assisted by Jim McCorry, trainer Denis Hollywood and 2002 All-Ireland winner Paddy McKeever.
Form Guide: LWLWW — A late spurt kept them in Division Two.
Key Man: Brendan Donaghy is much under-rated as the Armagh forward line tends to get the plaudits, but he is essential to the success of the side.
Captain: Rory Grugan has taken over the role over the last two years.
Big Loss: Armagh have managed to gain, rather than lose, players, with Jamie Clarke and Stefan Campbell back in harness.
Bookie’s Odds: 10/1 to win Ulster, 200/1 for the All-Ireland.
VERDICT: They could beat Down, and earn their first win in Ulster in five years. But no further than that.
Management: Mickey Graham takes over from Mattie McGleenan and had to double-job for a spell by leading Longford’s Mullanalaghta to the Leinster Club Championship.
Form Guide: LWLLL — Relegated from Division One with just one win, coming over Roscommon.
Key Man: Gearoid McKiernan will be fit for the summer after some injury concerns earlier this season.
Captain: Goalkeeper Raymond Galligan should be expected to continue his role from the National League.
Big Loss: With Graham coming in, Cavan have had no notable absences from the panel.
Bookie’s Odds: 11/1 for an Ulster title, 300/1 for the All-Ireland.
VERDICT: They meet what could be a vulnerable Monaghan on a Saturday night in Breffni Park. They have a real chance.
Management: Damian McErlain is in his second year in charge and has added the highly-rated Ciaran Meenagh to the coaching ticket.
Form Guide: WWWWW — Blitzed everyone they met in Division Four.
Key Man: Shane McGuigan may be expected to carry the bulk of the scoring threat while their defence is pretty solid looking with four Slaughtneil defenders able to work with the panel all year.
Captain: Chrissy McKaigue is the natural leader and gets the title officially now.
Big Loss: Apart from the usual departures to America for fringe players, Derry have nobody that could fit into the notion of a significant loss.
Bookie’s Odds: 40/1 for Ulster, 500/1 for Sam Maguire. Best avoided.
VERDICT: Derry will simply not get a win over Tyrone, but they need to compile something to show for themselves in the qualifiers.
Management: Declan Bonner is in his second season in his second spell as Donegal manager, with Karl Lacey as a high-profile member of the backroom team, John McElholm does the training.
Form Guide: LWWWW — Made a late charge to win the Division Two league title with victory over Meath.
Key Man: As ever, it is Michael Murphy. The games he doesn’t play tend to be the ones Donegal lose.
Captain: The same Murphy is now in his ninth season as Donegal captain, something we would contend has to be the longest spell ever for any footballer or hurler.
Big Loss: With his cruciate injury last season, Patrick McBrearty’s absence was felt in the Super 8’s series. It will be good to see him back.
Bookie’s Odds: 3/1 to retain Ulster, but 20/1 for Sam.
VERDICT: Ulster contenders.
Management: Paddy Tally is number one for the first time in a long coaching career, and he has Benny Coulter along with some of his St Mary’s coaches with him.
Form Guide: WWWWL — Fell at the final fence to secure automatic promotion and fell foul of a three-way tie and scoring difference to get out of Division Three.
Key Man: Caolan Mooney is the driving force for this Down team.
Captain: The walking throwback of Gaelic football that is Darren O’Hagan — builder, farmer and bloody-minded competitor.
Big Loss: Nobody really of note, although Peter Turley’s services were no longer needed.
Bookie’s Odds: 16/1 for Ulster, 500/1 for the ultimate. If burning money is your thing, get on it.
VERDICT: They face Armagh in Newry. There is a lot of hype about Armagh that Down will burst. Could make a final.
Management: Rory Gallagher is in his second season in charge of his native county, after leading them to an Ulster final last year and brink of Division One this spring.
Form Guide: WWWLL — Their challenge for a Division One spot faltered in the last two games.
Key Man: Big efforts are being put into getting Sean Quigley right for this summer, in the absence of other prolific scorers, but Fermanagh are more a system of play than about individuals.
Captain: Eoin Donnelly goes into his sixth Championship as captain.
Big Loss: From last year’s Ulster final, corner back Mickey Jones and goalkeeper Pat Cadden have not returned.
Bookie’s Odds: 28/1 for Ulster and 500/1 for an All-Ireland. Maybe best left alone.
VERDICT: They have a chance to rattle Donegal in Enniskillen, but Tyrone will then certainly take care of them.
Management: Malachy O’Rourke enters his seventh summer with the Oriel men. His coaching staff includes Leo McBride, Ryan Porter and Eoin Lennon.
Form Guide: LLLWL — Skin of the teeth job to stay in Division One, but that’s some achievement all the same.
Key Man: Monaghan’s hopes and aspirations are all tied in with the fitness — occasionally worrying — and form — usually exemplary — of Conor McManus.
Captain: That man McManus.
Big Loss: Darren Hughes’ ankle injury robs Monaghan of a certain dynamism.
Bookie’s Odds: Tucked in behind Tyrone at 3/1 for Ulster, and then 25/1 for an All-Ireland.
VERDICT: Well-balanced, experienced, united and with seasoned management, Monaghan will play in the Ulster final at the very least. After that, they could reach a final.
Management: It’s the 17th consecutive season for the evergreen Mickey Harte. Gavin Devlin is his assistant, while Peter Donnelly takes on the majority of coaching.
Form Guide: DWWWW — Finished strongly in Division One after a shaky start.
Key Man: Played most of the league without Colm Cavanagh, but he showed how important he was on the last day against Galway.
Captain: Matthew Donnelly raises the standards of those around him.
Big Loss: Nobody of any great significance, but you sense the squad could do with a Conor Gormley or Ryan McMenamin.
Bookie’s Odds: 13/8 for Ulster and have assumed fourth rank for the All-Ireland at 9/1. One of them will come through at any rate.
VERDICT: Possible Ulster Champions, but will get it tough and a final against Monaghan is tricky.