Friday 24 February 2017

Ulster: County-by-county

ANTRIM: All-Ireland titles: None,Ulster titles: 10 (most recent 1951)



Manager: Liam Bradley (3rd year)

Captain: Kevin O'Boyle

Last year: Tyrone 2-14, Antrim 1-13 (Ulster quarter-final); Kildare 0-15, Antrim 0-15; Kildare 1-15, Antrim 0-9 (first-round qualifier replay).

2011 NFL: 8th Div 2 (W1, L6). Relegated.

Last big championship achievement: Reached the 2009 Ulster final.

Key man: Kevin O'Boyle has been a consistent and hard-edged presence in defence, a considerable asset in a province with so many top-quality corner-forwards around.

Who could make a name for himself? Richard Johnston fared impressively against Michael Murphy when Antrim met Donegal in the league at the beginning of April. Will Liam Bradley trust the 19-year-old to do it again?

Fantasy signing: Antrim lack a little creativity around their half-forward line, something Down's Martin Clarke would surely bring.

Prospects: The last time they went to Ballybofey, in 2009, they shocked Donegal and set off on quite an odyssey. It's not likely to happen again and the recent league match between them appears to have franked that assessment. An early Ulster exit with maybe some traction in the qualifiers this time.

Betting: All-Ireland 250/1, Ulster 50/1.

First game: v Donegal, Ballybofey, preliminary round, Sunday, May 15.

ARMAGH

All-Ireland titles: 1 (2002)

Ulster titles: 14 (2008)

Manager: Paddy O'Rourke (2nd season)

Captain: Stevie McDonnell

Last Year: Armagh 1-10, Derry 1-7; Monaghan 1-18, Armagh 0-9 (Ulster quarter-final); Armagh 2-14, Donegal 0-11; Armagh 0-11, Fermanagh 0-7; Dublin 0-14, Armagh 0-11 (third round qualifier).

2011 NFL: 6th Div 1 (W2, L5).

Last big championship achievement: 2008 Ulster champions.

Key man: Stevie McDonnell is the obvious choice after another decent league, but we feel Ronan Clarke's return to complement him is even more critical.

Who could make a name for himself? All-Ireland minor medalist Rory Grugan is a specialist half-forward with an eye for a defence-splitting pass.

Fantasy signing: Armagh's half-forward line needs more explosive pace. How would Sean Cavanagh feel about slotting in beside his brother-in-law Charlie Vernon?

Prospects: You get the impression that Armagh are running very fast just to stand still. They need to get Ronan Clarke back on the field fit. They have a lot of assets in defence and attack but appear to be leaking confidence as results go against them. The Athletic Grounds wasn't a fortress for them in the league.

Betting: All-Ireland 40/1, Ulster 5/1.

First game: v Down, Athletic Grounds, quarter-final, Saturday, May 28.

CAVAN

All-Ireland titles: 5 (1952)

Ulster titles: 39 (1997)

Manager: Terry Hyland/Val Andrews (1st season)

Captain: Seanie Johnston

Last year: Fermanagh 1-13, Cavan 0-13 (Ulster quarter-final); Cavan 0-15, Wicklow 2-8; Cork 1-19, Cavan 0-4 (second round qualifier).

2011 NFL: 5th Div 3 (W3, D1, L3).

Last big championship achievement: Ulster champions 1997.

Key man: Seanie Johnston still has the capacity to shoot the lights out but can expect special attention.

Who could make a name for himself? Gearoid McKiernan's cameo from midfield against Louth and his performances for the U-21 Ulster championship-winning side all point in the right direction.

Fantasy signing: Cavan have gaps to plug everywhere, but centre-back has been an open wound for some time. Cork's Graham Canty could start the healing process.

Prospects: A largely uninspired league would suggest that Cavan are stuck in a long and painful rut. Decent U-21 players are emerging but in the short term they don't look equipped to deal with a potential quarter-final with Donegal. After that, their survival depends on how long they can avoid the big hitters.

Betting: All-Ireland 500/1, Ulster 33/1.

First game: v Donegal or Antrim, venue tbc, quarter-final, Sunday, June 12.

