The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: A look at Ulster’s footballing year

After a year of inter-county football action, Shaun Casey runs his eye over the Ulster teams…


The Good – A run to the Tailteann Cup semi-finals and an outing in Croke Park signals a decent first season in the hotseat for former Meath boss Andy McEntee. It was his native county that ended the Saffrons participation in the Tailteann Cup, but Antrim certainly didn’t go down without a fight and will carry that experience into next season.

The Bad – There wasn’t much really expected of Antrim in the Ulster Championship, especially facing Division One side Armagh away from home. But their performance was well below par, and Antrim showed little fight and didn’t really lay a glove on the Orchard County, seemingly accepting their fate before taking to the field.

The Ugly – Saturday, March 5 marked possibly the worst day for Antrim in recent history as they were absolutely trounced by Westmeath. Any team can have an off day, but the Saffrons fell to the Leinster men by an incredible 31 points (4-27 to 0-8). They did bounce back to beat Cavan and consolidate their place, but that day was one to forget.


The Good – In 2023, Armagh reached their first Ulster in 15 years and made back-to-back quarter-final appearances for the first time since 2006, so compared to other years, this one wasn’t too bad. There’s more expected of this current team after nine years under Kieran McGeeney, and their win over Galway in Carrick-on-Shannon was certainly the highlight.

The Bad – Since Kieran McGeeney took charge of the Ulster County back in 2014, their target was to get back amongst the bigger hitters and dine at the top table of Division One. They succeeded that goal and finished third last year, but this season, Armagh were in the bottom two and are back in Division Two for 2024.

The Ugly – Penalties. It’s nightmare stuff at this stage for Armagh. While the Galway defeat was tough to take last year, the novelty of it all made it a memorable occasion. But this season, two penalty shootout defeats to Derry in the Ulster final and Monaghan in the All-Ireland quarter final will be extremely difficult to come back from.


The Good – The league has proven a slippery slope for Cavan over the last number of years but in 2023, the Breffni Blues were looking up. Not only did they gain promotion to Division Two for next year, but they did so in style by gathering the Division Three league trophy with a victory over Fermanagh in Croke Park.

The Bad – Mickey Graham stepping away perhaps signals the end of an era for Cavan football. Graham brought the Breffni men to the dizzy heights of being Ulster champions in 2020 with an unforgettable victory over Donegal. It wasn’t all plain sailing under Graham’s watch, and it’ll be interesting to see who takes over the mantle.

The Ugly – For the second year running, Cavan were built up as the obvious favourites for the Tailteann Cup but unlike 2023, they didn’t even reach the final. They were outwitted and outfought by Down, on home turf, in the quarter-finals and can have no complaints. But serious questions will have been asked in that changing room and will continue to be asked going forward.


The Good – Back-to-back Ulster champs and genuine contenders for the big prize, Derry’s 2023 season was one to remember. They’ve posted themselves as the top team in the province now and the next step will be beating a big team of the ilk of Dublin or Kerry in Croke Park.

The Bad – The way the year ended was utterly heartbreaking for the Oakleaf County. They gave their semi-final showdown with Kerry everything they had but when push came to shove in the final ten minutes of the game, Derry had no answers. Still, it was a memorable season with more good points than bad, but they’ll look back on 2023 with regrets.

The Ugly – The week before the Ulster final was messy with Rory Gallagher being released from his duties and the whole ordeal certainly wasn’t ideal preparation for Derry. But the players remained focused on retaining their provincial crown and delivered the Anglo Celt cup for the second year in a row.


The Good – An opening day victory over Kerry wasn’t a fair indication of the chaos that was about to come. 2023 was mostly negative for Donegal, but they did record championship victories over Clare and Monaghan in the group stages of the All-Ireland to demonstrate the talent and potential that still remains in their side despite all the turmoil in the county.

The Bad – After defeating All-Ireland champions Kerry in round one of the league, it was all downhill for Donegal. They only picked up one more point throughout the entire campaign, a round four draw with Galway and ultimately finished bottom of the Division One table and suffered relegation to the top tier.

