Ulster says go

Does the Ulster Championship still matter?Three leading lights in Ulster football certainly think so.

By Shaun Casey

WHAT does the Ulster Championship mean? Does it still carry as much weight as it used to? A lot of talk has surrounded the provincial championships over the past number seasons, due to the new restructuring of the All-Ireland series.

Once this year’s league finished and championship season was just around the corner, those questions of the provincial championships kept popping up. What’s the point in them anymore?

Kerry will win Munster, like they usually do. The Leinster teams are all just playing for second place against a superior Dublin side and in Connacht, the best three teams were all on the same side of the draw, so the final is likely to be a non-event.

But what of Ulster? No matter what’s said about the other three, up here, the Ulster Championship means a lot. It means everything.

The emotions displayed after last year’s final when Derry ended their 24-year wait for the Anglo Celt tell their own tale. And this year, Derry boss Rory Gallagher has made no bones about it, they’re targeting two in a row.

Last weekend, Armagh qualified for their first decider since 2008, where they’ll take on the reigning champions. Once the full-time whistle sounded, the field was stormed with loyal Orchard supporters who have endured a long Ulster hiatus. Just to reach the final means everything.

Following their relegation in the league, Armagh coach Ciaran McKeever was strong in his views that his side would give Ulster a crack, but all their focus was on the ‘Super 16s’ of the All-Ireland series. “That’s when the real football starts.”

But McKeever rebuked those claims following Sunday’s semi-final victory over Down. “I was giving you the aul Jose Mourinho stuff, you’d be pretty foolish to believe me sometimes,” laughed the Cullyhanna native.

“It is an Ulster final, they are finals, and you want to win them. It is a national title; the Ulster Championship is held in a high regard. We would love nothing more than these players to get their hands on an Ulster medal, but we know the task that lies ahead in two weeks’ time.

“We will enjoy tonight and recover. I was saying this last number of weeks that we wouldn’t be firing all our eggs in the one basket, but we will fire all our eggs in the one basket for two weeks’ time and hopefully get these boys what they deserve.”

We’d been sold a pup. Of course, the Ulster Championship still means everything, especially to a county like Armagh, who dominated the competition throughout the noughties but have waited so long just to get back to the big day.

But even for those with a couple of medals tucked away in the back pocket, you can never have enough. Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee has won three Ulster Championships during his career with the Red Hands, but at the beginning of every year, he still targets getting a fourth.

“People don’t understand Ulster football until they play Ulster football,” said the 2019 All-Star. “You could have picked five or six teams to win an Ulster Championship there before it started. You can’t do that anywhere else.

“Whether your plan is to go and win the All-Ireland or your plan is to compete elsewhere, whenever you’re coming up against the likes of Monaghan, who know us inside out and we know them inside out, and there’s been nothing between the teams over the last number of years, you’re not looking anywhere else.

“In regard to down the line, nobody has enough Ulster medals, it’s not something that you’re going to pass up, thinking you’re going to win a bigger prize down the line. Ultimately it was very disappointing on our end (losing to Monaghan). It’s the cards we’re dealt, so we just have to get on with it and deal with it and hopefully we can bounce back in a positive way.”

Rory Grugan made his Armagh debut way back in 2011, but in two weeks’ time, he will line out in the Ulster final for the very first time. He’s one of a number of Armagh players, like Aidan Forker and Stefan Campbell, that have been through the dark days of Division Three football, but stuck it out in the hope of one day bringing the Orchard back to the top.

And to win an Ulster Championship, would mean the world. “It does mean a lot,” said the Ballymacnab play-maker, who won Ulster and All-Ireland Minor titles with the Orchard County back in 2009.

“Obviously, with the new structure and stuff, there is a lot of discussion around what the provincials mean and maybe some of the other provinces aren’t quite equal, in terms of the dominance of certain teams.

“But you only have to look at the Ulster Championship games in the last month to see what it means to all the counties involved. Not only does it get you into the All-Ireland series if you’re in the final, but it’s silverware.

“There are three competitions to play in every year, which give you a chance of winning a medal. There is only one team winning Sam so the provincials provide a chance for other teams to win something.

“It has always been evident what Ulster means, for teams to win and we’re no different. We knew coming into the semi-final that we had a chance to get to the final and it’s so good to get back to one after so long away, especially for all of us older players.”

The change of the championship structure means that winning your province is no longer essential in the race for Sam Maguire. The likes of Tyrone and Mayo, who were knocked out of the first round, are still guaranteed a spot in the group stages and could well go deep into the competition.

Some feel that the restructure may have devalued the provincials. Maybe elsewhere, but not in Ulster. “Personally, the structure is probably that way because the other provincial championships just aren’t competitive and it’s the same old same old every year with some of them, whereas Ulster is different,” added McNamee.

“On a playing level, did I feel it was devalued in our eyes? Nah. It’s something, you can never have enough Ulster medals because they are so hard earned and when you do get them, you know you’ve gone to the well every single time to get them.

“I wouldn’t necessarily agree that the Ulster Championship has been devalued but ultimately, they (the GAA) are making the provincial championships irrelevant in a way because regardless, if you’re in the top two divisions, you’re still going to have a chance of winning an All-Ireland.

“There’s pros and cons but personally, I wouldn’t want the Ulster Championship to be devalued or I wouldn’t want to see it got rid of any time soon because it’s so competitive and it’s always, any team on any day is capable of taking a scalp.”

For the next two weeks, Derry and Armagh fans will soak up the excitement that only an Ulster final can bring. And for these two counties, they don’t come along every year.

“I don’t think it will be much different (than any other game) to be honest,” explained Grugan, on the build up to the decider. “I’m sure there will be a good buzz around the county and there will be a lot of stuff building into it, but as players, it’s five or six sessions for us, doing video work and prep to get ready, both as individuals and as a team.

“We know we will have to be on our A game if we’re going to beat them. There was a lot of stuff there today which wasn’t just great in terms of our performance, but the goals probably gave us that cushion. There is no doubt that we will be looking at it in finer detail to try and improve upon it.”

It’s a special time for players and supporters. While the other provinces can cry and whinge about the provincial systems, Ulster get to enjoy a meaningful competition. It may not mean a lot to anyone else, but in Ulster, it still means everything.

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