Peter Canavan doesn’t hold with the perception that Ulster football is a mess.
The northern province’s championship got underway last weekend with the preliminary round meeting of Donegal and Cavan and continues this Sunday with Armagh facing Fermanagh and what should be the eagerly awaited meeting of Tyrone and Monaghan.
The latter pair have won four of the last five Ulsters between them — Donegal claimed the other — but Oisin McConville is among those who have criticised the lack of quality in recent times and the style of play is a regular bugbear.
“It’s competitive,” said Canavan, who is again a member of Sky Sports’ analysis team this summer. “It mightn’t be to everybody’s taste, but you can be guaranteed... that there will be passion, that the two teams will be going out giving it everything.
“Regardless of the Super 8s, regardless of the back-door system, the lure of winning an Ulster Championship medal is still something else. I can only say that, as an Ulster man, as a Tyrone man, I am very much well aware of that.”
Canavan accepted that the visceral level of competitiveness is the very reason some express a dislike for the competition but that won’t be an issue for most punters this Sunday what with the game not being screened live on TV.
Normally the sort of tie to be guaranteed a primetime Sunday afternoon slot, Tyrone-Monaghan has fallen victim to the expanded championship format and the subsequent decision by the rights holders to concentrate on those Super 8s.
“There are people in a lot of quarters would be saying that Ulster football is a mess anyway, and there is no football played in it anyway, so for those people maybe you are not missing much,” said the Tyrone great.
“But, if anybody is into competitive football — and it will be real, there is a lot at stake — I’d imagine it will be worth watching. It will be a good game. So, yeah, look, it’s an opportunity missed.”
The Super 8s may have cut into Ulster’s wider visibility — only two of the eight games are being shown live on TV this year — but Canavan believes the provincial championship will survive this latest remoulding of the All-Ireland system.
It could, he believes, amount to one of the best championships of recent years, but if the jury is out on that then the same can be said for his native Tyrone and the impact they may or may not make on proceedings.
Chasing a first three-in-a-row in Ulster since Armagh managed it in 2006, the Red Hand county enjoyed four wins in this year’s Division 1 and yet they are still haunted to an extent by the 12-point hammering meted out by Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2017.
The side’s inability, or refusal, to respond to an early onslaught on the scoreboard with a more attacking gameplan suggested there was no Plan B and McConville stated recently that they are as devoted to their numbers-in-defence approach as ever.
Mickey Harte, for his part, has dismissed the focus on style and tactics while insisting he will not deviate much from the counter-attacking style of old. As for Canavan, he has seen evidence of a more rounded approach over the last few months.
“They were very one-dimensional and Dublin knew exactly what way they were going to play. Previous teams I played on, Mickey was always able to pull a rabbit out of the hat or change things about in some way to surprise the opposition.
“Last year the system was so rigid if he was bringing different players it was to perform the same role in the system, whereas now he has mixed it up a bit and he will have that element of surprise in there.”
Canavan has seen more kick-passing from Tyrone, more diagonal balls and a greater emphasis on finding the likes of Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan inside than was the case in 2017 when high balls to a lone attacker were more the norm.
That said, Tyrone were racking up decent scores in the league and Championship last year. Until they hit Dublin’s blue wall, that is. They managed 18 points more over their seven league games this term. Significant? Evidence of a more potent bite?
We should know more this Sunday.
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