It’s that time of year again! Even though my wife, who has only a vague interest in football, can predict the potential winners of this year’s All-Ireland football championship, this is a special time of the GAA sporting calendar. For both players and supporters alike, it’s the championship that really matters. All roads lead to Ballybofey this Sunday when Antrim will visit the county to take on Donegal. Nowadays, this is perceived as a mismatch. Again, my wife Maura expects Donegal to pommel Antrim.
On Sunday May 25th 1992, we headed to Cavan for our first-round Ulster championship game. We were fortunate to come out of Breffni Park with a draw. Cavan were one of the top teams of that era but were beginning to fade. Antrim and Fermanagh were the weaker teams back then and still are today. Armagh, Down, Derry and Cavan have joined them since.
Twenty-five ago, any of seven teams had a realistic chance of winning Ulster. Now it is only Donegal, Tyrone or Monaghan. This is the reality of how a great divide has developed in recent years. There is no point in glossing over the facts. The eventual All-Ireland winners, my wife tells me, will be Dublin. Here again only Dublin, Kerry Mayo plus the aforementioned three Ulster teams have genuine aspirations of lifting the Sam Maguire.
Fortunately, Donegal have a very realistic chance of winning Ulster and even chase the bigger prize in September. For now, our focus will be on Antrim because every game is a dress rehearsal for the next game. Make no mistake about it, MacCumhaill Park will be jammed on Sunday. The buzz and excitement surrounding a championship fixture is always attractive. Donegal is a mad Gaelic football county and our supporters never fail to get behind their team. It is more than a game.
People representing all the different GAA clubs as well as those not affiliated to the Association will merge in the Twin Towns for the social craic. Local rivalries will be forgotten for the day. Old and not so old acquaintances will be renewed. Great days of footballing achievements will be recalled while ruing those days of missed opportunities. From late morning the cars and buses will park on all roads in and around Ballybofey and Stranorlar. Some will have brought their ‘hang sangwiches’ and flasks of ‘tae’ which will be consumed from their car boots. Other will congregate in the local hostelries for some refreshments. It’s a day when the respective supporters will don their county colours. It is a chance to publicly display your pride for your county. This is what the championship is truly about.
It is unfortunate that more counties are not genuine contenders for the ultimate prize. Dublin in Leinster and Kerry in Munster do not have any serious opposition. In Connaught, Mayo do have it slightly more difficult with Roscommon and Galway biting at their heels but still a bit behind. Ulster remains the most competitive province. Although Down and Armagh have slipped off the radar, both teams have the potential to become contenders in the near future. Both counties have a great tradition in Ulster football having won 26 Ulster titles between them. Cavan and Derry have surprisingly not been prolific in recent times. It is hard to believe that Cavan lead the way with Ulster titles, 37 in all. More surprising is that Donegal has a meagre eight Ulster titles.
Brian McEniff was involved with the first five and Jim McGuinness the last three. We were fortunate to have two great managers. It is one thing having a top-class manager in modern football but to have the financial backing is another. Unless the likes of Cavan, Derry, Armagh and Down spend the money on their teams, there will be little chance that any of them will catch up with Donegal, Tyrone or Monaghan. This can be said for the rest of the country as well.
Our opponents on Sunday, Antrim, will come to Ballybofey hoping to put on a decent show. This will be their biggest day out in the football year. This is not meant to be condescending to Antrim football or their followers. Although they do boast more Ulster titles (nine) than Donegal, they will play from Division 4 of the National League next season having been relegated from Division 3. In total, they conceded 6-91 and scored 4-78. They lost four games, won two and drew one. On the plus side for them Donegal conceded 7-74 and scored 5-90. There still is a differential of 29 scoring points between the teams. Donegal, too, were playing in Division 1, a different standard from Division 3, which is like John Cassidy’s Copany Rovers competing with Dundalk.
I asked Maura if she heard of any of the Antrim players. She said she didn’t but then again, she only knows five current Donegal players (with a struggle) and one player from Mayo which is her sum knowledge of household GAA names. She does know that games start sometime in the afternoon and don’t finish to late evening. She judges this on the time that I return home.
If she doesn’t read this article, I’ll definitely be in Ballybofey on Sunday. If she does, then I could be confined to barracks.
Keeping the faith!