Fallen kings primed to pounce on cracks in Farney foundation
Monaghan's perilous path to return to pinnacle can give Donegal opening to turn recent malaise around and retake crown in wide-open Ulster race, writes Colm Keys
Nothing shines a light more on the nature of this year's Ulster championships than the narrow odds being offered by a variety of bookmakers on potential champions.
On one list just half a point (3/1 to 7/2) divides the top four teams; on another, the range sets Donegal at 5/2 and Monaghan at 6/1 with Tyrone and Derry in between covering the main protagonists.
The former Armagh midfielder and captain Jarlath Burns suggested recently how he wouldn't bat an eyelid if any one of six counties were to win the province in the months ahead. He diplomatically excluded his own county from that list.
Twelve months ago, the Ulster championship looked like a two-horse race to be decided by one match in Ballybofey that both Tyrone and Donegal had almost eight months to prepare for.
Jim McGuinness masters in long-term planning and got it right on the day with a little element of good fortune thrown in.
It seemed to set them up for the summer but the journey has been bumpy ever since with the loss of their title to Monaghan, the mauling by Mayo, the break-up of his three-year management team, ongoing conflict over club fixtures and a second six-point defeat in a final to Monaghan in just over nine months.
A year on and Ulster is a significantly different place. Donegal's 10-match stranglehold on the province was brought to a crushing end on Ulster final day, the damage being done chiefly in the opening 10 minutes.
With the previous 14 titles, since Derry's victory in 1998, being shared by just three teams, Monaghan's emergence has broken down all perceptions. Burns' assertion that a group of six lie in wait may be generous in its appraisal of Down and Cavan.
Down's success in pegging Donegal to just three points last year is now seen in the context of what subsequently transpired and their finish to their Division 2 campaign from a strong position just doesn't inspire confidence.
The return of Conor Garvey and Peter Fitzpatrick will help but Down have simply lost too many players to be a sustainable force.
Cavan are building quite an arsenal of talent through the success of their U-21 programme but all defensive systems need to evolve (Tyrone 2003, Dublin 2010, Donegal 2011) to thrive and that may be a leap too far this year for this Cavan team who have to face an Armagh side with vengeance on their minds.
For Mickey Harte, the rebuild has been more difficult than he or anyone else could have imagined. Maybe Sean Cavanagh's scintillating form in the middle of last season papered over too many cracks.
With the break-up of the central core of the 2000s team in 2011 after the defeat to Dublin, the expectation that Harte could prosper with the best of the 2008 and 2010 All-Ireland-winning minor teams has not yet been met.
Kyle Coney showed glimpses of his potential during the league, so too Ronan O'Neill, but not enough to suggest that their time has come. Joe McMahon, Conor Gormley and Stephen O'Neill won't be set free just yet but Tyrone have to rediscover ways to make themselves hard to beat again.
McGuinness' deployment of players during the league said everything about the depth of squad he has. Is it any wonder he is keen to spare his players at all costs when just 20 started eight games and three (Michael Murphy, Neil McGee and Paul Durcan) played every single minute of every match.
The figure would have been four but for Colm McFadden's black card in the league final. Donegal can't afford anything like the injuries they carried and picked up throughout last year's championship.
Two years ago, they enjoyed good fortune but the squad is older and has not been sufficiently replenished.
Still, victory in Celtic Park against Derry would surely give them a fourth successive Ulster final appearance.
Lethargic as they were against Monaghan, they may well have been playing the long game with their timetable of preparations geared for that date, just as it was for the Tyrone game last year. Rory Kavanagh's needless red card wasn't in the script, nor perhaps was Derry's progressive form throughout Division 1.
Mark Lynch has been around for the best part of a decade now but has never caught fire like he has this spring, while Sean Leo McGoldrick's absence from the Dublin game has only served as a reminder as to how influential he has been.
Naturally, Fergal Doherty's return after a three-year absence has had a cohesive effect on the team, bringing so many strands together.
Some of Derry's best play during the league campaign was after Doherty's sending-off when they withdrew players and struck on the breakthrough Lynch, Ciaran McFaul and McGoldrick.
Having watched Monaghan do something similar to Donegal again, it will provide food for thought for Brian McIver over these weeks.
Monaghan's remarkable re-emergence from a team that fell two divisions and didn't get past second round qualifiers in two years to being Ulster and double league champions has been predicated on a solid game plan based on swift counter-attacking.
To retain their Ulster title they will probably have to negotiate Tyrone in a quarter-final, something they haven't done successfully in their last four attempts (including two Ulster finals) since 1988.
But Clones, where the match will be played if Tyrone beat Down, is a significant factor for this team, who have not lost there in their last 14 games.
Monaghan have concerns around midfield and living with the expectation built up around them since their Division 2 league win, which franked their Ulster final success last July. But Malachy O'Rourke has continued to add impressively to his squad with Fintan Kelly, Ryan Wylie, Paudie McKenna and Padraig Keenan adding width.
In Conor McManus, they may now have the most prolific forward in the province, while Darren Hughes, despite a league campaign hindered by injury, continues to develop into one of the most dynamic midfield presences in the game.
Monaghan have earned the right to expect and be expected to retain their Ulster title. But the possibility of having to beat Tyrone, Cavan and Donegal or Derry to achieve it is a pathway fraught with danger.
Somewhere they will fall. Donegal, for all their imperfections, may be placed to step back in.
Who is your sportstar of the year?
Vote in the Irish Independent Sport Star Awards and you could win the ultimate sports prize.
Prizes include, tickets to Ireland's against Scotland in the Six Nations, All Ireland football and hurling final tickets and much more.
Irish Independent Supplement