Call me superstitious, but I’d be reluctant to launch anything at a place with Titanic in its name.
But the Ulster Council are clearly a pragmatic bunch and last week they publicised the start of the province’s football championship by hosting a superb event at the Titanic Visitors’ Centre in Belfast.
Yet, call me ultra superstitious, but if I did launch something at a Titanic Centre, I’d be careful about making any extravagant claims.
Again, as anyone who has dealt with the Ulster Council can testify, they’re a crew of hard-nosed hombres.
Standing on a replica staircase from the ill-fated ship, Ulster GAA President Aogan Farrell could have viewed the stretch of water from where the Titanic set sail as he delivered a speech which eulogised the Ulster Championship.
It was, Farrell said, “a jewel in the GAA crown”.
Throughout the night we were told on repeated occasions that the northern competition was the “best provincial championship in the country”.
I’m not so sure. While not wishing to play the role of the iceberg, it might do no harm to conduct an appraisal of the true state of Ulster football before proclaiming the virtues of this year’s championship.
Yes, it’s true, there was a time in the not-too-distant past when Ulster drew the greatest fascination of the four competitions.
A huge part of the appeal stemmed from the fact that there was a strong possibility that the All-Ireland champions would emerge from the north.
Four of the seven All-Ireland titles contested between 2002 and 2008 were won by Tyrone (three) and Armagh (one).
It was this sequence of victories which elevated the Ulster competition out of its customary role of the feisty sideshow, the main lure being the high volume of hard-hitting, close-fought games.
Once the Sam Maguire Cup became a regular visitor to Ulster, the unpredictable nature of northern games ensured that its championship was unmatched in terms of drama and interest.
The results speak for themselves. After winning the All-Ireland title in 2002, Armagh were knocked out of the preliminary round of the following year’s Ulster Championship by Monaghan, then rated one of the poorest teams in the country.
When Tyrone went all the way in 2003, they got dumped out of Ulster in 2004 by Donegal. Armagh, All-Ireland finalists in 2003, were knocked out of the 2004 All-Ireland quarter-finals by Fermanagh.
In 2005, Tyrone were utterly scintillating as they swept Kerry aside to lift Sam for a second time. They scored 1-16 against the Kingdom. The following May they managed five points against a Derry team that did a number on them in Omagh.
For their last All-Ireland title in 2008, Tyrone came through the qualifiers after Down beat them in the first round.
The same dynamic just doesn’t exist in Munster.
There is only team that is going to beat Kerry and there is only one team that is going to beat Cork.
Leinster is even more predictable. Since 2005, Dublin have lost the grand total of one game in their provincial championship.
The last decade was unquestionably a golden era for Ulster football. But it needs to be stressed that the reason all eyes turned north was because it presented a chance to watch the future All-Ireland champions.
More recently, a strong case could be made that Connacht is actually the most competitive championship as it has produced four different winners (Mayo, Galway, Sligo and Roscommon) in the past five years.
And yes, I can hear that collective cry of ‘so what’? But this proves the point.
The wholesale indifference towards Connacht arises from the fact that the western championship has no bearing on the All-Ireland title. Once a province stops producing probable All-Ireland winners, its championship becomes a fringe event, a local sporting matter that has no relevance on the main prize.
The Ulster Championship throughout the 70s and 80s is the perfect example. As things stand, there is a distinct possibility that we are drifting back to those barren days. Ulster has ceased to be the land of giants and giant-killers. Dublin, Kerry and Cork are the top three teams in the country. Then, there’s a gap. It’s a small gap, but it’s that indefinable space that separates champions from contenders. It’s tiny but huge.
Kildare, Tyrone and Donegal are at the front of the chasing pack but it requires a significant leap of the imagination to see a captain from this trio standing in the Hogan Stand in September. When subjected to cold analysis, there is no compelling evidence to suggest this year’s Ulster Championship is going to unleash the future All-Ireland winners.
What is now a possibility was once a probability — and that’s why the boasts about the greatness of the Ulster Championship in the Titanic Centre just didn’t sound wholly convincing. While the games promise to be absorbing, it’s the memory of the competition’s glorious past that enriches the appeal and summons interest from beyond the province. And it’s for this reason the choice of venue for the launch of this year’s Ulster Championship was entirely appropriate.
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