There are not many things that all Gaelic football followers can agree on, but one claim beyond dispute is that the Ulster Championship is the hardest provincial title to win.
Say what you will about the standard and the style of play pioneered by the Ulster counties, but year on year the race for the Anglo-Celt Cup provides far more competitive matches than those on offer elsewhere.
The spread of Ulster honours speaks volumes. For instance, Cavan is far and away the most successful county with 37 Ulster titles to their name. But the Breffni men have only won one of these in the last 45 years. Donegal and Derry are two strongholds of football but these counties have only won eight and seven Ulster titles respectively.
Only one county has failed to claim a single Anglo-Celt Cup and there appears to be little chance of Fermanagh putting that to rights in the coming years.
So with the Ulster Championship sparking into life this weekend, we rank the contenders for the GAA’s toughest provincial championship and decide who is most likely to write their name in the history books for 2017.
9. Antrim (9 titles)
It’s been a long time since Antrim have been anything but underdogs in an Ulster Championship match and that certainly won’t change this year as they face the trip to Ballybofey to play an in-form Donegal.
The Saffron men have always produced talented individuals but struggle to perform as a collective. Tension between the players and the county board over the handling of the Matthew Fitzpatrick saga won’t help the cause as they embark on the 2017 Championship season.
8. Fermanagh (0 titles)
For a county with such a small pool of talent to choose from, Fermanagh has always punched above its weight. Forcing Mayo to a replay in the 2004 All-Ireland semi-final is perhaps the best example of this. But Fermanagh remain the only county in Ulster never to have won a provincial title and that is unlikely to change in 2017.
Like Antrim, the draw has not been kind to Pete McGrath’s men as they face Monaghan in the preliminary round this Saturday. The Erne men may already have one eye on the back door.
7. Derry (7 titles)
At senior level Derry continue to go backward. This year has already seen Damian Barton’s men relegated to Division 3 of the Allianz National Football League and with Tyrone waiting in the first round of the Ulster Championship it’s hard to see things improving anytime soon.
The Oak Leaf county will be hopeful that encouraging signs at underage level plus the magnificent example shown by Slaughtneil in the club championship can improve their stock over the coming years.
6. Down (12 titles)
Down vs Armagh is undoubtedly the hardest match to call out of all the Ulster first round ties. Down always possess tricky forwards and can challenge anyone on their day, but the Mournemen lack an all-round balance to the team to truly challenge for honours.
Éamonn Burns will have his sights firmly set on Armagh and their June 4 meeting.
5. Armagh (14 titles)
This is a big Championship year for Kieran McGeeney, now in his third season in charge of his home county. His side showed promise in the league campaign racking up some high scoring victories, although they will ultimately be disappointed to miss out on promotion.
Beating Down would be a positive step forward but the competition will most likely get too intense for the Orchard county from there on.
4. Cavan (37 titles)
Cavan, under new manager Mattie McGleenan, were a mixed bag in Division 1 of the league this year. A big win over Mayo and a commendable draw with Kerry were high points but they were tepid in defeats to Dublin, Donegal and Roscommon.
Right now, the Breffni county are awaiting the winners of Monaghan vs Fermanagh and they will be preparing themselves to put in a big performance no matter who they face. However, it’s unlikely the most successful county in Ulster Championship history will add a 38th title to their collection.
3. Tyrone (14 titles)
The reigning Ulster champions come into the 2017 campaign lacking momentum after losing their last three National League fixtures. Mickey Harte’s men suffered comprehensive defeats to Donegal and Kerry, as well as an untypical home defeat to Mayo. Question marks surround the strength of Tyrone’s attacking power and they are also heavily reliant on the likes of Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Sean Cavanagh.
The Red Hand county look set for a semi-final showdown with Donegal, the side they bested in last year’s Ulster final. If there’s one team to watch when written off it’s definitely Tyrone, so don’t expect the champions to give up their throne without a fight.
2. Donegal (8 titles)
Donegal have been a mega-power in Gaelic football since Jim McGuinness took a squad brimming with talent but lacking direction to an Ulster title in 2011.
This is Rory Gallagher’s third year in charge and he will be determined to win his first Ulster title as manager. Gallagher will have been very happy with the 2017 league campaign as a number of new stars have stepped up to replace some of the old guard that retired at the end of 2016. With a leaner Michael Murphy now pulling the strings at midfield Donegal certainly look like a force to the reckoned with.
The men from the North West will most likely have to come through both Tyrone and Monaghan to win the 2017 Ulster Championship and this may be just too much to ask, but another year or two in development for this young side should see them morph into serious All-Ireland contenders.
1. Monaghan (16 titles)
The second most successful county in Ulster Championship history and also the first winners all the way back in 1888, Monaghan come into this year’s championship in a good place. Malachy O’Rourke’s men have been consistently strong for a number of years now and boast a very settled nucleus to the team.
In past years the claim has been levelled at the Farney county that they are too dependent on Conor McManus in attack, but the emergence of Jack McCarron may be the extra spark that propels Monaghan into realistic All-Ireland contenders.
Though Monaghan must negotiate Ulster through the preliminary round, their placing on the easier side of the draw may prove crucial in deciding the destination of the Anglo-Celt trophy this year.
Neil Glacken, Pundit Arena
We chat to Declan Bonner about Donegal’s youthful side in the latest episode of The 16th Man podcast.