‘It looks like this is the beginning of the end of the Ulster championship’ – Armagh’s Ciarán McKeever
Ciarán McKeever says there is no longer any incentive to win the Ulster championship, predicting that the further condensed fixture schedule will soon spell the end of the provincial competitions.
Speaking, somewhat ironically, at the launch of this year’s Ulster championship, McKeever caught everyone by surprise by inferring that the competition no longer had any real relevance, and that the “real football” only starts when the round robin stage of the newly-configured All-Ireland series begins on May 20.
Armagh haven’t won an Ulster title since 2008 but McKeever, a selector under Kieran McGeeney, was adamant that their priorities lie elsewhere.
“The way the whole season is crammed in now it looks like this is the beginning of the end of the Ulster championship the way it’s all going,” he said.
“We will be going out to try and compete to win every match but we are under no illusion – our main priority is the super 16s. That’s when the real football starts.”
This summer will be the first staging of the new format for the football championship, with 16 teams playing a round-robin group stages and 12 qualifying for the subsequent knock-out phase.
It means that the minimum number of championship matches any team will have to play to win an All-Ireland is eight.
Armagh have been drawn in this year’s Ulster preliminary round against Antrim, hence they would – at the very least – play 10 championship matches between now and July were they to go all the final to the All-Ireland final.
For that reason, McKeever says that Armagh’s remaining priority for the season is the All-Ireland series.
“There is no incentive now to go and win an Ulster championship,” he insisted, highlighting the imbalance between the provinces.
“You have Kerry going away now for a two-week training camp to Portugal and we’re going to…. ah it just doesn’t make sense.
“I just feel it’s the beginning of the end, there is no other way around it. They have set up the Super 16s to try and mirror the leagues and that is when the real football starts.
“Back when I was playing, I have five Ulster medals and I’m really proud of them. But sure what are Dublin going for, is it 13 in a row? And they win most of their matches by 10 points plus.”
“We are all competitors up in Ulster and nobody wants to lose,” McKeever added.
“In one sense it’s good because it keeps the football in Ulster healthy and competitive but at the same time, I think it damages whoever comes out of it, and their potential to go and win an All-Ireland, because you’re after slogging for six weeks and you’re going up against teams who are fresher.
“There’s always this hype every year about the Ulster championship and Armagh, that Armagh haven’t done this or that, but there’s numerous other teams haven’t done it either.
"Look at the last decade it was Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan, the decade before that it was Armagh and Tyrone.
“There are only two competitive championships, Ulster and Connacht.”