The Ugly – While performances on the pitch didn’t make for pretty viewing, it was the off-field matters that cast an ugly cloud over the Tir Chonaill county. The Karl Lacey fiasco seemed to kick off the negativity around the county while Paddy Carr’s departure from the bainisteoir bib before the conclusion of the league was just another footnote in a messy year.


The Good – Things could only get better for Down after a disastrous 2023 and Conor Laverty’s impact was instant. They reached the McKenna Cup semi-finals, losing to Derry via penalties, competed well in Division Three and in Ulster and reached the Tailteann Cup final. Laverty certainly has his side marching along the right path.

The Bad – While they picked up some decent wins and performances in the league, the Mourne men will have been disappointed that they didn’t finish in the top two. Their only defeats came against Cavan and Fermanagh, who both finished ahead of them, and while they’ll have no complaints, their first target of 2024 has already been set.

The Ugly – While reaching the Tailteann Cup would have been seen as a success, especially after overcoming the competition favourites Cavan to get there, ultimately Down headed to Croker expected to win. They left headquarters empty-handed and didn’t reach their full potential, which will surely rankle with Conor Laverty and his troops.


The Good – While Fermanagh’s year seemed to just slip away, promotion to Division Two signals a success season. They reached Croke Park and although they failed to deliver on the big day and were second best against Cavan, they showed signs of progress under Kieran Donnelly’s stewardship.

The Bad – Despite earning promotion, little was expected in the championship as they faced the daunting task of trying to dethrone the reigning Ulster champions Derry and they failed on that front. That game demonstrated how far away the Erne County are from the top teams and sent them back to the drawing point.

The Ugly – The Tailteann Cup offered Kieran Donnelly’s side a chance to end the season on a high with the possibility of getting back to Headquarters. But Fermanagh failed to live up to the expectations and a final round defeat to Antrim saw them head to the preliminary quarter-finals. Laois proved the better team on that occasion and ended Fermanagh’s year abruptly.


The Good – As far as first seasons could go, Vinny Corey couldn’t really have asked for much better. Another heroic survival story in Division One and an appearance in the All-Ireland semi-final, where they pushed Dublin to the pin of their collars, Monaghan did what they do best and defied expectations. Hopes will be high in the Farney County for 2024.

The Bad – While there’s very few negatives about 2023 from a Monaghan perspective, when they’re looking to the future, the age profile of the team may concern them. Conor McManus, Karl O’Connell and Darren Hughes have been sensational servants, but they aren’t getting any younger. The bad thing is, they’re still the best players that Monaghan have.

The Ugly – The mood in Monaghan was great heading into the championship having secured their Division One status and saw off Tyrone with a late goal from Ryan O’Toole, but Vinny Corey was dramatically knocked back down to earth in the championship. Derry waltzed past Corry’s side and made the Clontibret man reconsider his starting line up and style of play.


The Good – Any year that Tyrone can claim two wins over the nearest and dearest rivals Armagh is a good thing, but it was extra sweet this season as they sent the Orchard County packing for Division Two. The Red Hands also claimed a championship win over Kieran McGeeney’s men in Omagh.

The Bad – Tyrone’s year could have been so much different had they been able to build some momentum through the championship, but their first round Ulster defeat to Monaghan, despite controlling the game during the opening period, seemed to knock them back. It was almost catastrophic against Westmeath, but John Heslin’s late miss sent Tyrone through to the knockout stages of the All-Ireland series.

The Ugly – Usually the sight of the green and gold Kerry jersey sparks something wild in Tyrone eyes, but 2023 was different. While they battled for a while, with the Canavan’s offering a bit of magic up front, Tyrone were second best all over the pitch against the Kingdom and crashed out of the championship with a whimper.


THE GOOD…Vinny Corey’s Monaghan secured their Division One status with a last round win over Mayo


THE BAD…Brendan Rogers and his Derry teammates will look back on their All-Ireland semi-final loss to Kerry with regrets


THE UGLY…Callum Cumiskey was the unfortunate player to miss his penalty against Monaghan in Armagh’s second shootout defeat of 2023

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