DERRY

All-Ireland titles: 1 (1993)

Ulster titles: 7 (1998)

Manager: John Brennan (1st year)

Captain: Barry McGoldrick

Last year: Armagh 1-10, Derry 1-7 (Ulster preliminary round); Derry 1-18, Carlow 2-9; Derry 0-13, Westmeath 1-7; Kildare 2-17, Derry 1-9 (third round qualifier).

2011 NFL: 3rd Div 2 (W5, L2).

Last big championship achievement: Reached 2004 All-Ireland semi-final.

Key man: Gerard O'Kane continues to provide the consistency and utility qualities to troubleshoot where he is required.

Who could make a name for himself? Barry McCallion is a pugnacious corner-back who made an impression in the early part of the season before a shoulder injury derailed him. Derry are light on solid corner-backs.

Fantasy signing: How Derry could do with Stephen Cluxton firing pinpoint kick-outs to their receivers in the white heat of Ulster championship battle.

Prospects: The last county outside the Armagh/ Tyrone duopoly to land an Ulster title, in 1998. Would appear to have a straightforward shot at a semi-final place but after that it gets tricky. Armagh or Down? Derry just cannot be trusted in championship football these days, though manager John Brennan has brought more savvy, it seems. Provincial semi-finalists at best although Paddy Bradley is a serious loss.

Betting: All-Ireland 40/1, Ulster 9/2.

First game: v Fermanagh, Celtic Park, quarter-final, Sunday, May 22.

DONEGAL

All-Ireland titles: 1 (1992)

Ulster titles: 5 (1992)

Manager: Jim McGuinness (1st year)

Captain: Michael Murphy

Last year: Down 1-15, Donegal 2-10 (Ulster quarter-final, aet); Armagh 2-14, Donegal 0-11 (first round qualifier).

2011 NFL: Div 2 champions (W4, D2, L1, then beat 2-11 to 0-16 in the final). Promoted.

Last big championship achievement: Reached All-Ireland semi-final in 2003.

Key man: Donegal's world is revolving more and more around the prolific Michael Murphy. We could see the very best of him this summer.

Who could make a name for himself? Martin McElhinney has provided a bedrock of consistency at midfield in his first full season.

Fantasy signing: An attacking half-back in the Tomas O Se mould. Or if Philip Jordan wasn't busy?

Prospects: Jim McGuinness has revolutionised Donegal from the sorry mess they were leaving Crossmaglen last June. He has brought a better attitude, a better work ethic and has assembled a group of players improving all the time. They have Michael Murphy who could yet emerge, with the right players around him, as the game's best forward. A path to the Ulster final is mapped out for them, with Antrim a team they seek revenge on and Tyrone a team they have performed consistently against in the past.

Betting: All-Ireland 40/1, Ulster 7/1.

First game: v Antrim, Ballybofey, preliminary round, Sunday, May 15.

DOWN

All-Ireland titles: 5 (1994)

Ulster titles: 12 (1994)

Manager: James McCartan (2nd year)

Captain: Ambrose Rodgers (Benny Coulter if Rodgers is not fit)

Last year: Down 1-15, Donegal 2-10; Tyrone 0-14, Down 0-10 (Ulster semi-final); Down 1-14, Longford 1-10; Down 1-12, Offaly 1-10; Down 3-20, Sligo 0-10; Down 1-16, Kerry 1-10; Down 1-16, Kildare 1-14; Cork 0-16, Down 0-15 (All-Ireland final).

2011 NFL: 4th Div 1 (W3, D1, L3).

Last big championship achievement: Reached 2010 All-Ireland final.

Key man: Danny Hughes (below) emerged in last year's championship as a figure just as important to Down as Martin Clarke or Benny Coulter. Mixed industry coming off his wing with some prolific finishing.

Who could make a name for himself? The Down team has a settled look but Conor Maginn may squeeze his way into the half-forward line to fulfill underage promise.

Fantasy signing: Given Dan Gordon's second-half travails in last year's All-Ireland final full-back is a potential vulnerability, even allowing for improvement from Gordon. There aren't many specialists about in the position but Michael Shields is the most streetwise No 3 there is.

Prospects: An All-Ireland final appearance came somewhat out of the blue last season. Down's real bread and butter is an Ulster title. They haven't won it since 1994, too long for a county of such a strong tradition. They are arguably now the most settled side in Ulster with James McCartan using in excess of 10 of the All-Ireland team in every league match. Defence is a concern but Danny Hughes and Martin Clarke are two of the best playmakers in the business, enough to carry Down past Armagh and Derry and into an Ulster final. Potential Ulster champions.

