Wednesday 29 January 2020

Red Hands have class to continue their Ulster power trip

Dynamic Dooher can spearhead Tyrone assault on local rivals

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

This takes some figuring out. By common consensus Ulster is the most competitive of the four provinces in football. There are no dead rubbers. By its nature it is hard and uncompromising.

Take two Ulster teams out of the environment of their own provincial championship and the football has the potential to flow. In their own confines, however, it is claustrophobic and cynical. Derry and Monaghan in last year's Ulster championship and their qualifier some weeks later is a case in point.

Same teams, different strand of competition, different atmosphere. The rancour of Celtic Park last May couldn't bear any comparison to the avalanche of scores that submerged Clones some weeks later.

In Ulster the mindset differs. So do the rules of engagement.

It's why, when it kicks off between Derry and Armagh on May 16, all nine counties will somehow believe there is a way.

Even Fermanagh, in freefall down the league divisions over the last 15 months, will plot a course and somehow convince themselves they can map their way through it.

No other province provokes that ambition. No other province allows its counties such belief.

The measure of the competitiveness that exists can be gauged from the fact that only one game in the province over the last three years has been won by a margin in double figures, Tyrone's rout of Donegal in the 2007 semi-final. Ulster championship matches are normally white knuckle rides.

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Last year the average winning margin was 3.5 points, before that just 2.8 points per game. The rest don't even come close.

Yet there is a curious paradox that exists with the concept of such a level playing field.

The number of champions it has produced over the last 11 years is at variance with such an assessment. Ulster has essentially been a closed shop since the late 1990s.

Since Derry last won an Ulster title in 1998 Tyrone (four) and Armagh (seven) have had it between them, a hegemony to match Munster where Cork (five) and Kerry (six) have enjoyed similar dominance.

Contrast that to Leinster which has produced five champions over the last 11 years and Connacht with just one less and there is an argument, based wholly on the roll of honour, to suggest that the rich have got richer in the northern province.

Yet the sense of ambush, the sense of intrigue remains greatest there.

Antrim's success in reaching last year's Ulster final for the first time in 39 years ensured that each one of the counties had involved in the province's blue riband day in the 2000s.

Between '07 and '09 the losing dressing room on Ulster final day was occupied by Monaghan, Fermanagh and Antrim.

Before that Derry (2000), Cavan ('01), Down ('03) and Donegal ('02, '04 and '06) have all tried and failed to break the duopoly. But at least they've come close. Only Connacht could boast equitable democracy among their finalists in the 2000s.

Tyrone are reigning champions, but their '09 success was surely the easiest of the three that have won under Mickey Harte's stewardship, rarely breaking sweat, as Armagh, Derry and Antrim were dispatched with comfort.

The bookmakers have them as low as 5/4 to retain the crown, based as much on the benign nature of the draw that takes them off the radar of Armagh, Derry and Monaghan until the final at least. If they survive that far, then they can prosper.

The team has been showing sure signs of wear and tear, a natural erosion after so many years at the top.

Brian Dooher has persistent injury problems and is now facing into his 16th championship season, a tall order for a player whose style is hard on the body.

Dooher is the beating heart of this Tyrone team, while other cornerstones like Conor Gormley, Ryan McMenamin and Brian McGuigan are struggling to recapture old form.

So much hinges on Sean Cavanagh's capacity to cut defences down and Stephen O'Neill to shake off those injuries that have made his second coming so difficult. For all their regression, they are still Ulster's team 'in the window.'

Under James McCartan Down have re-organised well, their form through the group stages of the league was impressive enough to perhaps herald a new dawn for one of the most colourful counties in the game. Martin Clarke's return, James Colgan's re-instatement, Ambrose Rodgers' rise as a midfielder were all foundations beams in a new structure as a specific defensive system was deployed. But the league final against Armagh derailed some of those plans somewhat, casting doubt over Down's ability right now to absorb the physical challenges ahead.

For Donegal the plan will be quite simple. Get ball early and often into Michael Murphy, fast becoming one of THE forwards in the game. But the balance of their team does not look sufficient to win an Ulster title.

There may be a touch of what is commonly termed 'second season syndrome' to Antrim, following on from their progress in '09. Losing to Sligo in the Division 3 was an awakening to spike their confidence.

Cavan don't look any better than they were 12 months ago, though Cian Mackey and David Givney do give them grounds for greater optimism.

Whoever emerges from the triumvirate of Derry, Armagh and Monaghan will have quite a stakehold in this championship.

Winning from the preliminary round in Ulster is traditionally next to impossible, but neither Derry or Armagh will see it that way.

Derry's league form was poor and their championship defeats to Tyrone and Donegal last summer suggests a chink in their armoury. They are not as good as the sum of their parts suggest they should be.

Monaghan really are at last chance saloon, but they are a dogged bunch. Paul Grimley has beefed up their backroom team, giving them something fresh. Privately they'll hope for an Ulster quarter-final with Armagh in Clones. Celtic Park again won't entice them. If they get that they could be in business.

They have greatly disappointed in Ulster over the last two seasons and their subsequent qualifier form suggests they have placed too much pressure on themselves in the province.

They may overcome that this year and scrape into a semi-final with Cavan or Fermanagh. A place in the final is a strong possibility then, but unless Tyrone are 'taken out' by then, the champions can still summon enough to retain the title.

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