With the GAA Championship season just around the corner, Pundit Arena GAA will begin the countdown with a preview of each provincial championship in the run up to the summer.
First up, we look at the championship that provides the first live game of the year; the Ulster Football Championship.
The Ulster Championship is one that divides the opinion of many. Many feel that it is by far the most competitive of all the GAA provincial championships. Others revert to it as a championship littered with ‘puke football.’
What is clear is that the Ulster Championship means a lot to all of the nine counties that partake in it every season.
It is one title that has not lost its prestige or worth following the introduction of the qualifiers back in 2001. Every county aims to win the Ulster Championship and while the standard may be questioned; it is most definitely a tough championship to win.
Here we preview each team and give our prediction as to who will triumph come mid-July.
Reigning Ulster champions and last year’s losing All-Ireland finalists have a tough Ulster campaign ahead of themselves but will still be looked at as most people’s tip to triumph. They have to go all the way from the preliminary round but they accomplished this feat in 2011 and 2012 so it won’t be an excuse for Rory Gallagher’s charges
Gallagher has taken over the reins from Jim McGuinness and has a difficult act to follow but a look at the early part of the season would make the public think that Donegal are in a solid position to maintain the work that went on over the last few years.
They will still be looking to the familiar names like Michael Murphy, Neil McGee, Eamon McGee, Frank McGlynn and Patrick McBrearty and they will be right in the mix for the Ulster title again this year.
It is very easy to forget that only five years ago, Down came within one point of winning the All-Ireland. They were only the very smallest of fractions short of lifting Sam Maguire and have failed the get back to that level since.
The loss of Marty Clarke was an obvious contributing factor to this regression, and there was hope that he would be back in a Down shirt for the 2015 season having returned from Australia. But illness has deprived Down of Clarke’s services, although Caolan Mooney’s return has provided a boost.
They topped Division Two of the league, but lost the final to Roscommon. They face Derry in what could be a tricky tie. But they are a side that will be looking to build momentum through Ulster.
It is a big year for Tyrone. Serious questions are beginning to be asked of Micky Harte and his side’s credentials for the 2015 season. They look to be ageing and moving backwards and after a large period of success, people are wondering if Mickey Harte’s time is up.
The draw has also been rather unkind to them as they face Donegal in the opening game. Lots of players have left the Tyrone panel with Joe McMahon and Kyle Coney being the two most high-profile departures.
They had a poor enough league campaign, where they were relegated to Division Two with only one win from seven. There style of play received huge public criticism also. If Tyrone can beat Donegal, there season could gain momentum, but its looking like the qualifier route for 2015.
The Farney men are still on an upward curve and will be looking to regain their Ulster crown from 2013 having given it up to Donegal last season. The league was relatively good to them. Despite two heavy defeats at the hands of Dublin, they had a number of impressive results.
Their victory away to Kerry should give them a lot of confidence moving forward and they possess many fine footballers all over the field. They face Cavan in an Ulster quarter-final which is not an easy draw.
Monaghan struggled to beat Cavan back in 2013 when controversial refereeing decisions helped them to score two late points to get a victory. They went onto win Ulster that season and any momentum they have has kicked on from there.
They will be looking to win Ulster in 2015, and they have a good chance. They are certainly well equipped for an assault on the crown.
Fermanagh have been struggling in the last few years but a good league campaign in 2015 sees them in a better position than they have been in a while in terms of the Ulster Championship.
The draw has been favourable to them as they face Antrim at home in a quarter-final so they will be confident of getting themselves into the semi-final against Cavan or Monaghan. With a good league campaign and a championship win under their belts, they may have a bit of momentum behind them.
But still, there is very little chance of Fermanagh winning Ulster. But their season has got off to a reasonably good start with an appearance in the Division Three league final.
Armagh were one county who would look back over 2014 with a lot of satisfaction. They made strides and played a good brand of football. For a team with such a strong club in Crossmaglen Rangers, it was a mystery how Armagh were fielding such poor intercounty sides for a few years, but the tide looks to be turning.
They got to the quarter-final last year and led Donegal going into stoppage time but conceded two late points to go one behind and then missed chances to equalise. Donegal then came agonisingly close to winning the All-Ireland so Armagh may be a lot closer than people think.
They won Division Three of the league to send out a further warning and will probably target a run in the Ulster Championship. They have a tough draw in facing the winner of Donegal and Tyrone and we expect the winners of the Ulster title to come from that quarter-final clash.
2014 looked like it could be a new era of sorts for Derry as they qualified for a league final but then their championship campaign was disastrous as they lost their opening game to Donegal and then went onto lose in the qualifiers to Longford.
The 2015 league campaign did little more to inspire with one final day victory over a weakened Cork side that had already qualified for the league semi-final. So, their league campaign was on a downward spiral and they will be hoping for a championship turnaround.
They face Down in their Ulster quarter-final in what should be an interesting clash. It’s a big game for both sides, particularly for Derry who need to get out a bad run of results.
Antrim will be seen as major outsiders for Ulster and would have been the team that other counties would have liked to be drawn against. They have been drawn against Fermanagh in the opening round, and it is also probably the draw that they would have hoped for.
They were in Division Four of the league and finished in third place with four wins and a draw out of their seven games. They only just missed out on a league final.
But in terms of Ulster, it looks like the qualifiers beckon for Antrim. Even if they beat Fermanagh, it is very hard to see them winning two further games against stronger opposition.
2013 looked to be the potential beginning of a new promising term for the Cavan footballers. Their underage success looked to be starting to come to fruition as they went onto a very good championship run and gained a lot of neutral admirers.
They failed to kick on in 2014 where they exited Ulster at the hands of Armagh and shipped a heavy beating against Roscommon in the qualifiers. Their 2015 league campaign was solid as they held their Division Two status so they will be all systems go now for the championship.
They have some talented players but they do seem to be quite reliant on their game-plan and system of play. They will be targeting a big performance against Monaghan in the quarter-final and have a chance of creating an upset.
Donegal v Tyrone
Cavan v Monaghan
Fermanagh v Antrim
Derry v Down
Armagh v Donegal / Tyrone
Cavan / Monaghan v Fermanagh / Antrim
Derry / Down v Armagh / Donegal / Tyrone
PA Prediction: Donegal to beat Monaghan in the final.
Sean Cremin, Pundit Arena