The competitive nature of the Ulster campaign always attracts many column inches ahead of the championship.

This year, eight of the nine teams involved are now operating out of the top two tiers in the league. From that you may conclude that the upcoming renewal is wide open.

Donegal  are looking to win a fourth title in five years. However, their path to an Ulster final is a tricky one, with Tyrone, Armagh and either Down or Derry, standing in their way.

2013 champions Monaghan are the fancy of many to win back the Anglo Celt Cup, while Fermanagh will set out in the hope of winning their first provincial crown.

The action gets under way with the preliminary round clash of Donegal and Tyrone in Ballybofey on 17 May.

The quarter-final games see Cavan host Monaghan; Fermanagh at home to Antrim,  Down visiting Derry and Armagh taking on the winner of the Donegal v Tyrone game. 

The semi-final pairings are Cavan/Monaghan v Fermanagh/Antrim and Derry/Down v Armagh/Donegal/Tyrone.

The Ulster final is fixed for Clones on Sunday, 19 July.

Antrim

Frank Fitzsimons first year in charge of the Saffrons saw them narrowly miss out on promotion from Division 4 following their defeat to Offaly on the final day. Ahead of that game, midfielder Michael McCann opted to leave the panel due to work commitments. His brother Tomás also opted out for the same reasons. Kevin Niblock will also be absent as he has not yet committed himself to the Fitzsimons set-up.

The manager, however, will be boosted by the news that St Gall’s clubman Kieran McGourty has returned to the panel for the first time since 2007. Also back on board are Neil Delargy, Colm Duffin and Ryan Doyle.

Antrim visit Brewster Park to take on Fermanagh on 31 May. It’s a repeat of their quarter-final clash from last year – a contest where the Saffrons held on at the end to win by a point. They’d be doing well to make it back-to-back wins .

Armagh

After getting to the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2014, expectation levels have risen in Armagh and their supporters will presume to see them at Croke Park come August again.

Before that is the goal of winning a first provincial title since 2008.

Kieran McGeeney is now at the helm and he did what was expected of him in the spring and got Armagh out of Division 3.

They won’t see action until 14 June in a tasty clash with either Donegal or Tyrone.

McGeeney feels his outfit are good enough to “compete” for an Ulster title. If they can show the same momentum and determination that saw them go far last year, then they have the wherewithal to conquer the province again.

The bookies have them as big as 9-2 (third favourites) to prevail, which isn’t a bad price.

Cavan

Terry Hyland’s Cavan will want to banish the memories of the 2014 championship that saw them brushed aside far too easily by Armagh in Ulster, and then offer meek resistance against Roscommon in the qualifiers.

Ahead of the summer contests, the Breffni County maintained their status in Division 2, but their return of 1-85 scored from their seven games was the lowest of any side in the spring campaign.

Leaving that unwanted stat aside, I expect them to put it up to Monaghan in Breffni on 24 May.

However, ending an 18-year wait for an Ulster title is unlikely.

Derry

Relegation from the top flight of the league and ‘that game’ against Dublin told the story of Derry’s spring endeavours. 

Now they must focus on facing Down at Celtic Park on 7 June.

Boss Brian McIver has a lengthy injury list to deal with, with Mark Craig, Emmet Bradley, PJ McCloskey and Eoin Bradley all nursing knocks. However, Cailean O’Boyle, who hasn’t played for the county since last year’s provincial defeat to Donegal, is available and will add to McIver’s attacking options.

Derry will feel that they can overcome the Mournemen, but the challenges after that look beyond them. Clearing a few hurdles in the back door should constitute a good summer, however.

Donegal

In the post-Jim McGuinness era, much focus will be on Rory Gallagher to see how he steers the Donegal ship this summer. 

Gallagher’s previous involvement with the county meant there was little upheaval following McGuinness’ decision to move on last autumn.

Getting to a league semi-final constituted a worthwhile spring, though management will be disappointed at the way Cork raided four goals in that clash.

The focus is now on Tyrone on Sunday week. Donegal have had the upper hand in recent championship matches between the counties and I go with the trend to continue in this season’s Ulster opener.

Beyond that it doesn’t get any easier, and while you may have doubts as to whether they can retain the Anglo Celt, Donegal should still be good enough to see action come August.   

Down

It’s 21 years since Down last ruled the roost in Ulster. Traditionalists and those who can recall the great Down teams of the 1960s will always feel that the county, no matter what shape they’re in, can land the spoils again.

The close season saw Jim McCorry take over from James McCartan, and the former Kilcoo boss masterminded a return to the league’s top flight. 

The Division 2 final saw Down lose out to Roscommon and while they can point to Brendan McArdle’s harsh sending off and an injury before the match to Mark Poland, the side did struggle for long parts in defence and midfield.

McCorry and his backroom team have things to work on before they take on Derry. When the sides met two years ago in the Ulster quarter-final, they produced an enjoyable, free-flowing contest. The jury is out on whether we’ll see a repeat of such fare on 7 June.

Fermanagh

Despite losing narrowly to Laois in the qualifiers last summer, Fermanagh made their exit with their heads held high. That positive vibe continued during this season’s league where they comfortably achieved promotion to Division 2.

Manager Pete McGrath is doing a good job and the experience of playing at Croke Park recently will stand to the team. 

After last year’s narrow loss to Antrim, revenge will be on the Fermanagh management's agenda when the sides renew rivalry at Brewster Park on 31 May.

McGrath’s outfit are poised to turn the tables and won’t be too fearful of having a cut at either Cavan or Monaghan after that.

Monaghan

Malachy O’Rourke’s side are the bookies' favourites to conquer all in Ulster this summer. Such confidence is due in no small part to the fact that they are on the perceived easier side of the draw in the province.

Getting to the Division 1 semi-final represented a decent spring and Conor McManus’s display against Dublin was a real highlight in a game where the Farney fell short by a point.

Under O’Rourke, Monaghan have won Ulster, gained successive league promotions and are no strangers to Croke Park. You may question the overall depth of their squad, but winning Ulster is well within their grasp this year.

Tyrone

This will be a defining season for Tyrone and Mickey Harte. The Ulster draw has not been kind to them  and I’m sure they would have wanted to avoid their bogey team, Donegal, in the opening round.

Relegation from Division 1, while not a total disaster, wasn’t the start to the year that Harte and his backroom team wanted. It’s five years since Tyrone last won Ulster and seven since Sam Maguire last visited the county. Other teams in football’s top tier appeared to have moved on, while the Red Hand look like they are stuck in a rut.

Positive news ahead of the Donegal game is that goalkeeper Niall Morgan and Seán Cavanagh look set to start the game after overcoming injury, while Joe McMahon has made himself available to the panel again after missing the league to concentrate on his studies.  

A difficult summer may be in store for Tyrone if they can't lay to rest their Donegal hoodoo. 

Championship Time