Colm O’Rourke: 9 footballers who could be Ulster’s finest this season

It would be rude to forget Ulster, wouldn’t it?



We may not be having a Leaving Cert in 2020 but regarding a GAA championship, we’ll be licking our lips come October if everything goes to plan.

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been picking my players to watch out for in Leinster, Munster and Connacht whenever we do return.

So, to finish it off, here are the key players in Ulster who I’m particularly excited to seeing whenever we do get inter-county football again.

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Donegal have so many good players, but the one who excites me most is Eoghan Ban Gallagher. He’s an incredible speed merchant in their backline and he can play either corner-back or wing-back. He just seems to be able to cover a huge amount of ground. Ciaran Thompson is another player who has impressed me for Declan Bonner’s men and he can play in either midfield or centre-forward. He kicks points from miles out. For me, these are two men of the future for Donegal and especially Gallagher. And Donegal need them because over the last few years, they’ve fallen short against the likes of Dublin and they need to start winning the big games.


Most people automatically think of the Cavanaghs and Peter Harte when it comes to Tyrone, but there’s no doubt that they need an injection of new talent. A player I like a lot is Liam Rafferty, who plays at corner-back. He definitely adds a bit of excitement to the Tyrone set-up and he gets up the field a lot. He scores and he sets up scores. He’s a player with a bit of vision as well and that’s the difference between the good players and the great players. Darren McCurry has done well too, but he doesn’t seem to be flavour of the month with Mickey Harte. In Liam Rafferty though, he’s somebody who can add something creative to this Tyrone team and that’s something that they need badly.

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As soon as you think of Monaghan, you think of Conor McManus. They have a lot of other good players however and one who’s caught my eye is Conor Boyle, who plays his club football with Clontibret. He’s been playing at both full-back and corner-back in the National League. He’s been abandoning his defensive duties a lot by getting up the field, but he’s been scoring and helping out in attack. He’s been doing that as much as he’s been defending, which is quite unusual – but, it’s been working for the Oriel County. It’s a sign of the times that more defenders are playing that kind of role.


Armagh are a team that I watched quite a bit in the League, especially against Kildare, and I’ve been really impressed with them. They’ve a lot of really good players under Kieran McGeeney and one of those is Rian O’Neill. He’s their full-forward and from play and placed balls, he is brilliant. His kicking accuracy off the ground is fantastic and it’s as good as I’ve seen for a long time. He’s a big man and his brother Oisin plays on the team too, just like their father did. He’s a real score-getter and a lot of Armagh’s forward play depends on him. Jarlath Og Burns is another player coming through who’s been catching the eye and he could make a big impact for Armagh down the line. But, when it comes to Armagh, it’s all about Rian O’Neill.


At the start of the National League, some people were expecting Cavan to be contemplating Division 3 football for next year, but they’ve done really well and won three of their five games so far. Now they’re looking at possible promotion and two players who’ve been standing out are Oisin Pierson and in particular my selection James Smith. James is from Crosserlough and they call him ‘The Miller’ Smith. I’ve watched James and I think both he and Oisin are going to make their mark this year. Cavan have surprised a lot of people under their new management and if James and Oisin keep impressing, Cavan might just be a force in the Ulster Championship whenever it comes around.


It’s been a tough few years for Down, but they’ve started the League well and with seven points in Division 3, it looked like they were going to get promoted when things came to a halt. By looking at them this year, I think they’re a team for the future. They have plenty of upcoming young lads and both Owen McCabe and Cory Quinn have impressed me. They’ve only been introduced in the last year or two, but they’ve been regular scorers in the league and I was particularly impressed with Cory Quinn against Longford. Donal O’Hare has been the main scoring forward for Down over the last couple of years, However in McCabe and especially Quinn, they might give the extra assistance that Down need when it comes to getting scores.


Given the strength of club football in Derry, even outside of Slaughtneil, it’s surprising that Derry have struggled so much. Maybe it’s down to the fact that there is so much focus on club football instead of the county team. Its 20 years since they really had a serious county team. However, they have some exciting players on the horizon and none more so than Shane McGuigan, who plays with Slaughtneil. He’s been one of the star players in Derry in my opinion and maybe he’ll be able to give more time to the county team going forward. He’s very exciting, a very good finisher and all round, a really good player. Shane and Odhran Lynch, a very good young goalkeeper, are my players to watch for Derry. Odhran has one of the longest kicks in the game and that’s a huge advantage to have somebody who can do that.

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There’s no doubt that Fermanagh are struggling badly and are staring relegation in the face whenever the League resumes. They are finding it hard to get the talent they once had and it’s key that Ultan Kelm stays with them. He’s a very exciting player, but there have been rumours that he might be Australia-bound. He plays at half-forward and was particularly impressive against both Cavan and Kildare in the National League, as was Shane McGullion. For Fermanagh’s future, they need players like Ultan and Shane.


Antrim are one of the Ulster sides who have done well in 2020 and are vying for promotion in Division 4. They had some great wins, including against Limerick when they scored 2-27. That’s the highest total by any team in the league so far this year and it’s down to players like Odhran Eastwood and Patrick McBride, who scored seven points in that Limerick win. Antrim have some very exciting players coming through and to be honest, they probably have more talent than a lot of other teams at the moment. Over the next few years, Antrim could be a force to be reckoned with if the likes of Patrick and Odhran continue to prosper.


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