Bell tolling for old ulster order
TYRONE AND ARMAGH'S 12-YEAR PROVINCIAL RULE IS WANING. CAN DOWN OR DONEGAL POUNCE?
Mickey Harte offers the usual disclaimer when weighing up the prospects of an open Ulster football championship. He wants to make the case that it is the most difficult of all four provinces to win but stacked against that assessment is the simple statistic -- two winning counties from the last 12 years doesn't illustrate a battleground.
Harte admits he speaks "in contradictory terms" about Ulster but his own team's experiences over the last two seasons would suggest that the most fearsome provincial championship of all has gone a little soft.
Yes that's right, the minefield, the bear pit, the hardest provincial environment of all, has been an armchair ride for the champions of the last two years, Tyrone, during which time they have taken their Ulster title haul to four under Harte and to 13 overall with scarcely a glove being laid on them.
It has taken six matches to land the Anglo-Celt Cup on the last two occasions and the cumulative winning margin total has been a staggering 35 points, an average of just less than six points per game.
The closest any team has come was the quarter-final against Armagh in 2009 when just a goal divided them, but the scoreline at the end was a distortion of the dominance the Red Hand had enjoyed.
After that they had eight points on Derry, six on Antrim, four on Antrim in 2010, four on Down in the semi-final and a staggering 10 on Monaghan in the 2010 final.
Now that's most 'un-Ulsterlike'.
But are they that much better than the rest in the province? Their experiences in the league over the last two seasons and in Croke Park at the business end of the championship would suggest not.
The kindness of the Ulster championship has been cruel to its champions in one sense, with Harte not slow to denounce a system that offers no second chance to provincial winners.
It stands to reason that winning the Ulster championship may not carry the same appeal for Tyrone as it has done in the past. Harte insists otherwise.
"It's almost a disadvantage to win your provincial championship," says Harte. "But we still want to win it, it's important and it's nice. When you look back, history will say how many Ulster titles you won and it won't say how many qualifiers you won or how many times you made the last four or eight. That will not be recorded anywhere of significance, but who won the Ulster title will be."
Still, the suspicion is that the old duopoly of the last 12 years may be more exposed than it has been. Tyrone are sceptical about being masters of their own province again and Armagh don't seem to have connected over the last few seasons.
Time then for new blood to filter through the veins and arteries of the northern province.
Down are well placed to seize on any slip-up from the champions.
Their Croke Park adventure last summer casts them in a much different light after the Casement Park defeat to Tyrone. With a 17-year gap to their last Ulster title, their cause is also as significant.
But the quiet revolution that has been taking place in the far north west of the province is possibly the most interesting development ahead of another Ulster championship.
Donegal, once harbouring a reputation for being among the hardest-partying team in football, have had an extensive makeover.
Their tales of woe are familiar to most. They'd lose a match, a few players get off the team bus at the wrong place and a few bottles of beer would become a deluge.
Some of what has been thrown at them has been justified, some of it hasn't. But the reputation has stuck.
At the helm of their revolution is a man who allows no negativity into his world. Jim McGuinness has transformed the way this Donegal team go about the business of preparation.
For much of his adult life McGuinness has been a student and has put that to good use in his short stewardship of Donegal.
The masters he got from John Moores University in Liverpool, the degree in sport, exercise and leisure from the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, and the higher certificate in health and leisure studies from Tralee IT have all been applicable in taking a group of players scarred by horrific defeats and lifting their confidence over the last few months.
McGuinness has built up an impressive structure within Donegal. He has kept his management team tight, calling on just Rory Gallagher, the former Fermanagh and Cavan footballer who is now based in Killybegs, as his only assistant.
Between them they have brought freshness and innovative thinking and players have been speaking openly about applying themselves harder than ever before.
A new breed of Donegal player is emerging, players willing to make huge sacrifices to achieve. Paddy McGrath played last year's U-21 final with a broken jaw, this season he has become a mainstay in defence.
In his dealings with two of the county's most prominent players of recent vintage, McGuinness made a firm statement that didn't require any words that underscores the revolution. One was dropped for a disciplinary issue early in his tenure when training was just under way, another wasn't even among the 100 or so trialled in autumn.
Both had carried reputations for a la carte commitment and in sweeping them aside McGuinness was leaving no ambiguity to his '100pc or more' values. He was ensuring there would be no contamination.
In the pursuit of others he felt he could depend on, he has been zealous. Michael Hegarty retired after the heavy All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Cork in 2009, Kevin Cassidy went less than 12 months later when their championship ended in more embarrassing fashion against Armagh.
The criticism cascaded down on Donegal after that Crossmaglen debacle and in that atmosphere Cassidy decided he too had enough.
But McGuinness' powers of persuasion have lured the pair back and the Donegal camp appears as content and driven as it ever has been.
The difference is that the whole county is behind him.
John Joe Doherty was not afforded that unanimity of support after the bitter divide that saw Declan Bonner and Charlie Mulgrew, former team-mates of Doherty, lose out in late 2008.
When McGuinness sought the job last July he was the only applicant. Having guided the U-21s to an All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin the previous May, the senior job was a natural progression.
In the area of strength and conditioning the most impressive advances have been made. Rory Kavanagh for one, now approaching his late 20s, has put on an additional stone in weight and is playing the football of his life at midfield.
Personal attention to detail has been paramount, with 7am sessions organised at a point of convenience for the player.
Hegarty's return has restored a playmaker to the half-forward line and Karl Lacey, their tenacious and tight-marking corner-back, is enjoying a new lease of life at half-back.
The league illustrated just what a talent Michael Murphy is and beside him, Colm McFadden has cut another rejuvenated figure.
The older order is about to fragment in Ulster for the first time since 1998. A county beginning with 'D' will break the mould. As a player Jim McGuinness got his timing right by winning Ulster and All-Ireland medals in his first season. Could his clock be synchronised with the same precision as a manager?