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Ulster sides need to change the familiar pattern

 

By Declan Bogue

Five years ago, a promising Derry team were unlucky enough to meet a Dublin side who had decided they were going to blow all in front of them away with pace, power and long-kicking football in a league final.

That spring, Brian McIver's men had been one of the most impressive sides in the country. They had beaten the All-Ireland champions Dublin in Celtic Park, Mark Lynch potting a wonderful goal in the corner and accounted for all-comers even without their best forward, Eoin Bradley.

However, Dublin found their feet in the second half of that final and decimated Derry, the scoreline at the end an ugly one of 3-19 to 1-10.

That was the last time an Ulster side competed for the league title. The year before, Tyrone had run Dublin to a single point, 0-18 to 0-17 in a thriller.

Ever since, Dublin have dominated the competition, with fringe players coming into the league sides and establishing themselves so well that they could not be dropped for Championship action, the most recent examples being Brian Howard and Eoin Murchan.

More than any other manager, Jim Gavin trades off league form, but then he is in a privileged position. The more games in this environment the better for Dublin's strength in depth. It seems a while ago now, but Dean Rock's fluffed free-kick in the 2017 final that failed to cancel out Kerry's one-point lead was seen as a sign at the time that Dublin were crumbling.

That prospect doesn't seem as likely now.

What history tells us is that spring form often carries into the Championship. Dublin have won five of the last six league titles while before that, Cork's triumph in 2010 carried over to the double five months later.

The last league winners from Ulster are Derry, back in 2008 when the final was played in Parnell Park and they defeated Kerry in a marvellous game. Derry now start life in Division Four this weekend.

For all Mickey Harte's ability to keep Tyrone competitive, he hasn't managed to win the league title since his debut season of 2003 when they defeated Laois in the final.

What do they want out of this league? Listen to Harte closely and you could guess it might be to incorporate Kyle Coney, whose kicking ability could reward Tyrone hugely if they can gain offensive marks, and Darragh Canavan who he singled out for praise after last Saturday night's Dr McKenna Cup final win.

Monaghan have three home league games and as such they could find it tight, but they have upset Dublin before in the league and given how Gavin has rested the frontline players in the O'Byrne Cup, there is no reason a motivated Monaghan side could not take full points on the opening day of the season. After that, games against Roscommon and Tyrone away are winnable, as is a home game between those against Galway.

Reach a final and anything can happen.

And finally, Cavan's ambitions are a little more humble. For the last number of years they have zoomed up and down through the leagues and if new manager Mickey Graham can keep them in the top flight it will be an achievement just as impressive as bringing Mullinalaghta to the Leinster senior club Championship.

Antrim

Division: Four

Management: Lenny Harbinson goes into his second season in charge after a slightly underwhelming first year. Brendan Trainor remains as selector while Fintan Devlin handles their conditioning work .

Form Guide: LLW — An undistinguished campaign in the McKenna Cup.

Key Man: Paddy McBride has become a veteran and one of their most crucial players around the middle third.

Captain: Lamh Dhearg’s Declan Lynch.

Big Loss: Chris Kerr (retired), Conor Murray (injured) and Niall McKeever and James Laverty have opted out. 

Bookie’s Odds: 11/1.

VERDICT: With so many absences, it’s hard to see such an inexperienced squad winning promotion against more seasoned teams.

Armagh

Division: Two

Management: Back in 2015 it seemed the five-year term handed to Kieran McGeeney was an enormous length of time. We are now in the final year of that arrangement, with Jim McCorry now his assistant.

Form Guide: WWWWL — Got to Dr McKenna Cup final.

Key Man: Niall Grimley has emerged as an outstanding performer.

Captain: Rory Grugan provides bravery and leadership in a playmaking role.

Big Loss: Kevin Dyas has finally given up his fight for fitness, and it is a great pity.

Bookie’s Odds: 13/2 to win Division Two.

VERDICT: While they are getting a super team together, we need to see if they can finally beat a team with an organised defence. The evidence isn’t there yet.

Cavan

Division: One

Management: Former pocket-rocket corner forward Mickey Graham comes in for his first year, job-sharing with Mullinalaghta.

Form Guide: WWL — Narrowly missed out on McKenna Cup semi-final through score difference.

Key Man: Graham needs Gearoid McKiernan fit.

Captain: None selected as of yet.

Big Loss: No major losses as the likes of Cian Mackey and Raymond Galligan all return. 

Bookie’s Odds: 50/1 to win the league, which even for a yo-yo county is a bit generous.

