Eight Ulster counties remain standing in the race for the All Ireland Football title. But in what is a hugely competitive environment, just how will they fare now that the Championship heat is being turned up considerably? John Campbell assesses their prospects
Defeat in last year’s Ulster decider against Tyrone only served to intensify the Saffrons’ hunger for this year’s provincial series. But once more the Red Hands proved their masters when the sides met in the quarter-final, thus consigning Liam Bradley’s side to the qualifiers. And while showing considerable resolve in drawing with Kildare last Saturday, Antrim still lack a killer punch that only comes with the experience of winning the matches which really matter.
Tomorrow they face Kildare in the replay and even though they have home advantage at Casement Park, it is difficult to see the Saffrons lifting themselves to a higher level this time. Last weekend Kildare hit an inordinate number of wides and are unlikely to be guilty of such profligacy this time round.
Their manager Kieran McGeeney is under rather more pressure than Saffrons boss Liam Bradley and this could be a factor in the Lily Whites playing above themselves. The loss of CJ McGourty has to be seen as a blow to Antrim’s hopes for a game that they really need to win if they are to enjoy more credibility in the championship sphere.
Star player: Kevin Niblock
Prediction: May go through the exit door tomorrow night
Victory over Derry in the preliminary round of the Ulster Championship was followed by a humiliating 12-point defeat by rampant Monaghan in the quarter-finals.
But Paddy O’Rourke’s side dusted themselves down and showed no ill-effects from this setback when they comfortably beat an inept Donegal in the Qualifiers last week-end.
The absence of experienced players such as Ronan Clarke, Brian Mallon, Kieran Toner (pictured) and Ryan Henderson had threatened to impact on the team’s forward power but in scoring 2-14 against John Joe Doherty’s side, Armagh showed that they have rather more strength in depth than had been thought.
The fact that Mallon and Toner will be back for Sunday week’s Qualifier against Fermanagh at Brewster Park, Enniskillen suggests that the Orchard County boys will be even stronger with Jamie Clarke currently atoning for the absence of Ronan Clarke from the attack.
With the defence having tightened up, Armagh have reason for optimism.
Star player: Steven McDonnell.
Prediction: Could reach the All Ireland quarter-finals.
Castigated following their Ulster preliminary round surrender to Armagh the Oak Leaf squad would appear to have ‘internal issues’ that raise questions about morale. Paddy Bradley has left the squad and Kevin McCloy has also stood down because of injury. But manager Damian Cassidy contends that the picture is painted much blacker than it really is, maintaining that his players have taken huge heart from their first round qualifier win over Carlow.
Injuries have tended to blight Derry’s championship itinerary over the past couple of seasons and while Cassidy can, with some justification, point to his absentee list it does not camouflage the fact that he is coming in for some sharp criticism. Westmeath now loom in the second round of the qualifiers tomorrow week and the manager is keeping his fingers crossed that he will have rather more selection options at his disposal for this game.
There is a growing sense of frustration within Derry that the team is unable to make a serious challenge for provincial or All Ireland honours but a one step at a time policy may yet lead to better things.
Star player: Eoin Bradley.
Prediction: Don’t bet against Derry making the next round of the qualifiers — at least.
James McCartan’s side swept into the Ulster Championship on a wave of confidence but having got the better of Donegal after extra-time in Ballybofey they found Tyrone rather too streetwise for them in Casement Park. There is pace and flair within this Down side but a question mark still hangs over their defensive mechanism, particularly the deployment of James Colgan as sweeper.
Martin Clarke has not quite had the impact to date that was being predicted in the Championship and it has been left to Benny Coulter to carry the real threat up front. But he needs better support and there is a necessity for a better work-rate from the attack as a unit although Daniel Hughes has been in impressive form.
With home advantage against Longford in the qualifiers on Saturday week Down have an excellent chance of putting their Ulster Championship disappointment behind them and going forward to a better place. They will certainly need to achieve this if they are not to undo the good work they undertook earlier in the year.
Star player: Benny Coulter.
Prediction: Down can reach the last 16 of the All Ireland series.
Two years ago Fermanagh came within a whisker of beating Armagh in the Ulster final. Since then though they have slipped backwards and right now are wallowing in disappointment following that trouncing by Monaghan in the semi-final of the provincial series. Manager Malachy O’Rourke has been facing up to the difficult task of mending morale within his squad and absorbing the lessons that were learned against Seamus McEnaney’s side.
The Ernesiders’ mix of old and new faces has not quite proved potent yet but with home advantage against Armagh in the second round of the qualifiers on Sunday week they have an opportunity to rediscover their best form. The fact that they were out-muscled by Monaghan is a source of concern to O’Rourke who has now gone back to the drawing board.
Fermanagh have not lost a Championship game in Enniskillen in eight years and this statistic will surely prove a key motivational factor against the Orchard County.
Star player: Ryan McCluskey.
Prediction: May have gone as far as they will go this year.
A total score of 1-39 in their two Championship games to date against Armagh and Fermanagh speaks for itself. Monaghan’s hunger, vitality and passion are there for all to see — they are certainly not doing things by half-measures. The team has acquired a level of maturity and is revealing a deep-seated sense of ambition that auger well for their prospects.
Manager Seamus McEnaney has already predicted that training sessions between now and the Ulster final against Tyrone will be of a very high intensity which suggests that the battle for starting places against Tyrone has already been markedly stepped up.
McEnaney may not admit it but this is a make or break season for Monaghan. They have come close in recent years but that has only added to their sense of exasperation.
If they can avoid injuries and keep Tommy Freeman and Ciaran McManus in particular plied with the ball you never know what might happen.
Star player: Paul Finlay.
Prediction: A place in the All Ireland quarter-finals beckons.
The reigning Ulster champions are on the cusp of back-to-back provincial titles and this is something that would surely please their manager Mickey Harte.
They may have taken time to get into their stride this year but the Red Hands have now acquired a mean demeanour that could discomfort other teams with ambitions similar to theirs.
Not only has Harte his platoon of old hands but he has new, exciting young players such as Peter Harte in his squad to turn to. They may still have some injury concerns but Tyrone do not do sympathy — they just want to get on with the job in hand.
With Joe McMahon able to play just about anywhere, Brian McGuigan clearly rediscovering his silken skills, Kevin Hughes a midfield dynamo and several other players on the bench just itching to become regulars the management appear to have rich resources at their disposal. I would expect this to become even more evident in the weeks that lie ahead.
Star player: Sean Cavanagh.
Prediction: Capable of reaching the All Ireland semi-finals.