Betting: All-Ireland 14/1, Ulster 9/2.

First game: v Armagh, Athletic Grounds, quarter-final, Saturday, May 28.

FERMANAGH

All-Ireland titles: None

Ulster titles: None

Manager: John O'Neill (1st year)

Captain: Barry Owens

Last year: Fermanagh 1-13, Cavan 0-13; Monaghan 0-21, Fermanagh 2-8 (Ulster semi-final); Armagh 0-11, Fermanagh 0-7 (second round qualifier).

2011 NFL: 4th Div 4 (W4, D1, L3).

Last big championship achievement: Reached 2008 Ulster final.

Key man: Barry Owens is captain -- he was the man who carried the day during the recent 'Ides of March' and despite being off the field for almost three years, his importance can't be stressed enough.

Who could make a name for himself? Conor Quigley is in his mid-20s but this is his first inter-county season and as an attack-minded wing-back he has made an impact.

Fantasy signing: Where do you start? They'd take Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan, anyone who who can score frees or just score consistently in general.

Prospects: Respectability is the key for Fermanagh. Shorn of so much experience, the Ulster championship will provide choppy waters; the qualifiers will allow them to go out with some anonymity. A county with such a small playing population can't afford to be without some of their better players.

Betting: All-Ireland 250/1, Ulster 50/1.

First game: v Derry, Celtic Park, quarter-final, Sunday, May 22.

MONAGHAN

All-Ireland titles: None

Ulster titles: 13 (1988)

Manager: Eamonn McEneaney (1st season)

Captain: Not yet selected

Last year: Monaghan 1-18, Armagh 0-9; Monaghan 0-21, Fermanagh 2-8; Tyrone 1-14, Monaghan 0-7 (Ulster final); Kildare 1-15, Monaghan 1-11 (fourth round qualifier).

2011 NFL: 7th Div 1 (W2, L5). Relegated.

Last big championship achievement: Won 1988 Ulster title.

Key man: Monaghan's priority is competitiveness and in that sense Dick Clerkin will be important that they aren't over-run.

Who could make a name for himself? Kieran Duffy is emerging as a tight-marking corner-back who doesn't make many mistakes.

Fantasy signing: We said Kieran Donaghy last year and that much hasn't changed. Monaghan still need a serious focal point in attack to bring the likes of Conor McManus and Tommy Freeman into play.

Prospects: The bookies had Monaghan as second favourites at one stage for Ulster, but the team is in deep transition and performance will matter more than results in the months ahead. Hard to see a way past Tyrone and hard to see them maintaining any altitude in qualifiers. Too many of them have been down that road before.

Betting: All-Ireland 40/1, Ulster 5/1.

First game: v Tyrone, Healy Park, Omagh, quarter-final, Sunday, June 5.

TYRONE

All-Ireland titles: 3 (2008)

Ulster titles: 13 (2010)

Manager: Mickey Harte (9th season)

Captain: Brian Dooher

Last year: Tyrone 2-14, Antrim 1-13; Tyrone 0-14, Down 0-10; Tyrone 1-14, Monaghan 0-7 (Ulster final); Dublin 1-15 Tyrone 0-13 (All-Ireland quarter-final).

2011 NFL: 4th Div 2 (W4, D1, L2).

Last big championship achievement: Won 2010 Ulster title.

Key man: No longer any of the marquee names, it's Martin Penrose (below) who has developed into arguably Tyrone's most dynamic presence, particularly over the last 12 months.

Who could make a name for himself? The safest bet is Peter Harte, who can apply himself in defence or attack.

Fantasy signing: Their needs haven't changed much in a year. Tyrone don't need much more than a big midfielder who can give them other options. Someone like Limerick's John Galvin.

Prospects: They have won the Ulster title far too easily over the last two seasons and that presents a cautionary note for them. Their late charge through Division 2 of the league was impressive, but the Philip Jordan business raises a question mark about deep hunger within. If they catch on in August, they have the potential to win an All-Ireland. It won't trouble them then if Donegal take them out of it in an Ulster semi-final.

Betting: All-Ireland 13/2, Ulster 2/1

First game: v Monaghan, Healy Park, Omagh, quarter-final, Sunday, June 5.

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