Essentially the majority of teams who make up the 2014 championship are realistically setting targets for a possible tilt at the Provincial crowns. Anything beyond that for those outside of Division One would in all honesty be a massive bonus. One or two may get through depending on the draw, and this will be a great day out for that county in Croke Park. However, for the majority it will be only two or possibly three days this summer. But this is the real nature of championship football. You have to perform on the day. So now the provincials are here, we can look to see if there may be any possible upsets that might surprise the so called big guns.
This year’s Ulster championship is definitely the main one to catch the eye. Any of at least six teams can lay claim to winning it. To the forefront are Division One members Tyrone and Derry. They are closely followed by Monaghan and Donegal, both newly promoted from Division Two. Further down then you have Cavan and possibly Down who on their day are also capable of beating anyone. But because of the nature of Ulster, the draw itself is crucial as is the home and away advantages. To this extent the card is already marked for several of these.
On one side of the draw are four of the above named – Tyrone, Down, Cavan and Monaghan. On the other lie Derry and Donegal. And it must be said that Donegal now look in disarray once more after their disastrous Division Two final and subsequent player withdrawals from the county panel. It could be argued that Derry are not exactly in a brilliant mind-set themselves after the mauling they received from Dublin.
However the thoughts of a possible return to Ulster glory since the heydays of the early 90s will surely re- focus this team. And in fairness Brian McIver had a game plan that worked throughout most of the League. Plus he is picking players on form from within this squad. For instance there was not one Ballinderry man on the starting fifteen against Dublin even though McIver himself is a Ballinderry man. No room for sentimentality in that man’s head. Align this with home advantage in the first round and it’s not difficult to see a Derry win over their near neighbours.
Following this is a clash with either Fermanagh or Antrim. Fermanagh held their own admirably finishing third in a strong Division Three whereas Antrim were hollow in their Division Four campaign. However it is very difficult to see either qualifying beyond this match into an Ulster final.
On the other side is a much tougher road. Tyrone have home advantage in the preliminary round against Down and this should be enough again the Mourne men. The winners here take on Monaghan and this really should be one of the games of the championship. Monaghan’s class was very evident in their destruction of Donegal in the Division Two final. Their six-points win showed how formidable a team they are – one who can play the rough with the smooth. Plus they are reigning Ulster champions and this alone should spur them on. This is really too hard to call as the venue has yet to be decided. If it is in Omagh then the nod most definitely goes to Tyrone however if the Ulster council fix it for Clones, well then it’s Monaghan for me.
The winners go on to meet either Armagh or Cavan. Cavan beat Armagh in the preliminary round in Ulster last year. And in 2014 Armagh had a poor League resulting in relegation from Division Two whereas Cavan won promotion from Division Three. However their failure to win the League title coupled with what may be viewed as failure at U21 level knocks a bit of icing off the cake. Overall the feeling is that they are still a little bit away from being regarded as conclusive contenders for Ulster. So even though they should win in the Athletic grounds a back door beckons beyond this.
In Leinster it is really a waste of time and there is no speculation required simply because of the way it is structured with Dublin playing every game in Croke Park. To this extent you can immediately rule out Wicklow, Laois, Longford, Offaly and Wexford as they are all on the same side of the draw as the Dubs. On the other it’s probably a straight call between Kildare and Meath with the Meath men getting the nod over a very uncertain and unreliable Lilywhites team. But to be honest it’s really only a question of who ends up meeting the Dubs in the final as either of these will in all likelihood get their heads handed back to them on a platter in the provincial decider.
Munster also is a straight shootout. Clare, Waterford, Tipp and Limerick have all real reason to be grumpy regards the new setup. In fact the nature of the draw and the new seeding is really a disgrace. Why should Kerry and Cork receive special treatment? It goes against everything in the GAA and what it is about. Bar one thing of course – money! And having a big draw Munster final every year will receive far more publicity and as a result more funding. So hard luck to those on the periphery. The real sad fact though is that the gap between the bigger and smaller teams is also widening once more because of structures such as this. As to the result itself, well, Cork get the nod for a range of reasons including home advantage, Kerry’s retirements and injuries, and Brian Cuthbert’s teams good League form this year.
In fairness Connacht has some matches of note. The likelihood of a clash between old rivals Roscommon and Mayo is a high probability. The Rossies have a tricky Leitrim obstacle to overcome but home advantage should see them through. Playing in the Hyde helps Ros a lot. Align this with a very good U21 team plus a rising Senior equivalent gives a lot of positives to their supporters regards the future. But it is difficult to see an upset against Mayo simply because Ros are surely not yet at the level that we should be regularly operating at.
The winners will play of the other semi-final between Sligo or London/Galway. In years gone by a trip to the Exiles would have been viewed as nothing more than a casual weekend away but as we have seen this has changed dramatically. And it’s definitely not beyond the realms of possibility that a Galway team burdened with the losses of Meehan and Sice, and who were ultimately fortunate to stay in Division Two, could flop over there as well. On the flip side London are not seen any more as a walkover so Galway will not be going into this game blindfolded. A tough one for the Heron Chokers but they get the vote to progress nonetheless. In the event they do come through they will be on the road again though against Sligo.
But a trip to Markievicz Park is no easy prospect. Although Sligo had their own issues last season with the public culling of Kevin Walsh, Galway’s record against them is not exactly phenomenal. Pat Flanagan’s team will surely be targeting this match as one they can get a result in. Every year there are a few odd ones and this is definitely a close call. Sligo hardly lit up Division Three but they did win all of their home matches in the Park. Also they are no bad team. This team should probably have won at least one Connacht title in their time. And even though it is still passing, players like Marren, Harrison and Breheny yet have a chance to write their legacy, and a young Galway team will really face a tough one here. The bottom line is Sligo are underdogs who are very hard to beat on home ground. They have nothing to lose, and as such they get the quiet nod here to advance.
Overall it is difficult to see anyone challenging us in Connacht and as on paper we should be more than capable to come through. But more on ourselves later. For now there is enough to whet the appetite across the board as the championship kicks off. And let’s face it. As GAA people and the summer around the corner it’s great to have the Provincial battles coming around with it.