James McDowell ponders the future of Ulster football in the 2014 race for Sam Maguire.
28th of September 2003, Tyrone beat Armagh in a pulsating All – Ireland football final, that sees the one and only exclusively Ulster All-Ireland final. Everyone remembers Peter ‘The Great’ Canavan’s last minute free to win the game, after a clumsy Ciaran Mc Keever foul. Fast forward to 2014 and the expectation in Ulster is not quite the same. Those two teams, especially Armagh, are not the forces they once were.
Armagh had an up and down, but ultimately disappointing 2013. A defensive shambles against Cavan to exit the Ulster Championship was followed up by two ridiculously easy games against Wicklow and Leitrim respectively. A poor Galway side, which nearly lost to Waterford, eventually stopped the orchard county’s march. Armagh seem to have been a team in transition for a long time now and the Orange faithful must be getting restless at this stage, perhaps the addition of Kieran Mc Geeney to the backroom staff will add that missing ingredient. Tyrone was the most successful Ulster team last year, reaching the semi-final stage, losing to a strong Mayo side. However Tyrone in the last few years never look like they are going to beat the top three or four in the country, losing to Mayo in 2013, Kerry in 2012 and Dublin in 2011. Mickey Harte’s team must have the Ulster title in their sights this year as the invincibility factor Donegal had leading into their clash in May has long since passed. A fourth All Ireland seems to be out of reach for the red hand this year as they just don’t seem to have enough depth and quality to match the likes of Dublin or Mayo.
This time last year Jim Mc Guinness was the messiah, a saviour who was going to bring the whole sport of Gaelic football to the next level; the ultimate and next generation coach. It seemed everyone wanted the Glenties man; Neill Lennon even signed him as a coach at Celtic. Don’t believe the hype springs to mind when we look back at the jaded performances from Donegal last year. It’s hard to know what to expect from Donegal this year, whether they will be refreshed and reinvigorated or the same tired looking team as was on show last year. Their first game in Ulster against Derry will be the litmus test, as Derry showed last year that they shouldn’t be under estimated; Down found that out the hard way.
The two emerging forces bursting onto the radar last year were Cavan and Monaghan. Cavan have been building year by year on recent under-21 success while Monaghan have more of a mix between youth and experience. These two teams will have the target of the Ulster championship, as it isn’t beyond the reach of either team. Last year no-one could touch Monaghan full forward Ciaran Mc Manus and this year their opponent’s main tactic will be to curb the free scoring number 14. The Hughes brothers will be vital for Monaghan this year as they provide a spine and physicality, which may benefit Monaghan outside of Ulster against the top teams. One would suggest that out of all the Ulster teams it could be Monaghan that will be able to challenge forces like Dublin, Mayo and Kerry.
Then there is the rest. Hopes in Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Antrim cannot be as strong as the other five. Down’s natural swagger on the field has failed to pull them through since 2010’s All Ireland final appearance, Derry will be without Eoin Bradley as he has switched codes to play for Colerain soccer club, Fermanagh football is at its lowest ebb and Antrim just keep plugging away without any success.
The Ulster Championship will be intriguing and competitive as ever in 2014 but whether any of the teams in it have any chance or hopes of challenging for national honours remains to be seen. This may well prove to be the most exciting Ulster championship in years as not only will counties be chasing down an Ulster title but also scrambling to secure a berth in the All-Ireland quarters, instead of embarking down the treacherous qualifier route. Some pundits may analyse the Mc Kenna cup and league campaigns however the proof will be in the pudding with the only way of deciding if an Ulster team has a chance of securing the title of All-Ireland champions will be the performances put in during the highly charged Ulster Championship.
Pundit Arena, James McDowell.
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