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Ulster teams can lift game to new level

By Joe Kernan

At the outset of the Ulster Senior Football Championship hope springs eternal. Optimism abounds as teams set out in the quest for a title that for some is a regular achievement and for others an elusive goal.

Perhaps that is the beauty of the competition. And particularly so this year as perceived underdogs have rather more cause than usual for aspiring to more noble ambitions because of recent trends in the Allianz League and the hint of vulnerability with which the more fancied sides are afflicted.

When the draw was made way back last October, the spark was lit for a competition that will explode into fiery action on Sunday when Cavan host Donegal and conclude on the third Sunday in July.

The Championship invariably throws up its quota of excitement, skill and controversy.

Not for nothing indeed is the Ulster football series generally regarded as the most competitive and compelling on the overall fixtures calendar.

Yet it is essential that this year’s Championship ticks certain boxes if the actual image of the GAA is to be enhanced.

In recent years, controversy has intervened — remember Derry manager John Brennan’s post-final analysis last year? — and now the Ulster Council and the Association as a whole will hope that the northern flagship competition can be staged without a hitch.

There are four key areas which will come under the closest scrutiny from a discerning public and an even more inquisitive media — quality, discipline, refereeing and tactics.

1. Quality. Those who believe that every Championship match will be an absolute humdinger are sadly mistaken. This is more myth than anything, the truth being that it is well into any Championship series before the cream starts coming to the top.

While last year’s Ulster opener between Donegal and Antrim was a particularly turgid affair, it did not necessarily set the tone for a Championship that went on to produce some flashes of brilliance and marked flair.

I think that fans will have to be patient in their wait to see quality matches. They are certainly not going to get this in the opening weeks although of course we all would wish the case were otherwise.

Opening round games tend to be cagey, cautious affairs with the fear of losing rather than the carrot of winning determining the use of tactics and the emphasis on safety-first. Maybe I am wrong but I fear that fans will have to wait until the Championship leaves its infancy before they see a higher standard of fare.

2. Discipline. This is one area in which the GAA simply cannot afford to lose face this summer. Too much negativity has been engendered since the start of the year and the Association has on a few occasions tried to defend what looked to be the indefensible.

True discipline will only be achieved if there is a strong measure of responsibility displayed by players. This must be based on respect for opponents, their managers and mentors.

I sincerely hope we don’t sink into the gutter and make the Championship memorable for all the wrong reasons.

The GAA has a strong product and is keen to cherish it but this can only be done with the full co-operation of its elite battalion of players and they are the county teams who will be doing their best to make it a summer to remember for themselves and their followers — and all within the laws of the game.

Over the course of the past two summers the GAA has been held up to ridicule because of breaches of discipline — let’s hope this is not the case over the coming weeks.

And let’s hope too that the disgusting verbals, feigning injury, goading opponents and indulging in cynical acts will be conspicuous by their absence.

3. Refereeing. Our whistlers will be in the spotlight as never before following the high-profile incidents which have blighted the Association since the start of the year. They will be under pressure to give top-class performances but should be allowed a little margin for human error.

They should also make sure to establish a better rapport with the players, make decisions with conviction, offer a quiet word to a player who looks as if he might offend repeatedly and hold hands up when they make a mistake.

With referees gagged in terms of commenting afterwards, it is very difficult to obtain formal clarification on just how some decisions are arrived at.

I think that referees should be allowed to express themselves more off the field — that way, we might all end up singing from the same hymn sheet.

4. Tactics. The preoccupation with a blanket defence which some teams are exhibiting is certainly not helping them to win friends and influence people. Quite the opposite in fact — it’s a real turn-off.

Donegal were castigated last year although you would have to say that their manager Jim McGuinness had the last laugh when his side won the Ulster title and reached the All-Ireland semi-finals only to fall narrowly to Dublin, 0-8 to 0-6. It was not pretty but it was pretty effective and there is no guarantee that McGuinness will dispense with that strategy this time round.

I would like to think that all teams will adopt a more adventurous approach with the aim of getting the ball in early to a batch of forwards whom I earnestly believe to be up there among the very elite.

Just where would you get better than Owen Mulligan, Paddy Bradley, Jamie Clarke, Colm McFadden, Seamus Quigley, Conor McManus, Mark Poland, Paddy Cunningham or Jack Brady?

It’s time for these players to be given their head, I say, and let the Championship blossom.

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