Opening up will help Ulster counties compete believes Kernan
FORMER Armagh defender Aaron Kernan believes the recognition from Ulster counties that they had “gone too far” in pursuit of defensive excellence will aid their chances on the All-Ireland stage this year.
The eir Sport pundit has already had a live look at most of what are expected to be the key protagonists in the battle for the Anglo Celt Cup, which Tyrone are favourites to retain for the third year running.
Only the Armagh side that he broke into on their 2004-06 run has won three consecutive titles since the great Down team of 1959-61.
With the exception of a Fermanagh side that has gone into its shell, almost everyone else has come out of theirs this spring in keeping with the trend laid down over the last two years by Dublin, Mayo and Kerry.
While the fear of being left defensively exposed is likely to still exist this summer, which could lead teams not to play as expansively in the Ulster Championship as they have been in the League, Kernan believes a front-foot approach is the only way anyone from the province will make an impact on the All-Ireland series.
“I see a change in approach from them all, which is great.
“The calibre of football to express themselves within Ulster isn't in doubt. I think the problem within Ulster is everybody is afraid of being that team that leaves themselves exposed at the back. We're nearly all too cagey.
”What sort of happened in Ulster was that teams were saying ‘but they're going to play defensive, we can't go all-out attack here and push up on them'. That's what Ulster developed into.
“So the fact we saw Tyrone, Monaghan, Donegal pushing out in Division One, having the confidence to have a go, was great.
“It's no coincidence that Cavan got promoted doing the same thing, Armagh got promoted doing the same thing. It builds a bit more confidence within the players if they're allowed to go and express themselves, and trust themselves a wee bit more.
“I know Donegal ended up conceding too many scores but at times they played some super football, particularly that night against Dublin in Croke Park.
“I don't think anyone from Ulster's going to win the All-Ireland but I think we're starting to see a change of mindset, and we'll have a more competitive Ulster Championship than what we had 12 months ago.
“Tyrone just sauntered through last year. I don't think you'll see that this year. I think you'll see the margin of victory throughout the whole Ulster series will be a lot closer than it was a year ago. That's great because that carries on.
“Everything seems to go in cycles in GAA and hopefully this is the start of a cycle where teams are expressing themselves a bit more within Ulster.”
Speaking last week, Mayo forward Andy Moran said that in his mind, the secret to beating Dublin in a big game will be to break the 20-point barrier.
The only two games of real significance they've lost in the last five years were the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final in which Donegal hit 3-14, and last year's National League final, where Kerry's 0-20 was enough to scrape a one-point victory.
Yet when Ulster's top two went in against Jim Gavin's side last year, their emphasis was on constrain and counter. The result was a 10-point loss for Monaghan and a 12-point reverse for Tyrone.
“There's a fine balance that needs to be struck,” says Kernan.
“Across the board within Ulster, we became too fixated with not conceding and we forgot about scoring.
“I get this whole thing that people say ‘this is us setting up offensively', but I don't buy it. Your main focus is get back, everyone get your position, get your shape and if we win the ball back, then we'll all break.
“It has been shown that to go and be ultimately successful in Croke Park and to compete at All-Ireland level, you need to have your half-forward presence as well as your inside presence. One man isolated up isn't going to do it.
“Everyone says they're copying Jimmy McGuinness but you have to remember that the All-Ireland he won, he had Colm McFadden – who ran Karl Lacey very close for Footballer of the Year – and Michael Murphy standing inside for long, direct ball. They killed that final off within 15 minutes.
“In 2011 he had a load of men back and left McFadden isolated, but 2012 when they won the All-Ireland, he didn't.
“People just went too far in terms of what they were doing not to concede. Thankfully everyone across the board seems to be placing a wee bit more faith and trust in their setups that they're capable of going out and beating anybody on any given day, which is great to see.
“You want your own county to do well but it stung as an Ulster person to see us nearly being sniggered at and laughed at about how humiliating once we got to Croke Park as a province. Thankfully everyone seems to be reacting the right way so far this year.”