VERDICT: Have dropped in and out of the top division over the last three seasons. Mattie McGleenan winning promotion doesn’t get the credit it deserves and Graham has a huge job on his hands to survive.

Derry

Division: Four

Management: Damian McErlain goes into year two of his project, while Ciaran Meenagh has been added to the coaching ticket.

Form Guide: LWWL — Got to a Dr McKenna Cup semi-final and lost to Tyrone.

Key Man: Chrissy McKaigue will set the tone on the pitch for the rest to follow.

Captain: McKaigue himself gets the responsibility again.

Big Loss: For years, Mark Lynch carried the game to the opposition for Derry with his strong ball-carrying and his accuracy from frees. They will miss his alpha-male qualities about the place. Any team would.

Bookie’s Odds: 1/2 are the stingy odds on offer to escape the basement league of Division Four.

VERDICT: A won this weekend against a vulnerable Antrim should be the launchpad for a tilt at a Division Four title.

Donegal

Division: Two

Management: Season two for Declan Bonner and he showed that relegation did not hurt his summer as they won Ulster. Has added Stephen Rochford to the backroom to everyone’s surprise.

Form Guide: WWWL — Reached the McKenna Cup semis, losing to Armagh.

Key Man: As ever, it is Michael Murphy. Had an operation to clean up his knee after Christmas, they need him back.

Captain: The same Murphy is now in his ninth season as Donegal captain.

Big Loss: In order to be All-Ireland contenders, they need Patrick McBrearty back from his cruciate injury.

Bookie’s Odds: 5/4 to win the division outright. If they can do without the Gaoth Dobhair contingent, they will certainly go up.

VERDICT: Absolute certainties to go up.

Down

Divison: Three

Management: Paddy Tally finally gets a turn as a ‘number one’ in county management and brings Stephen Beattie and Benny Coulter with him to flesh out the coaching team.

Form Guide: LLW — Tally used the McKenna Cup purely as an extended trial.

Key Man: Kevin McKernan, Niall Donnelly, Donal O’Hare will all have big roles to play.

Captain: Darren O’Hagan has been handed the role, with Caolan Mooney vice-captain.

Big Loss: No players have retired, but Tally has let Peter Turley go, favouring youth over the 35-year-old. 

Bookie’s Odds: 5/2 to win the third rung. With four home games, they should definitely get up anyway.

VERDICT: A bit of organisation should go a long way with these players. Will get up.

Fermanagh

Division: Two

Management: Rory Gallagher continues with his native county for the second year after winning promotion and reaching the Ulster final in 2018. Ryan McMenamin and Leon Carters are his backroom team.

Form Guide: DLL — Put very little into the McKenna Cup.

Key Man: With Seamus Quigley not coming back, the burden of scoring falls again to his brother, Sean. 

Captain: Eoin Donnelly continues in the role for his sixth season.

Big Loss: It’s odd to see a Fermanagh team without Ryan McCluskey, but the sheer bulk of Seamus Quigley’s tallies will be missed. 

Bookie’s Odds: 25/1 to win Division Three.

VERDICT: A win over Cork on Sunday could propel them, but safety from relegation could be a huge ask with three home games.

Monaghan

Division: One

Management: Malachy O’Rourke enters his seventh season with the Oriel men. His coaching staff includes Leo McBride, Ryan Porter and Eoin Lennon.

Form Guide: WDL — Missed out on a semi-final place in the McKenna Cup.

Key Man: Remains Conor McManus, a strike forward as good as any other in the game.

Captain: McManus is also the leader and the responsibility does him no harm at all.

Big Loss: With even Vinny Corey back at 36, Monaghan have no drop-outs. 

Bookie’s Odds: 14/1 to win a Division they have been in for the last five years? Three home games might harm them though.

VERDICT: Looking through their fixture list, if they can scalp Dublin again at home they are good enough to win the next three after that and reach a league final.

Tyrone

Division: One

Management: It’s the 17th season for Mickey Harte. Gavin Devlin remains as is his assistant, Peter Donnelly and Stephen O’Neill take the coaching.

Form Guide: WWWWW — A clean sweep at the Dr McKenna Cup.

Key Man: A predictable one, but Colm Cavanagh has won two consecutive All-Stars and is a huge influence.

Captain: Matthew Donnelly took over from Sean Cavanagh and retains the responsibility.

Big Loss: Connor McAliskey is out with a serious leg injury while Mark Bradley is studying in England over the spring.

Bookie’s Odds: 8/1 to win a trophy they haven’t troubled since Harte’s first year of 2003. Four home games and a couple of winnable away days might get them to the final.

VERDICT: Fourth last year and might be happy with that again.

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