Ailing attendances, the strong getting stronger and the weak getting weaker, the Ulster championship finds itself at a crossroads.
It’s fair to say that there is real apathy in a number of counties this summer. With no quick fix in the offing.
It wasn’t so long ago that people from outside Ulster traveled north to take in games, but few neutrals will pay to see Tyrone beat Derry and Antrim.
Armagh and Down will be tense as will Cavan against Monaghan, but they are off-Broadway shows.
The competition should come alive from the semi-finals on but where once all nine teams fancied their chances, he Anglo-Celt Cup is now within reach of just three.
Languishing in Division 4 and with no fixed abode, none of the other counties suffer from as much apathy. They will most likely face Tyrone in their quarter-final, a grim prospect.
Antrim’s prospects are way into the future when they reap the benefits of proper financial and development structures. For the time being, they must build around
promising players like Eunan Walsh.
After promotion last year, it was a spring of stability in Division 2 and they have assembled their best group in almost 10 years. There has been buy-in from clubs and the unwavering support base is showing Mayo levels of loyalty.
Their quarter-final against Down is winnable but it was two years ago as well and they came up short. With warm weather training under their belts they should be suitably prepared and the likes of the O’Neills Oisín and Rian, Jarlath Óg Burns and Ethan Rafferty can propel them to a first Ulster win in six years.
Mickey Graham is an astute young manager and he is clear in what he wants from his side. However, because of his other commitments with Mullinalaghta we probably have yet to see Cavan at their best under him.
They can go toe-to-toe with anybody but come up short up front. That they have now situated Dara McVeety at the edge of the square has added cut and thrust but they remain heavily reliant on Gearóid McKiernan for primary possession.
A team moving in the right direction and the spring in Division 4 may have helped them developmentally. Like Armagh, clubs have got behind them and aside from one or two they have their strongest panel.
Alas, they are unfortunate to face Tyrone first day out, so another early season exit awaits.
Their best panel of players for some time - Declan Bonner genuinely has 35 to 40 players vying for matchday. What the county has done at youth level has been exceptional and more and more like Eoghan Bán Gallagher are graduating to the senior group. Michael Langan is another who could have an effect on the Championship.
The necessary sprinkling of experience remains and a lot still revolves around Michael Murphy. Considering how many times he has carried them, it did them no harm to stand on their own two feet for most of the league but if they are to make waves this summer, he will have to come to the fore.
Paddy Tally would likely admit his first six months or so as manager have not gone as planned. Failure to gain promotion from Division 3 was disappointing but he has surely used it as a stick to beat his players with. Kieran McGeeney and others won’t have to watch videos of Down or any other team Tally has coached because you know what’s coming.
Things haven’t changed much since he guided St Mary’s College to a Sigerson Cup and we saw more of the same when he was with Galway last year. I expected them to be more finely tuned in the league but they should have Donal O’Hare ready and the presence of Jerome Johnson and perhaps Ryan Johnson will give them more punch.
What can be said about Fermanagh that hasn’t already be said? They’re an open book. I’ve seen them a couple of times this year and they are defensive in the extreme. If they had another couple of quality forwards they would do serious damage but they aren’t sharp enough there
Seán Quigley is a hell of a player but he lacks pace and ability to win ball. They remain all about damage limitation and simply don’t commit enough players ahead of the ball. Unless there’s a serious change of thinking from Rory Gallagher, it will be more of the same.
The one thing Monaghan have lacked under Malachy O’Rourke is consistency. They are capable of massive performances but have lapses in concentration You write them off at your peril and I’m doing the opposite - I fancy them to claim the Ulster title. But they must to back up performances.
They have been so reliant on Conor McManus but Conor McCarthy and Jack McCarron can take some of that burden off him. Scores are being distributed a lot more evenly and they have the doggedness to lift the Anglo-Celt Cup and the class to do bigger and better things in the All-Ireland series.
Depending on what newspaper you read, Tyrone have either completely changed their style of football or are gradually moving towards becoming more offensive. In actual fact, they’ve just moved a bit of personnel around, as Mickey Harte has done regularly throughout the course of his managerial career.
They remain focused on the same basics and they aren’t getting more players ahead of the ball. But they are moving the ball a lot quicker and not always through the foot. The pace at which they break is phenomenal.
To say that they were poor at the start of the League would be an understatement, at times, they were abject. But they did finish the competition strongly. There's quality up front like Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Cathal McShane, who are strong enough to win their own ball and wait for the cavalry to arrive. They are a force to be reckoned with because they manage to remain solid at the back while committing runners to aid their forwards.
Their draw and pedigree convinces me that Monaghan can win a first Ulster title in four years. Donegal and Tyrone will also vie for a Super 8 place, with Monaghan or Tyrone to make an All-Ireland final.