GAA Football

Lost in transition: Where does Ulster football stand?

Whoever emerges as champions from the northern province will face the greatest test of their standing in two weeks' time when they take on Kerry. With the Kingdom fancied to succeed Dublin as the dominant force, Cahair O'Kane spoke to Aaron Kernan, Andy Moran and Tomás Ó Sé about where exactly Ulster football stands...

WHAT Joe Public discerned from Jim McGuinness two weeks ago was that it was rich of him, of all people, to bemoan the standard of defending in Monaghan’s win over Armagh.

Take it from whichever strand you like – that it was better than looking at the disfigurement his tactics caused football, that the massed defence is what has inadvertently killed the art of defending, or that the sport has moved on and he was the one now left behind.

They’re all valid and they’re all invalid. His comments might not have been popular but they might not have been wrong either.

We’ve seen that the massed defences no longer work against the better teams in Croke Park, but would any team defending the way we saw in the two Ulster semi-finals make a dent in the All-Ireland series?

“I know we get a chip on our shoulder when southern media brand us for a particular style of football, but if we hand-on-heart take a step back and look at what we’ve done and the style of football we’ve tried to play in the province this last 10 years, we have no-one to blame but ourselves for being in the position we’re in,” says former Armagh star Aaron Kernan, bluntly.

“We’re all to blame for it. We have to accept responsibility for it. Players, management, county boards, we’ve all been happy enough to do what we’ve done.”

What’s the system that stifles Kerry? At a rate of 21 goals and 132 points, an average of 3-19 a game, there’s no easy answer.

Not only in two weeks’ time, but over the next decade. The wrinkles are forming on Dublin’s decade of dominance but on the back of five successive All-Ireland minor titles from 2014 to ’18, a frighteningly young Kerry have barged their way to the front of the queue.

Dublin’s persistent quality and structures will keep them at the top-end of football until they respawn another winning generation. That might not take all that long.

The seams of Mayo’s transition will be more greatly tested by Dublin in the semi-final, and moreso again whenever Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor go. They have more to prove.

But what of Ulster?

Donegal and Tyrone have been talked up but have failed to deliver on the big stage. Monaghan’s big chance was 2018. Armagh take a step back for every two forward.

Derry have been in five of the last six Ulster minor finals, winning three. That their All-Ireland success two weeks ago was it was the province’s first since 2010 is telling.

That’s the longest Ulster has had to wait for an All-Ireland minor title since the chasm between Armagh in 1949 and Derry in 1965.

Whether it’s Tyrone or Monaghan who emerge, how do they find a way into the light?

“Ulster football is definitely transitioning,” says former Mayo forward Moran, who like Kernan believes Kerry will win Sam.

“I always feel that ye are the starters of something. The way ye implement the ‘keeper at the minute is very different to the rest of the country, and it takes the rest a while to cop on to the way Morgan, Beggan and Patton are playing football, which is transformative.”

The most precious commodity in a game that’s increasingly rigged for forwards is a man-marking specialist. The Mayo team that Moran played on was loaded with them, and it was why they could always trouble Dublin.

“Ricey McMenamin, Conor Gormley, Philip Jordan and these guys don’t come around too often. The Armagh team of ’02, everyone talks about McGeeney’s leadership but look at what was around him, you had the two McNultys, Francie Bellew,” says the former Footballer of the Year.

“Donegal had multiple players back but they also had Neil McGee, one of the best full-backs in the game, generational players in Lacey and Cassidy, and Eamon McGee who never won an Allstar but I’d rate as high as any of them.

“Do Donegal, Tyrone, Armagh have those players right now? Absolutely not, but it’s about developing and getting to the stage where these players come through to supplement the Michael Langans and Darren McCurrys and Rian O’Neills of the world.”

One of Jim McGuinness’ former team-mates, Brendan Devenney, has been vocal in recent years about the difficulty shaking the long-Covid effects of defensive football.
Devenney’s argument has long been that a generation growing up swaddled in the blanket has stunted the development of one-to-one defenders. Recent months seem to have proven him right.

For a decade, club football in the northern province walked behind its county scene down the unwieldy path that McGuinness tarmacked.

“The absolute fundamental basics that has made football what it has been, I don’t know how much work has been done on those,” says Aaron Kernan.

“There’s a lot of tactics, a lot of complication of the basics. For me, if you want to get boys defending like Tony Scullion or Kieran McKeever or Andy Mallon or Ryan McMenamin, you need to start identifying those boys in development squads and clubs, and go back to real basics in terms of coaching - attacking your man, show him to his weak side, wait for your chance to pounce and get a hand in.

“Players are getting exposed in one-on-one situations and those fundamental basics need to be coached again to give them a chance.

“The absolute out-and-out defending, where men backed themselves in 40 yards of space one-on-one, those men aren’t about in any county. The way football’s gone, it’s something every county will need to focus on.”

Kerry’s great secret in jumping the queue has been never to abandon their principles. There will be times, like the 1990s or the 2010s, when they don’t produce the best footballers in Ireland. Those are tough cycles in a land of winners.

But when they sort things out and they bring through a generation like we’re seeing now, theirs is a generation of thoroughbreds, better schooled in the art of rapid attacking football than anyone else.

“The basic principle in Kerry is to move the ball as quickly as you can, and if you can kick it, then kick it,” says Tomás Ó Sé.

“The game’s come full circle. You can say Kerry stuck to their values – they always try to play football. Club football in Kerry is always played that way.

“The county lads play in that type of football all year, that’s the game they want to play.”

He contrasts that against Tyrone, whom he feels “lost their identity a bit” towards the tail-end of Mickey Harte’s reign as they moved away from the manic pressing that first knocked Kerry off-course in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final.

“It was the savage workrate between the two 65s that defined them in terms of their defending – unbelievable workrate.

“They evolved the game and Donegal did the same, and it became more about collective defending.

“I like Ulster football at the moment. Teams are defending in numbers but it’s the way they’re attacking. It’s a high-intensity game but it’s great to watch,” said the Kerry legend.

Perhaps Jimmy had a point. The passiveness we saw in the two Ulster semi-finals was the same passiveness that Tyrone were punished for in Killarney when they conceded six goals in the league.

Proving that a decade of defending hasn’t left Ulster’s standard-bearers out of shape for football’s new skin is the big challenge for whoever earns the right to face Kerry.

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