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Ulster's rival championships are quite simply too bland

By Declan Bogue

Try as they might, the rest of the country cannot keep their eyes off Ulster. It's not for nothing that the Championship has everyone in Ireland casting eyes to the province for the real fire and brimstone preaching.

The Ulster Council have found themselves particularly fortunate in recent times with the make-up of the preliminary rounds of the Ulster football Championship and the explosion of fury that six months of eyeing up opponents can cause.

Last year, it took two games to separate Tyrone and Down and we had our first high-profile Championship black card when Niall Morgan pulled down Jerome Johnston and Aidan Carr netted the resultant penalty.

On that occasion, hay was made in the opinion columns about the worth and the necessity of the black card. A somewhat more open National League campaign had brought much optimism that it was the panacea for negative football, and the resultant storylines fuelled a decent start of summer action.

In 2013, Cavan and Armagh met in Breffni Park and in their first year under Paul Grimley, the Orchard County went with something different - not only keeping their six attackers in advanced positions, but bringing forward defenders also in the hunt for scores.

As a result, it left them woefully under-protected at the back, where the sprightly Martin Dunne picked several points off marker Paul McKeown, with Eugene Keating ferrying him ball all day.

The main talking point from that game came courtesy of the RTÉ studios - naturally - with the pundits fighting for time to pour criticism upon the head of Grimley for his sheer naivety in trying to win a game in the Ulster Championship with attacking football. The very thought!

And we were barely done chewing over the ramifications and the apologies sought over that flare-up when, one week later, Tyrone went to Ballybofey with the smell of blood in their nostrils, looking to avenge two successive years of defeat to Donegal.

Goals from Colm McFadden and Ross Wherity sent them back with tails firmly between their legs.

This year, we had the same pairing in the preliminary round, and looking back, we could group these two in one of the most bitter rivalries the game has seen.

Naturally, certain things happen that people may have thought necessary at the time but perhaps are not so proud of now.

Sledging has been around for decades, and one can only cringe at Liam Hayes' tale in his magnificent autobiography 'Out of Our Skins' in which the former Meath midfielder recounted when he was taunted about the suicide of his brother.

That incident happened as far back as the 80s, so to suggest that sledging has taken a recent turn for the worse is quite laughable.

However, incidents of this nature have served to keep Gaelic football front and centre of most sports coverage over the last week. By and large, most of the summer is taken up with match report, reaction, and then build-up to the next event. Occasionally there is an explosion of issues and they run their course.

What some of the harshest critics, who target the style of football and the ferociousness with which it is played, must acknowledge is that Ulster routinely gives the rest of the country something to get excited about while the early rounds of Leinster and Munster whittle themselves down.

Clare and Limerick, and Longford and Offaly and Galway against Leitrim are all very nice and fine, but they are flavourless affairs in comparison to those in Ulster.

The real power struggles have been found up here this season - the old master Mickey Harte against new kid on the block Rory Gallagher, the Breffni-Oriel tussle of Cavan and Monaghan. Every game just has that little bit more riding on it.

As Tomás ÓSé said last week, he loved to sit down to a televised Ulster game and watch the skin and hair flying, knowing that Kerry still had weeks and months before they would have to get to that pitch.

And while Ulster throbs, the restructuring of the All-Ireland Championship will have to wait.

Even if the powers that be do make a decree to that effect, it will only push the Ulster Championship underground, to be played by its own rules in deserted car parks and factories.

Now, wouldn't that be something?

Belfast Telegraph


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