Tuesday 19 September 2017

Joe Brolly: Like Donegal in 2012, Tyrone are haunted by a defeat and it has made them focused and angry

Keen to atone for last summer, Tyrone's defensive set-up gives them the edge today

6 August 2016; Andy Moran of Mayo shakes hands with Seán Cavanagh of Tyrone after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
6 August 2016; Andy Moran of Mayo shakes hands with Seán Cavanagh of Tyrone after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

I watched Down in March this year in Celtic Park with a growing sense of bemusement. The previous weekend they had won (courtesy of an outrageous fluked goal) their first match in league and championship for two full years against Meath in Navan. Not a great Derry team, we knew, but still, a good contest was in the offing.

But for the first half an hour, Down looked like the Dubs against Westmeath, attacking in waves, defending voraciously and taking every opportunity with absolute conviction. The Derry ones' groans were louder than usual and for a support that have become connoisseurs of the groan, that is saying something. In the 28th minute, I looked at the scoreboard. Derry 0-0, Down 1-10. At the time we put it down to Derry's ineptitude, but in hindsight, it was the beginning of a Down revival.

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte poses for a portrait following a press conference at the Tyrone GAA Headquarters in Garvaghey, Co Tyrone. Photo: Sportsfile
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte poses for a portrait following a press conference at the Tyrone GAA Headquarters in Garvaghey, Co Tyrone. Photo: Sportsfile

A Down revival is a bit like the birth of a panda. You don't often see it, but when it happens, the world sits up and takes notice. Against Armagh, they looked to be under pressure for long stretches, but in the end controlled the game through their defensive counter-attacking game. No matter, it was only Armagh.

Against Monaghan, we saw something extraordinary, something that reminded us how Gaelic football should be played. Down played to extremes that day, with no thought of the consequences or of tomorrow. They smote down Monaghan with great vengeance and furious anger. Every ball was a funeral. Monaghan simply could not cope, as a group of players who most GAA folk wouldn't even have heard of ko'd them over 15 gruelling rounds.

It is the great myth peddled by sports psychologists that they can create this primal desire in a team or individual. When it happens, they take the credit, saying: "We had the group at the peak of their focus and determination today." When it doesn't, they have no comment to make, reminding me of Michael Spinks's manager Butch Lewis's immortal comment after his unbeaten fighter, the most tactically astute of his era, was knocked out in 90 seconds by Mike Tyson. "I don't know what the f*** happened out there."

This state of perfect concentration and readiness for war comes from something deeper, some primal desire we do not fully understand. Jim McGuinness, the most charismatic and fascinating exponent of the art of motivation that the game has seen, presided over a whirlwind in 2012 as Donegal blitzed all comers. Throughout that season, the team performed as though they were in a world of their own, oblivious to anything that happened on the outside.

Doing the best I can, it seems to me that what really drove them in 2012, what really burned inside them, was the realisation that they had let themselves down in the 2011 semi-final.

This happened to the Derry team I played on a number of times. In 1992, we were strong favourites to beat Donegal in the Ulster final and played fearfully and sporadically, distracted by the prospect of repeating Down's All-Ireland triumph of the previous year.

We had crushed Down in the 1992 Ulster semi-final after an epic battle, a primal roar of rage at what we believed they had taken from us in 1991. Come the final against Donegal, we couldn't find motivation. There were only a few points in it at the end, but in truth we were never really in it. As I left the house that morning to catch the bus at the bottom of the road, my father said to me: "I cannot see any way Donegal can beat us today, son."

That Ulster final of 1992 was where it all changed for us. Deep down, the squad was enraged after that game. The training in 1993 was incredibly physical and often bloody. Henry Downey, a disciplined version of Roy Keane, drove us on, tearing into every challenge like a stock car. Mickey Moran was the trainer and he would often blow up the savagely competitive in-house games short, leaving us seething with frustration. I realised years later he was maintaining our drive. He didn't want it all to dissipate on a pitch in north Derry.

It is the big issue for Down today. Unless they play with the same level of madness they exhibited against Monaghan, they will lose, and possibly heavily. Donegal had their defensive system in place against Tyrone but were unable to find the motivation to tackle. Their slackness was severely punished. I feel Down will not slump in this way. They are on an adventure, with nothing to lose and a burgeoning confidence. But they have a big strategic problem.

Their attack plan is heavily dependent on Connaire Harrison. With all the ferocity in the world, you still have to get the scores and for Down, he is their linchpin. When Down break, they do it very quickly and in waves. Their primary option is to kick long and diagonally to Harrison, their lone full-forward, who generally wins it, then either goes for his own score or lays it off to his galloping colleagues.

It is easy to illustrate this. In the ninth minute against Monaghan, he won a good ball and took an excellent point. In the 16th, another long ball was kicked in, he won it and laid it off to a team-mate who was dragged back, leaving Down with a tap-over free.

In the 21st, he won a long ball, took his man on and kicked another excellent point. A minute later, he won another kick-pass under pressure and drove through the heart of the defence for another good point. A minute later again, he won a long high ball to the square and was dragged down for another tap-over free.

The aerial bombardment continued, with long diagonal kick-passes going into him in the 32nd, 34th and 35th minutes, causing mayhem in the usually impeccably marshalled Monaghan defence. The last play of the half was another long high ball which he won. As he went to pull the trigger he was half-blocked and it went wide for a 45, which the Down 'keeper scored.

His last contribution was to win a long ball in the 49th minute. He got injured winning it and had to limp off. At the point he got injured the score was Down 1-13, Monaghan 0-9. Down's next score came on 74.30, leaving the final score Down 1-14 Monaghan 0-15. Down's attack was completely negated when he left the field.

Unlike Monaghan, whose sweeper was stationed in no man's land behind the number six, meaning he had to continually turn and run towards his own goal as the ball was kicked over him to Harrison, Tyrone's sweeper will be stationed on the square, double-marking Harrison.

Jim McGuinness's team never lost to Tyrone in championship. He wiped the floor tactically with Mickey Harte (left). Harte must have been perplexed, because although he played a sweeper, he was ineffective. It was only after Jim stepped down as Donegal manager that he revealed the reason: a sweeper is only effective if he sweeps at the feet of the full-forward. Otherwise, he is like a dog chasing aeroplanes.

So, after Rory Gallagher's first championship match against Tyrone, when Donegal ran through them, Harte took Jimmy's advice. Colm Cavanagh became a sweeper on the square and Tyrone quickly built the most formidable defensive structure in the country. So, Harrison will be double-marked today, and it's all down to Jimmy.

Tyrone have a deeper motivation than Down. They have been cringing since their humiliating non-performance against Mayo in last year's quarter-final.

They had 16 minutes to find an equaliser that day and couldn't do it, even as Mayo (who didn't even take a shot in that last 16 minutes) knelt in front of them and prayed.

This Tyrone group are haunted by that, as described by Seán Cavanagh after the semi-final. Similar to us in 1993 when we were left sickened by that game in '92, or Donegal in 2012 after their humiliation in Croke Park in 2011, they are angry and focused.

In the circumstances, I regret to announce there will be no baby panda born in Clones today.

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