THIRTY NINE years ago, Ian Paisley led the ‘Ulster says No’ campaign in retaliation to the provisions of the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement. Well at the minute, that slogan could be turned on its head to say ‘Ulster says Go’.
We have just finished the first week of the National League and Ulster teams have taken a total of 17 points from 18 available with a record of eight wins and one draw. This was despite six of the nine fixtures being away from home with some impressive victories recorded on the road.
It perhaps points to how teams in Ulster prepare for the league and take their pre-season competitions more seriously. We can be quite insular up here and I have to confess I am not party to how Kerry treat the McGrath Cup or Mayo treat the FBD League, but definitely in Ulster most counties treat the McKenna Cup at a more elevated level.
Within Derry it was quite evident that Mickey Harte wanted to get into a winning routine and setting their stall out early like this definitely helped when making the long journey to Tralee at the weekend.
While the line out of the two teams was slightly different in terms of players available and the experience on the field, there can be no doubt to the claim that Derry are a top-tier team when they are continually producing results and performances like this.
Our neighbours from across the Sperrins also produced a result which was quite significant given they had six debutants on show. Down to 14 men for 25 minutes, Tyrone produced some quality passages of play and produced some really good football at both ends of the pitch to set up a mouth-watering game in Celtic Park on Sunday.
As the tickets were being released in batches on Monday, they were being snapped up in each batch released. There are so many different facets and sideshows to the game on Sunday, never mind the 15 players on the pitch that will line out for each team.
Derry folk are getting used to seeing Mickey Harte on the sideline but it will be strange for all the Tyrone folk who will see Mickey against their team in a Derry top. While in reality it will not kick points over the bar or make tackles, it is bound to generate interest and add to the atmosphere at Celtic Park on Sunday afternoon.
If asked to stick my neck on the line and asked for a prediction, I would have to say I would go with both my heart and my head and go for a Derry victory with a bit of spice and edge to the game.
Another big one for Ulster teams is the Division Two game between Cavan and Donegal. After a mediocre McKenna Cup, Cavan came flying out of the traps with a very good victory away to Kildare.
It’s hard to know what to make of Kildare but having seen Cavan four weeks ago against Derry and seeing them now, there is certainly a level of improvement and maybe it was a case of timing their training and their run perfectly to allow themselves to get right for the start of the league after getting a good bank of work done in January.
For Donegal, they maybe have the view of going as hard as they can for as long as they can and seeing where that takes them. They had a strong McKenna Cup up until the final against Derry but bounced right back to produce a very good display versus Cork, notching 1-20 into the bargain.
Hard running, breaking lines, hunting in packs and bringing serious energy to the game are all features of their game which were displayed for long periods on Sunday, so it is a case of continuing this for as long as possible.
Having been on a pre-season training camp to Lanzarote in early December, they probably have got a bank of work under their belt which is a step ahead of most, but I’m not so sure they will taper off and then try to peak down the line.
Jim McGuinness has made no secret of the fact that finishing high up Division Two is a priority for the first part of the season so when is the time to step off a little given the championship is three weeks after the league ends?
Given his time in the professional environment, McGuinness has the expertise and knows all about what the human body can endure. He will make sure his Donegal charges are in prime shape for whatever challenges they face. It’s for that reason I would expect them to go to Kingspan Breffni on Sunday and collect both points on offer.
Monaghan invite a Kerry side to Clones and given the manner of their victory over Dublin last week, they will have plenty of belief in taking another two points.
Kerry will not be unduly worried about not getting a victory versus Derry, but similarly they will not want to be facing into the NFL break with zero points on the board.
It’s maybe unfortunate from Monaghan’s point of view they are facing Kerry at this juncture but if they produce the same sort of performance that they did last week they could be sitting with four points before the break and not be relying on one of their last-day heroics again this year.
All in all, it has been a fantastic few weeks on both the club and county scene for Ulster sides but that will definitely change a little this week as some are pitted against each other. However, it is still pointing to an exciting few weeks ahead.