I WAS fortunate to play in some of the biggest games which Gaelic football has to offer over the course of my career, whether it was with Tyrone, Ulster or Ireland. I also got to experience the highs of Tyrone Championship days with my club.
Unfortunately, like so many players from the Red Hand county, I never really got to enjoy any success at Ulster Club level. I only got one go at the provincial series, and I don’t think it had really caught fire at that stage, certainly not for Tyrone teams anyway. Winning your county title was all that mattered, probably
because it was so hard to do.
The past five or six years we have seen Tyrone teams get more competitive, Omagh going furthest of all last season when they made it to the Ulster final at the very first attempt. Can Trillick do similar this time around? The St Macartan’s club had a few near misses in the 1980s, and I think that the current crop will see this very much as a bonus.
The one thing about this Trillick side though is that they fear nothing or no-one, and that’s a quality which you really have to admire in them.
They face a formidable challenge from a Glenties team who five years ago were an Ulster Club revelation, going all the way to the final.
They have a healthy mix, some real stars and a host of real leaders. They showed real character in their county final when they were a point down and a man down, and I thought that Leo McLoone in particular was excellent, showing real leadership to pull them through.
If you take any team who are in this year’s Ulster Club, they will all head into it feeling that they have a realistic chance of winning.
Crossmaglen, although not the force they once were, are still a very strong and hugely experienced outfit. Scotstown will come back stronger having given eventual winners Ballinderry a real run for it on their last foray into provincial action.
That Cargin team on paper are a seriously strong side, and they have the added bonus of John Brennan on their sideline.
Kingscourt will hope that they can make a few waves, Kilcoo have been knocking on the door for a few years now and will be hoping that this is their year. Hats off to Paul McIver, he went into that job with everything to lose, but was willing to put his reputation on the line and has proven to be very successful in keeping their dominance of Down football going.
But for me, the team who you have to really admire are Slaughtneil. How that club, and those players, can continue to churn out Championship results on two fronts is incredibly impressive.
The fitness levels, but perhaps more importantly the motivation and the hunger for success, which those players clearly have inside themselves is the benchmark which every club, every team, every player should aspire to.
Mickey Moran will have had a hell of a job on his hands to lift those players again this week. They came so close to beating Cushendall last weekend, and the mental torture of that never mind the physical toll which a really intense battle followed by extra-time will have taken on those lads will have been serious.
When games are coming so thick and fast, you really don’t have time for training. It’s a bit like Tyrone in 2005 where we just seemed to roll out of one game and into another. It’s all about recovery sessions and maybe tactical sessions, just trying to guide the players through and avoiding injuries.
There are all of these myths which surround the Ulster Club. Like how it’s suited to bigger teams because they are better suited to winter football. That Crossmaglen are so dominant because they are so dogged.
Maybe in the past there was a degree of truth in that, but pitches are much improved on what they were even ten years ago, and the dynamic has changed. The hits are bigger and the intensity is ten levels higher than anything you would get within your own county, but in order to be successful you have to be organised, you have to be disciplined, and you have to have good footballers at your disposal.
It’s the sort of a competition where you wish you could take in a few games of football on the one day, but the fact that they are all played on the one day and at the one time means that simply isn’t possible. Perhaps that’s an insight into how the Ulster Senior Football Championship will be if the calendar is condensed in the way that is being mooted.
And it’s not just about the senior teams. More often than not, the Intermediate and Junior games and competitions are the hardest of all to call. This year’s Intermediate grade for example is an example of where strong cases can be made for any of the eight remaining sides claiming provincial honours.
The big carrot for everyone is the prospect of getting to Croke Park in February or March, and I think it’s fantastic that Junior and Intermediate clubs have the chance to battle it out for that prize. And rightly so, because they are putting in the effort and fully deserve their big day out at the big county grounds across Ulster and of course the chance of getting to Headquarters.