BY early tomorrow afternoon, either Donegal or Tyrone will exit the Ulster championship at the quarter-final stage and their 2020 season will be over.
While their hurling brothers have an escape hatch, via the qualifiers, if they’re beaten in Munster or Leinster, there’s no such luxury in football.
Such is life and that’s why the spotlight will shine brightly on Ballybofey for the 1.30pm throw-in time between the two northern heavyweights and Sam Maguire Cup contenders. Nine of the last 11 Ulster titles have ended up in either Donegal, who are chasing three-in-a-row, or Tyrone, champions four times since 2009.
Last Sunday week, at the same venue, the fierce rivals squared up in Division 1 in the league, with Donegal savouring a 2-17 to 2-13 success.
On the final weekend of league games, Donegal, minus Micheal Murphy and Ryan McHugh, among others, lost to the champions, Kerry, in Tralee, while Tyrone dispatched Mayo to Division 2.
In the final standings, Tyrone came in fourth, a point and a place ahead of their rivals, further evidence of just how tight it’s going to be in a game handled by Joe McQuillan.
On the same side of the draw, Derry host Armagh at Celtic Park at 4pm, with the winners clashing in the semi-final. The Kieran McGeeney-managed Armagh won promotion to Division 1, as runners-up to Roscommon, and they look the more likely side, despite having to travel.
Derry were just squeezed out of promotion from Division 3, ending on nine points along with Ulster rivals, Down, who won the head-to-head meeting and so will operate in Division 2 in 2021.
Action in Ulster starts this afternoon with the Monaghan-Cavan preliminary-round tie in Clones. Antrim await the winners in the last-eight.
Monaghan, champions in 2015 and 2013, have top-tier experience and that should be enough to see off a Cavan side that reached the final last season.
They slipped out of Division 2, despite finishing on the same points as Clare, who won the head-to-head game in Cavan.
The outstanding quarter-final is between Fermanagh and Down next week, with Down expected to advance.
The bookies make Donegal the 6/4 favourites to retain their crown, with Monaghan 3/1, Tyrone 10/3, Armagh 15/2, Down 16/1, Cavan and Derry 20/1, Fermanagh 50/1, and Antrim 200/1.
A Donegal-Monaghan decider appears most likely, but you never know with Tyrone, especially with Mickey Harte at the helm.
While Ulster proudly boasts the most competitive of the four provincial championships, it’s the opposite in Leinster, where Dublin are striving for a 10th consecutive title. There are three quarter-finals tomorrow, with Wexford meeting Wicklow, Carlow taking on Offaly, and Louth playing Longford.
Wicklow defeated Wexford by three points away last weekend to clinch promotion from Division 4 and they return to Wexford Park again. Meath await the outcome.
Offaly survived in Division 3 and home advantage should see them through against bottom-tier Carlow. Kildare play the winners. Louth had a morale-boosting win over experimental Down in Division 3 a week ago, while Longford decided not to play Cork. The counties met in the opening game in the league, with Longford winning by three points. Laois will keep tabs on this one. The Dubs meet Westmeath in the outstanding quarter-final a week later.