Ross Carr's verdict on this year's Ulster Championship

Monaghan lost out to Donegal in last year’s Ulster Final
Monaghan lost out to Donegal in last year’s Ulster Final

For most of the Seventies and Eighties the Ulster champions’ trip to Croke Park for the All-Ireland semi-final was seen as a “day out”.

Everything changed in the 1990s and since then five different Ulster counties, Down, Donegal, Derry, Armagh and Tyrone, have captured the Sam Maguire Cup.

Ulster’s representatives are no longer guaranteed a place at the top table come September, however.

Nonetheless, Gaelic Games in Ulster are more important than just games, they’re about life, emotion, passion and some of the greatest highs and lows we can experience.

Trying to pick a winner is proving more and more difficult as the playing field levels. 

Still, while there may be shocks, as was the case last year when Antrim beat Fermanagh and Down took Tyrone to a replay, I expect that Donegal and Monaghan will meet in their third successive final on July 17. 

Antrim Under new manager Frank Fitzsimons Jnr Antrim have made significant progress.

In the league they had to play both promoted teams away from home and were narrow losers on both occasions. Fitzsimons is an astute and passionate coach who will have the Saffrons well primed for their first round game against Fermanagh in two weeks’ time.

But they will be hard-pressed to repeat last year’s surprise win.
Prediction: Quarter-final exit. 

Armagh Like Fermanagh and Down, 2015 is already a success for Armagh.

Yet the elevation of Kieran McGeeney has the Orchard faithful dreaming of a return to former glories. This is both unfair and unrealistic. A team that plays Division 3 league football in the spring is highly unlikely to capture summer silverware. 

Armagh will be incredibly hard to beat and will make life unbearably uncomfortable for some of the more fancied teams.

But they are still a long way from achieving summer success — though they could get a good run through the qualifiers. 
Prediction: Quarter-final exit.

Cavan Despite total domination at U-21 level in Ulster for four years, Cavan have failed to push on at senior level.

They have regressed, though playing at Breffni Park is worth two or three points to them. 

Monaghan will bring the best out of them but they play a horrible style of football.

Despite home advantage against their biggest rivals I can’t see them progressing. 
Prediction: Quarter-final exit. 

Derry Only they’re playing Down, I wouldn’t watch Derry. Some of the best footballers I played against wore the Derry jersey and I’m sure they must be disillusioned at the style of football being played. 

Even though they possess big strong, athletic players, they appear to be suffering from stage fright and approach each game with a mind-set of trying not to lose rather than playing to win.

In spite of this, they should beat Down because they are physically stronger and play a style of football that Down struggle to cope with.
Prediction: Semi-final exit.

Donegal Could Donegal without Jim McGuinness be compared to Man United without Alex Ferguson? Unlike United, Donegal promoted Rory Gallagher who knows the players very well. Nonetheless, the new manager finds himself in a highly pressurised environment. 

By throwing away last year’s All-Ireland Final Donegal lost their capacity to strike fear into opponents. Neil Gallagher, Michael Murphy, Paul Durcan and the McGee brothers have to show that they, too, can perform when it matters most. 

No team can claim such dominance over Tyrone or Mickey Harte as this group of Donegal players. Victory will ease the managerial transition but defeat could be the beginning of the end — just as defeat to Donegal in 2011 marked the beginning of the end for the great Tyrone side. 
Prediction: Ulster finalists.

Down Securing promotion to the top tier means that 2015 has already been a successful season for Jim McCorry in his first year in charge. But defeats to Roscommon (twice) and Meath highlighted their shortcomings. 

Down struggle against teams that are physically bigger and more athletic. They get over-run at midfield which means that despite a phenomenal work-rate they are continually under pressure in defence. They also have a lack of pace and size at full back and centre back. 

Despite playing in all eight games only three forwards averaged more than one score per game, and one of those scored nine times.

Having said that, Down could beat Derry but it’s unlikely and even if they did they’re not good enough to progress further. 
Prediction: Quarter-final exit. 

Fermanagh Had they captured the Division 3 league title Fermanagh would have been contenders for Team of the Year. They have made serious progress under the guidance of Pete McGrath. 

Their shortcomings, such as a tendency to take the ball into the tackle and an inability to kick accurately, were exposed by 

Armagh in the league decider. Still, I expect them to overcome Antrim and should they meet Cavan in the semi-final I would fancy their chances.

But I don’t expect that to happen.
Prediction: Semi-final defeat.

Monaghan Given their level of performance over the past three years, Monaghan should account for any of the teams they face on their side of the draw. I believe their final opponents will be Donegal.

After what happened in last year’s final, Monaghan will relish this challenge.

On the other hand, their reserve talent is weak and it is crucial that their key players, such as Colin Walshe,  Drew Wylie, Owen Duffy and, in particular, Conor McManus, stay healthy.
Prediction: Ulster champions.

Tyrone This Tyrone team is a pale shadow of Mickey Harte’s earlier sides.

Accordingly, it is unfair to expect the same level of success from a group that 
is neither as gifted nor possesses the same attributes of their predecessors.

Tyrone will always be hard to beat and are the one team in the country that on any given day can beat any opposition.

The recent success by the county’s U-21s will provide a huge boost to morale but the steady slide of Tyrone looks to continue for another year or so.
Prediction: First round exit.