'If Dublin were doing what Fermanagh are doing, pundits would be eulogising it'
BY the time Monaghan complete their Round 4 qualifier against Laois tomorrow in Navan, there could be as many as five teams from Ulster confirmed to make up the very first 'Super 8s' of the All-Ireland championship, where the last eight teams form two groups and play a round-robin.
The sheer Ulster-ness of it all is enough to make the eyes bleed of your average 'Sunday Game' pundit, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Fermanagh and Monaghan would join Kerry and Galway in Group One, while Group Two could see Donegal, Tyrone and Armagh all taking it in turns to bite chunks out of Dublin.
Five teams, however, would top the previous highest representation of four. What emerges when you crunch the numbers are the years that high watermark has occurred; usually always when an Ulster team has been competing for an All-Ireland.
In 2002, there were just two Ulster teams in the quarter-finals in Armagh and Donegal. Armagh winning the All-Ireland that year appeared to spur others on and the duo were joined by Tyrone and Fermanagh the following year, Derry replacing Donegal for another four Ulster sides in 2004.
The year after Donegal won the 2012 All-Ireland, four teams were back at that point with Monaghan, Tyrone, Donegal and Cavan making their only All-Ireland quarter-final appearance.
As you might expect, Tyrone are the most consistent Ulster team with 13 All-Ireland quarter-final appearances, bettered only by Kerry who have made every single of the 17 quarter-finals, and Dublin who missed out just one year in 2003 - knocked out in the back door by Armagh. Ask Down's former All-Ireland winner Conor Deegan why this phenomenon exists and he has strong views.
"What sort of championship is the Munster Championship, in real terms? What is the Leinster Championship in real terms?" he asks. "In real terms, there is no other championship. Kerry are coming out of Munster at their leisure. Same as Dublin. That's the reality.
"When you analyse it, they can rubbish the Ulster Championship all they want. It is an easy target, always has been, always will be. Because the people on the likes of the TV panels are from Munster and Leinster by and large. They look up here and say we are s**t. The football is s**t and so on."
The narrative being painted about teams from the northern province, and what makes them competitive, namely organised defences and a willingness to make life uncomfortable for the opposition, is one that irks the Downpatrick man.
"Like, if Dublin were doing what Fermanagh were doing they would be eulogising it and saying it is a great defensive set-up, very hard to beat. But they are not; they are saying Fermanagh are poor. Fermanagh can't do anything else but that or else they risk being destroyed, so why would they? But young fellas are running around Fermanagh a bit more excited about their football than six months ago. And that's how you win people over."
Tony Donnelly, right-hand man of Mickey Harte during Tyrone's three All-Ireland triumphs in the last decade, feels positive results this weekend are not even required to point to the overall health of Ulster teams.
"You are left with the last 12 teams in the All-Ireland now, and five of them are from Ulster," says the Augher man. "Well, that's a positive enough in its own right. Five out of the last 12 has to go some way to that argument. It's not as poor or as dire as some people make it to be. I think the fact it could be five or four, we have the biggest contingent of any of the provinces which says something about Ulster football."
While the glut of action excites him, he is realistic enough to pare down the contenders for the All-Ireland into a narrow field. Dublin, seeking four titles in a row, naturally are there. As are Kerry. But there's only one Ulster side, Donnelly feels, can compete.
Despite the loss of Paddy McBrearty, Declan Bonner's men are the only Ulster contender he feels have a chance.
"The reality is that of the five, four of them have lost games to date, so they are not the cream of the cream. Donegal have won Ulster and their confidence will be good."