Friday, May 11, 2007

Inthanameajaysus, it's the TSA Championship Preview Part 2

In which we continue our look at the leading protagonists in the annual quest to hold aloft a shiny fellow with jug ears, who goes by the name a' Sam.

Alternative Ulster (champions)?
Probably the most compelling narrative of this GAA decade has been the power and the glory of Armagh and Tyrone's adventures in football hyperspace: the classic matches, the great players, the raging controversies and the fierce hostility; the triumph and the deep tragedy. It follows then that probably one of this year's greatest fascinations will be ascertaining whether Ulster's terrible two's time as football giants is at an end.

Most subject to gloomy prognosis are Armagh. Since their narrow All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Tyrone in 2005, opinions on the Orchard County have matched those on the polar ice-caps: most acknowledged experts concur that they are disappearing from view.

In Armagh's case, the empirical evidence consists of the ravages of time and injury. The retirement of the McEntee twins after Crossmaglen's club triumph allied to serious injuries to a host of players, including their lynchpins at full-back and full-forward, Francie Bellew and Ronan Clarke, removes major pillars from Joe Kernan's side.

All the same, although they lost heavily to Kerry in last year's quarter-final, they had been impressive throughout the Championship and until half-time in that match, and were only scuppered by the first manifestation of the Kieran Donaghy phenomenon. No shame in that.
And yes, they stared the ignominy of division 3 football in the face on the last day of the league; but, tellingly, they did the job in the end, with a win over Westmeath. Who'd bet against professionalism like that? Oh, and the still have Steven McDonnell and Oisín McConville, two of the finest forwards of any era.

All looked well in Tyrone's world when they switched on the lights at Croke Park and proceeded to rob Dublin of their prized pearls on the opening weekend of the League. What followed, though, was thoroughly stodgy. Clear-cut losses to Donegal, Cork and Mayo accompanied wins over Fermanagh and Limerick, and a limp draw with Kerry told nobody anything.

Tyrone's injury concerns do not point to revitalisation any time soon; with Brian McGuigan's comeback faring as well as Johnny Logan's, and injuries to Stephen O'Neill, Martin Penrose, and Raymie Mugrew set to hamper their Ulster campaign, Tyrone look as distinctly ordinary as that League form suggests.

Even at their best, Tyrone needed a little inspiration to take them home, whether it was a dash of Canavan sorcery, a Mulligan explosion, O'Neill's expertise or McGuigan's guile. With all of these either retired or subject to injury concerns, the Tyrone machine looks spluttery.

With the old troupers being hauled off, the stage is surely set for Donegal, is it not? A convincing league which ended triumphantly at GAA HQ, a bulging panel balancing experience and youth, a raging hunger (but, one hopes, not a similar thirst...) and gritty determination where once there was flouncy half-assedness. Sounds good, yes?

Well, yes. And no. Nothing is ever that simple in Championship football, or with Donegal for that matter. Can you imagine the determination brewing in Armagh to bring these latest pretenders to the Anglo-Celt Cup (de facto Orchard property for much of the last decade) down?

But, looking as objectively as possible, and ignoring for a moment the strange things that can go on of an Ulster championship afternoon, Donegal boast the strongest credentials in Ulster at the moment. And as recent experience tells us, those who take Ulster are rarely far away later on.

This year sees little chance among the rest of a dark horse force. Derry's loss of Patsy Bradley through suspension is crippling for a county with too few players of such talent; Fermanagh trajectory is clearly on a downward route, while there does not appear to be much stirring in Cavan and Down (who open the Championship on Sunday) or Antrim.

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