Red Hands to slap down Antrim's uprising as Tyrone and Mayo prepare their statements of intent
The extent of Tyrone's ruthlessness should be evident in Clones today. This is the closest thing you can get to a seek-and-destroy mission in the GAA. The Tyrone attitude will be that Antrim are the nuisance in the road which must be crushed so that they can progress to the business end of the championship without too much bother.
Tyrone are marching to a different beat than Antrim. Sure, everyone is delighted to see a new county with potentially rich resources appearing in an Ulster final for the first time in nearly three decades, but Tyrone's aim is to rain on the Antrim parade.
Tyrone trod this path through the 1980s and '90s, building up from underage and the schools system while having plenty of setbacks at senior level to the point now where they are masters of most of what they survey. At least in Ulster anyway. Their success has been such that many now seek to copy their methods, even if in football it generally does not work that way; everyone needs to develop their own blueprint.
Anyway, this is a great day for Antrim and there is the real prospect that it could be the beginning of a new era for football in the county. Blessed with big GAA numbers, Antrim has always been looked on as a sleeping giant and the relative calm of life in Belfast in particular should have huge benefits in the future. That may sound like the old cliché being trotted out but based on numbers of active clubs there is more potential for Antrim to make rapid progress than any other county.
Yet if they think that they can put their hand in the lion's mouth today without getting it torn off, they are seriously misguided.
Tyrone don't do sympathy very well. Their attitude will be all-out attack early on to try and reinforce every fear that is running around in Antrim heads. Fear of the unknown is their main problem, combined with a worry that they might be wiped out completely.
This is a justifiable concern too and while Antrim may be talked up, the reality is that they beat two poor sides in Donegal and Cavan. So in getting to an Ulster final it is not as if Antrim had to eliminate a team of any status. That does not mean that they do not have plenty of good footballers and the confidence
gained form this campaign, however long it lasts, may just be the spur to future progress. For now, though, the digger is stalled as they run into a team which will win the Ulster championship and which will have started thinking of the All-Ireland quarter-final about ten minutes after the game. This is just a means to an end.
Antrim will probably play Terry O'Neill in a sweeper role where he can be very effective, Niall McKeever can gain a lot of possession in the middle of the field along with Aodhan Gallagher, while the McCanns are good footballers up front. Yet even allowing for the entertaining and enterprising style of football that Antrim displayed against Cavan they are now going from lightweight to super-heavy in one jump. Dealing with O'Neill, Cavanagh, Dooher for a while, McMenamin, Gormley, Harte and Jordan is a step too far. When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston 45 years ago, it was one of the greatest upsets in history. Tyrone are not going to be caught by a sucker punch.
The best Antrim can hope for is a stirring performance which will give them a boost for a difficult qualifier game next weekend. Manager Liam 'Baker' Bradley (pictured) has plotted the road ahead but sometimes in life you must take one step back before taking two forward. All progress has disappointments and the long march starts after this game for Antrim.
If the Ulster final looks a bit lopsided, the opposite appears the case in Connacht. The bookmakers make this an even money game but that is more to do with Galway's reputation than any recent form.
In fact, based on their performance against Sligo when they were fortunate enough to get out with a win, Galway should be long outsiders. The most worrying thing about that performance is that the Galway midfield situation is no nearer a solution as Paul Conroy, who does look like a star of the future, is probably a bit young yet for the responsibility of winning hard ball in the engine room. The other problem is that Padraic Joyce is still carrying the biggest threat up front along with Michael Meehan. It is said the willing horse gets to carry the biggest load but if Galway are relying on Joyce to win the game for them, then a lot of other forwards are hiding. Unless they step out of the shade today, then Mayo will take Pearse Park by storm.
Perhaps I am giving a hostage to fortune. Talking up Mayo football usually results in severe withdrawal symptoms but I think this is a pretty useful Mayo team which has the potential to test the best teams in the country. They have pace, power and scoring ability through Kilcoyne, Mortimer and Dillon while Aidan O'Shea has had a great start to a senior career. It won't be as easy from now on. The return of Ronan McGarrity is a significant boost as he plays well on big days and Liam O'Malley is a useful corner-back in an area of the team where Mayo have been badly let down over the last two decades. It is all very fine playing nice football but the first thing to get right in any side is defence. Mayo always have footballers but defending is a different matter entirely and Peadar Gardiner needs to mind the house before going forward.
Early in the year I thought Galway might be a dark horse for the All-Ireland but the chances are looking grim on the basis of the latter league stages and the game against Sligo. That win was unconvincing and Liam Sammon has not discovered any players who are making a major difference. Perhaps the return of Nickey Joyce is a help but Matthew Joyce will be a loss for his massive workrate.
John O'Mahony now has the opportunity over his summer break to fashion a very good Mayo team from a group with plenty of individual talent. He has been ruthless too. Leaving Conor Mortimer on the line is a wise decision as Trevor Mortimer may play better when he doesn't have to worry about feeding the ball inside to his brother. It probably makes for a better attacking unit while Conor could do a bit of damage late in the game coming off the bench.
The balance has shifted to Mayo and I think they will win. To completely stick my neck out -- Galway supporters should note in case they need it for future reference as I could get it badly wrong -- I don't even expect it to be close.