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Joe Kernan: Down show that Ulster is still on the up

The Ulster influence has been pronounced at the semi-final stage of the All Ireland Senior Football Championship for the past decade.

While Tyrone and Armagh have perhaps been the more conspicuous sides in this context, Fermanagh made a big breakthrough in 2004 when they were only beaten by Mayo after a replay.

Now it’s Down’s turn to carry the flag for the province in the last four, thus embellishing Ulster’s involvement in the penultimate segment of the competition.

This certainly gives the lie to the popular theory that football in the province is in decline and that we are in a transitional period.

Certainly, the sheen has gone off the overall standard here but is this not the case in every other province? Let’s be honest, some of the championship matches throughout the country over the course of the summer have been drab affairs, providing a low standard of entertainment.

Those who would decry the fare on offer in Ulster would do well to consider a Leinster Championship that will be best remembered for the five goals that Dublin got against Meath and the faux pax made by referee Martin Sludden that ultimately deprived Louth of their first title in 53 years.

And in Munster, where crowds appeared to be down, Kerry triumphed over Cork in a provincial final replay but several other fixtures failed to ignite public interest.

Sligo’s emergence illuminated the Connacht Championship and their wins over Mayo and Galway in particular thrust them into the frame as possible All Ireland contenders at one stage.

But the savage 3-20 to 0-10 mauling they endured at the hands of Down provided a telling commentary on their limitations and also offered a broad hint of the standard that currently prevails in Connacht.

The fact that the Sam Maguire Cup came to Ulster on four occasions between 2002 and 2008 appears to have made some people here adopt a rather blasé approach to success — and that’s extremely dangerous.

Teams should always be challenging themselves to do better and that’s why it is encouraging to see a Down side that adheres to an attacking policy on the cusp of an appearance in the All Ireland final.

Travelling through Down this week I noticed that the red and black flags are on display just about everywhere and that the feelgood factor has clearly permeated society there.

This can be reflected in many ways. One of the most telling came at the weekend when the 1994 Down All Ireland winning side met the 2002 Armagh All Ireland winning team in a special charity match at Ballyholland when the proceeds were in aid of the Southern Area Hospice.

Because of the fanatical interest in Down’s bid to reach the All Ireland final, a crowd of 2,000-plus attended and a five –figure sum was raised for the Hospice.

This would not have been possible had James McCartan and his men not prepared the landscape for this worthy exercise through their consistency to

date. And consistency is something that McCartan will be looking for from his players on Sunday against Kieran McGeeney’s ambitious Kildare side who now appear to be the favourites in the eyes of many people to capture ‘Sam’.

Dublin discovered to their cost in the last few minutes against Cork at the weekend that you simply cannot lower your concentration nor lapse into carelessness — the penalty for it can be extremely high.

He has honed a special balance within his side, physicality and artistry merging in a potent blend that has served to carry the side thus far.

Kildare have been in the All Ireland quarter-finals in each of the past two years but now that they have progressed to the next stage, their focus is clearly on an appearance in the All Ireland final.

But they are fully aware of the ‘Ulster factor’. Teams from the province at various levels — don’t forget St Gall’s won the All Ireland Club title in March — have proved superb ambassadors at Headquarters lately, the most recent being the Tyrone side that overcame Mayo in last weekend’s Minor semi-final.

Chances are that Down will ensure that this trend is continued — but it just may require a replay before they achieve the final they crave.

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