Is Ulster on the wane?

While Cork and Kerry have mightily impressive credentials, Ulster teams will be confident that the Munster superpowers are far from invincible

AS the nation prepares to settle down and watch another All-Munster All-Ireland final, some viewers may have the sneaking suspicion that this could be the shape of things to come.

Let’s face the cold hard facts. Cork are unbeaten this year. Their complete destruction of a physically robust Monaghan team in the Division Two final provided the first hints that the Rebels were set to boom in the summer of 2009.

The manner and silky style of their two rampaging displays against Kerry in the Munster semi-final and replay added further value to their stock price, which has gone into orbit ever since their win over Tyrone, the reigning champions.

Meanwhile, Kerry will always be Kerry. Course and distance winners on 35 occasions. Perennial challengers. Regular champions. They’ve not been at their best this year. Yet, despite the absence of Kieran Donaghy, and a few awkward stumbles in the Qualifiers, they’re still preparing for the traditional trip to Croke Park on the third Sunday in September.

Looking down from the North, there is a realisation that Cork and Kerry have the potential to form a southern duopoly. The easy route out of Munster means they will always be just a few games from Sam. And the fact that this is the second All-Munster final since 2007 lends further weight to the idea that this could be a regular fixture.

However, while Cork and Kerry have mightily impressive credentials, Ulster teams will be confident that the Munster superpowers are far from invincible.

In 2003 when Armagh and Tyrone met in the All-Ulster final, there was little fear in the other three provinces that they would be relegated to the role of neutral observers for the foreseeable future.

A similar feeling exists in the North with regard to Sunday’s final. While happy to concede that Kerry and Cork are deserving finalists, there is also a sprightly confidence that it will not be long before an Ulster side is back dining at the top table.

And there is good reason why the mood ‘up North’ is so optimistic. There is certainly little to suggest that there can be any repeat of the 23-year northern famine which took place between Down’s victories in 1968 and 1991.

After Ulster’s great hunger was sated, Sam visited Ulster four times in the nineties, then another four times in the current decade.

The basis for much of this September glory was built on All-Ireland success at minor, U21, club, college and university level.

Unlike Kerry who tend to collect titles regardless of what’s going on at underage level, Ulster counties rarely prosper unless the players have tasted significant success before becoming senior players.

The Down side that made the breakthrough in 1991 is a prime example. Of the 17 players who featured against Meath in the final, 11 had collected All-Ireland medals at club, minor, college, U21 or university level.

The Burren team that won the All-Ireland club title in 1986 contributed Brendan McKernan and Paddy O’Rourke, the Down captain whose unshakeable resolution was galvanised by All-Ireland successes at minor in 1977 and U21 in 1979. The minor side of ‘77 also included the late Ambrose Rogers, while Greg Blaney and Liam Austin were part of the team which won the U21 title two years later. James McCartan and Conor Deegan were on the minor side that won the Tom Markham cup in 1987. DJ Kane and Barry Breen were integral members of the Jordanstown side that won back-to-back Sigerson Cup titles in 1986 and 1987.

The Derry team of 1993 adds further credence to the argument that Ulster success is generally built on firm foundations. Captain Henry Downey, his brother Seamus and Johnny McGurk played on the Lavey side which won the Andy Merrigan Cup in 1990.

The Derry minor teams which won the All-Ireland title in 1983 and 1989 included McGurk, Dermot McNicholl, Damien Cassidy, Gary Coleman, Anthony Tohill, Dermot Heaney and Eamonn Burns. Dermot McNicholl and Enda Gormley also picked up Sigerson Cup medals in 86 and 87.

Tyrone also typify the northern trend. The team which lost the controversial 1995 final, and failed to continue Ulster’s period of dominance, was built around the group of players who won back-to-back U21 titles in 1991 and 1992. Those all-conquering squads included Peter Canavan, Chris and Stephen Lawn, Fay Devlin, Paul Donnelly, Adrian Cush, Ciaran Loughran, Ciaran McBride, Jody Gormley, Stephen Lawn, Seamus McCallan and Brian Gormley.

