Posted by Christy O'Connor
Friday 3 June 2016
From our GAA Experts to football fans all over Ireland, this week's Win, Lose or Draw predictions are starting to take shape.
The Ulster championship is not supposed to look like this. Three games in and the average winning margin is already running at 8.3 points. Tyrone, Cavan and Fermanagh got their jobs done efficiently but the quality and entertainment levels have been down.
On the other hand, there isn’t a whole lot new in any perception of the Ulster championship. Maybe it’s just the optics but Ulster football remains the ultimate GAA marketing paradox. Honesty and intrigue are the hallmarks of the brand but its negative image continually makes it as much of a hard sell as an easy one. It irritates Ulster people to hear everyone else giving out about their football but they have got used to paying no heed. They just keep looking forward to the next local skirmish.
The chaos and manic competitiveness often encapsulates its terrible beauty but not everyone is taken by that appeal. And yet for all the criticism it gets, the Ulster championship is still the only provincial show in town. This spring, eight of the nine Ulster counties were in either Division One or Two of the National League.
Last year’s Ulster championship was more competitive than any other time since 2001. Five of the eight games were decided by just one score, three of which were won by just one point. The province’s medium to long term All-Ireland prospects may not be as positive as they were at the outset of the last decade but Tyrone could have beaten Kerry in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Tyrone could win this year’s All-Ireland.
Despite having already won three All-Irelands, to win another one now would be Mickey Harte’s greatest achievement. Harte’s new team has evolved because innovative coaches like him, Joe Kernan and Jim McGuinness have had the courage and confidence to change the face of football. The defensive template established by Ulster football has largely defined the modern game.
The one team who resisted that change for so long was Down. It wasn’t their culture or tradition to be defensively minded but they eventually dragged themselves, albeit kicking and screaming, into that New World Order. And the experience of the last five years has largely been a painful one.
The season to date has been a disaster. At least ten to 15 players made themselves unavailable. Down were relegated from Division 1, losing all seven games. They had the lowest scoring return and the third highest concession rate of the 32 teams in the league. London, who had the second lowest scoring return, still hit 0-17 more than what Down managed. Of the two goals Down scored in seven games, one was a complete gift against Dublin.
With Down still struggling so badly to get scores, they will need at least two, if not three, goals to beat Monaghan. Darren O’Hare is a decent poacher but Monaghan will have him well screened with their defensive system. Mark Poland, Down’s best player, is an excellent playmaker but Monaghan can afford to double-team him, if they want, given Down’s lack of scoring penetration elsewhere.
Monaghan have had an excellent record in Ulster under Malachy O’Rourke, having lost just one out of ten provincial championship matches in the last three seasons. The key question they face this summer though, is have they plateaued? They remain a highly disciplined and organised outfit but their overreliance on Conor McManus has to be a concern. McManus is a brilliant forward. He was the top scorer in Division 1 during the spring by a distance but his tally of 2-43 accounted for 48.9% of Monaghan’s total scores in the campaign. That burden on McManus is exacerbated when compared to the drop off to the team’s next highest scorers – Daniel McKenna (1-4) and goalkeeper Rory Beggan 0-7.
Down’s gameplan will be heavily focused on stopping McManus. If they can break even at midfield and launch most of their attacks from the half-back line to good effect, Down have a slight chance. They won’t have any huge fear of Monaghan either; Down’s best performance of the league campaign came in their two-point defeat to Monaghan in Clones in February.
They won’t want to hear it but getting within four or five points of Monaghan here will represent a good day’s work for Down. Everyone else will just want to see a return to the intrigue and manic competitiveness of the Ulster championship.
Here, Monaghan's Conor McManus previews the 2016 Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship and chats to eir about how the game is changing;
Here's who our GAA experts are predicting will win this weekends games;
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Laois to win: 0.5%
Dublin to win: 99.5%
Monaghan to win: 95%
Down to win: 4.5%
That's the way the mood is going for this weekend's games - now it's time to make your predictions for the chance to win two All-Ireland Final tickets.
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