Things have come a long way for Ulster football. It was always seen as the worst provincial championship, but now things have gone full circle where Ulster is the only healthy provincial championship remaining. Here we look at why this is the case.
The first media term given to Ulster football was ‘puke football’. This was how Pat Spillane described Tyrone’s performance against Kerry in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final. This followed on from Armagh’s All-Ireland success in 2002. Then Armagh and Tyrone both secured the Sam Maguire. But these successes did not gain popularity for the Ulster Football Championship.
The negative press continued. While everybody felt the Ulster championship was competitive, nobody gave them credit for its quality. The next team from the province to win an All-Ireland was Donegal in 2012. Jim McGuinness took over the reins and brought a defensive element to Donegal’s set up.
Again, it was not popular with the general public even though Donegal secured an All-Ireland title, they still had their critics. A lot of these critics followed on from the general criticism of Ulster football. It was seen as negative, defensive, boring and rarely received positive press.
But now the tables are turning.
It is hard to know if the standard of other provincial championships have decreased or if the Northern teams have improved but at this present minute there is no other championship in Ireland in a more positive position than the Ulster Football Championship.
So far this year, it has been streets ahead of the rest and for all the negativity that has been attributed to it the past, it is about time somebody sang its praises.
Ulster was always a competitive championship. Games were often like a war of attrition where teams battled and worked for 70 minutes in Clones, Omagh, Ballybofey or wherever. It was always a championship that teams had to fight hard to win. There was never such thing as a soft Ulster title, and that is the case now more then ever.
Ulster is the only province that now holds a nice number of competitive teams. Nine teams enter each year and while not every team may realistically be expected to win it, each team is competitive at least. Antrim probably won’t win the Ulster title, but they are capable of beating someone or at least providing a close game.
While teams like Armagh, Derry and Down are not in a particularly good place at the moment, some structural review should see them get back to a competitive level. Fermanagh have come on a lot over the last few years and the big four provided cracking semi-finals over a grand total of four games.
The competitiveness of the Ulster championship is one of its biggest strengths. As mentioned above, there are three big counties not going so well at the moment. Were those three to get their houses in order, imagine how much better it could get?
The one thing that should really be complimented on Ulster is the current standard of play. One of the biggest issues people had was the standard of play. While everybody appreciated the ‘hard slog’ element, very few would have been blown away by the general standard of play.
But that is one area that has improved greatly over the last few years. No longer do footballers look like athletes manufactured into ‘handpass-ball’ players. Last weekend in particular, the skill sets of the players on show were top class.
It may be a case of the blanket defence becoming so prominent, that teams have significantly had to improve their kicking to beat the blanket, be it kicking scores from distance or kicking the ball over a mass number of bodies. Either way, the standard of skill in Ulster has improved significantly.
Another slightly obscure but definite reason behind Ulster’s positivity is the stadiums that are in the province and the good usage of them. It’s not like the Munster hurling championship where games are played in half empty stadiums. The home and away arrangement works in Ulster and stadiums always have colour and atmosphere.
Ulster demonstrates very efficient used of GAA stadia in comparison to Munster where Cork are spending almost €100 million on a stadium that may be filled once a year if they are lucky or Limerick where Thomond Park and the Gaelic Grounds are pretty much within eyesight of each other.
Every Ulster championship game provides an occasion. Fans come out in numbers, competitive games occur, stadiums are quite full and overall the product is quite good.
So everybody needs to get off Ulster counties backs. There was a time when it may not have been the most enjoyable GAA to watch. But let there be no doubt about it, the only provincial championship with any bit of solidity at the moment, is the Ulster Football Championship.
So let’s give it praise. Everybody loved to criticise it before, but things have changed significantly. Ulster Football now deserves plaudits, here we start to distribute them.