Pascal Canavan and Fergal Logan collected Sigerson medals with St Mary’s in 1989 and Queen’s in 1990.

By this stage, the pattern should be fairly obvious, and Tyrone’s All-Ireland treble in 2003, 2005 and 2008 provides yet more compelling evidence.

Again, the team which finally ended Tyrone’s 108-year separation from Sam was literally packed with All-Ireland medallists from other grades.

Peter Canavan and Chris Lawn may have won a brace of U21 medals, but the county repeated this achievement when winning the competition in 2000 and 2001. Fifteen players who experienced success under Mickey Harte at U21 level went on to enjoy similar glory in the senior grade.

Crucially for Tyrone, their repeated success at senior level has led to a new culture within the county. While Tyrone teams were once only successful at county competitions, this is no longer the case.

The days when St Colman’s Newry and St Patrick’s Maghera dominated the Ulster Colleges scene have disappeared.

Omagh CBS were the Hogan Cup champions last year while St Patrick’s Dungannon achieved the same distinction the previous season.

This is not to say that the silverware has ceased to arrive from the usual sources. It was only last year that Tyrone won their seventh All-Ireland minor crown, firmly establishing them as the third most successful county in the competition behind the old money of Kerry and Dublin.

And judging by all the signs it should only be a matter of time before Tyrone firmly assert themselves as the Kerry of the North.

THE maiden success in 2003 was unquestionably the key victory. Since then, Tyrone have been able to capitalise on the wealth of resources at their disposal.

It is Ireland’s seventh largest county and it has the eighth highest population.

Unlike many other Ulster counties, the GAA isn’t the preserve of small towns and rural parishes.

There are strong GAA clubs in Tyrone’s largest urban centres, and Dungannon (Ger Cavlan), Cookstown (Owen Mulligan) and Omagh (Joe and Justin McMahon) have all produced All-Ireland medallists.

Equally significantly is the fact that Tyrone is basically a one-game-state. Hurling has only a cult following and all talent is directed towards the size five.

But most importantly of all, the county has a thriving GAA culture, and there is a huge passion and desire for success.

This is evident by the manner in which the county is ensuring that it will continue to produce polished footballers.

The legendary Peter Canavan, the current manager of Errigal Ciaran, is head of the PE department in Holy Trinity. His former pupils include Owen Mulligan, and Kyle Coney, the star of last year’s minor team.

And it was no coincidence that the Hogan Cup which arrived at St Patrick’s Dungannon came shortly after county footballer Ciaran Gourley was added to the teaching staff. Three ex-county footballers, Ciaran McBride, Noel Donnelly and Ciaran Donnelly (Fermanagh) are on the pay roll at Omagh CBS while current players Davy Harte and John Devine have recently joined St Patrick’s Armagh, the alma mater of Sean Cavanagh.

Elsewhere, the highly-rated coach Martin McElkennon is a PE teacher at St Ciaran’s Ballygawley.

The county board and its fund-raising offshoot, Club Tyrone, are also playing their part.

Plans are currently in place to build a huge centre of excellence near Ballygawley. The site will act as the training base for all county teams.

By now, the picture should be fairly clear. The three All-Irelands Tyrone won during the past six years provide concrete proof that they have emerged as the new power in Gaelic football.

It should also be noted that Tyrone’s swift rise through the ranks is not necessarily bad news for their Ulster neighbours.

The very nature of the GAA guarantees that Tyrone’s rivals will be hell bent on preventing the Red Hands from establishing a monopoly. A strong Tyrone will push teams like Armagh, Derry and Down to greater heights.

The minor competition already reflects this trend. Tyrone’s teenagers have set the benchmark, winning All-Ireland minor titles in 2001, 2004 and 2008. Yet, it’s notable that Derry were champions in 2002 and Down in 2005. Armagh are in Sunday’s final, and are hoping to add to their one and only success since 1949.

Minor titles may appear like small details in the greater scheme of things, but history suggests that these victories cannot be ignored. When a footballer wins an All-Ireland medal at any level, he gains the belief that he can achieve the same feat in the senior code.

And as long as Ulster teams continue to do flourish in other competitions, there is no reason to believe that a recession is on the way.

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