Ulster Football Championship Preview
Last Updated: 15/05/17 7:26pm
Few would argue that the Ulster Championship is the most competitive of the provincial competitions and the action gets underway on Saturday.
The preliminary round meeting of Monaghan and Fermanagh in Clones will bring up the curtain on the 2017 edition and since 2009 only Tyrone, Donegal and Monaghan have won the Anglo-Celt Cup.
Will it again be one of these familiar faces celebrating in July or could a new champion emerge from the pack and stake their claim?
Much is made of Mayo's All Ireland famine, but they know something of the same hunger in Antrim, having endured a 66-year wait for an Ulster title and form would suggest there will be no change in 2017 either.
Having been promoted to Division 3 last year, a campaign that produced creditable victories over Sligo and Laois ultimately saw them relegated on points difference when they could only draw with Longford, the team who survived above them. They face a rejuvenated Donegal in their quarter-final in Ballybofey.
Kieran McGeeney's third Ulster Championship as Orchard County manager will commence in the stands following a 12-week sideline ban for an altercation with referee Joe McQuillan.
Having narrowly missed out on promotion to Division 2, they'll now face their neighbours Down in Newry in a June 4 quarter-final. They face a nervous wait for the game, with injury concerns around defenders Charlie Vernon, Brendan Donaghy and the talismanic Ciaran McKeever.
The county's first Division 1 league campaign in two decades ended in disappointment as the Breffni men fell through the trapdoor once again.
Nevertheless, competing against the best teams in the country, beating Mayo and drawing with Kerry and Monaghan will have brought this young team on a great deal.
New manager Mattie McGleenan is the man charged with delivering the county's first provincial crown since 1997.
Slaughtneil's achievements in the Club Championships have been the high point for Derry GAA this year, but it has come at a cost to the county team.
Missing players such as the McKaigues and Brendan Rogers because of their club's run, the Oak Leaf county endured some crushing defeats in Division 2 and ultimately were relegated on points difference in a three-way tie.
Derry will at least enjoy home advantage in their Ulster Quarter-Final as they welcome reigning Champions Tyrone on May 28, but the omens are not good, they have not beaten their neighbours in a competitive game since February 2011.
The 2012 All Ireland Champions come into this year's Championship heavily fancied to make an impact following a third-placed finish in Division 1.
The addition of several young players has rejuvenated a squad that suffered high-profile retirements over the winter, and the form shown by the likes of Michael Murphy and Patrick McBrearty suggests that Donegal will have a major say in the destination of the Anglo-Celt Cup. Assuming both navigate through their Quarter-Finals, the meeting of Donegal and Tyrone on June 18 could be one of the clashes of the summer.
The Mournemen come into 2017 in hope rather than expectation, but they do have some cause for confidence.
An away draw with Cork and victories over Meath and Derry ensured that unlike their Ulster rivals in Derry and Fermanagh, they survived in Division 2 and they'll now welcome an Armagh team to Newry which could be shorn of key personnel.
Most bookmakers are favouring their opponents, but Down have always been happy to upset the odds.
Pete McGrath's side face an extremely tough start to their 2017 campaign as they come up against a Monaghan side who have shown exceptional form in Division 1 this year.
In contrast the Erne county mustered only one win back in February, and as such were relegated as the bottom team in Division 2. The form shown by Fermanagh in 2015 suggests that on their day they can challenge most teams, but as it has been on many occasions before, the qualifiers may be their best path to progress.
Having served up a pulsating Ulster Semi-Final classic last summer against Donegal, Monaghan's year turned in just a couple of weeks as they suffered defeats in the replay and then to Longford in the qualifiers.
Any notion that the team might be in decline has been dispelled with just two defeats in Division 1 and most encouragingly the emergence of Jack McCarron as a scoring forward who can carry some of the burden placed on Conor McManus in the past.
Mickey Harte begins his fifteenth year as manager, as he began his first, facing Derry in a quarter-final.
The reigning champions are favourites to deliver their manager's sixth provincial title, despite the fact that both Donegal and Monaghan finished higher in Division 1 of the league.
Even though there was much speculation over the winter to the contrary, Sean Cavanagh returns for another year and with more members of the All-Ireland winning U21 team established in the side the Red Hand men will challenge for their first title retention since 2010.
Peter Canavan - I think Monaghan will win the Ulster Championship. They're on the easier side of the draw avoiding Tyrone and Donegal - Malachy O'Rourke will have them primed for an Ulster Final.
They not only possess the most clinical forward in the province (Conor McManus) but also two of the brightest prospects in Jack McCarron and Conor McCarthy.
Paul Earley - It's a rejuvenated Donegal to win Ulster for me. Very impressive during the league campaign and finished it strongly, which is always a good sign.
New players have added pace and enthusiasm and the team looks well balanced. Tyrone's poor finish to the league campaign has raised questions about their ability to take the next step. Expect to see a Donegal v Monaghan final which is always very close with Donegal edging it.