Expect another close encounter in Ulster ‘minefield’

OUR friends in the north have long since been making the claim but now it is official – Ulster is the most competitive of the four provinces in the football championship, and has been for the last six years.

Armagh and Tyrone have kept a tight grip on the trophy since 1999 but, even with that duopoly in full swing, Ulster has been most intense of the four, based on the average winning margin of games.

It's not just that it is statistically hard to win a game in Ulster. It is actually getting harder with each passing season.

In 2004, a winning average of 5.3 points was enough to outdo Leinster, Munster and Connacht.

That average is down to 2.66 already this year, with the largest margin of victory coming in the opener in Belfast last month when Cavan had five points to spare on Antrim in the preliminary round.

“I'm not surprised by those figures at all,” says Derry manager Paddy Crozier, whose side take on Fermanagh for a place in the final in Omagh tonight (6pm). “It's been a hugely exciting championship in Ulster.

“You look at Kerry and Cork and they are in a Munster final after one game and then you look at the minefield that Ulster is. It sounds like a cliché but it is true when they say that any team can win it.’’

It hasn’t just been the competitiveness of the games that has caught the eye. Bar one or two notable exceptions, the atmosphere at fixtures outside Ulster have paled in comparison as well.

All too often, fixtures 'down south' are being played against a backdrop of cavernous stadiums with row after row of unoccupied seats, particularly in Croke Park, which even the Dubs couldn't fill two weeks ago.

The Cavan-Antrim game in Belfast last month was the only time up north where vast sections of unoccupied seats have been on view and even then, the crowd of 7,000 was in excess of pre-match predictions.

Every other tie has been painted on a background of grounds teeming with spectators, whether it be Enniskillen, Ballybofey, Omagh, Newry or Cavan. No-one expects the general trend to be interrupted by Fermanagh and Derry tonight.

The last time Derry played at Healy Park they claimed a five-point win against Tyrone, but Fermanagh will find comfort in the knowledge that they beat Derry on the way to their previous Ulster final appearance back in 1982.

More recent omens are harder to come by. Derry have already beaten the Erne side twice this year, both times in the Dr McKenna Cup, but it has been 18 years since they locked horns in the championship.

“It's been a while alright, but that won't have any bearing on it,” says Crozier. “No more than the McKenna Cup this year.

“Fermanagh are like ourselves. They are a team that has been making progress and they will want to continue that this weekend by reaching the Ulster final.”

If any county exemplifies the strength in depth of Ulster football it is Fermanagh. The population is little over 57,000 and, with religious and political realities taken into account, the pool of talent is far from deep.

Their achievement in reaching an All-Ireland semi-final in 2004 is all the more spectacular when viewed through that prism, and they are again punching above their weight this summer.

“Fermanagh were very impressive against Monaghan. They are a very hungry team who play good, organised football, and they are so strong around the middle with guys like Marty McGrath roving around there,’’ Crozier says.

“You have to remember that 11 or 12 guys are there from the team that did so well four years ago. They beat Meath, Cork and Donegal and were close to beating Mayo in an All-Ireland semi-final.”

For one of tonight's protagonists, tonight promises to be a seminal occasion.

“It's been 10 years since Derry have won an Ulster title and Fermanagh have never won one. Both teams are eager to put that right and it will be a tight game.’’

What odds on a draw?


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