Sunday 25 September 2016

Joe Brolly: Tyrone's plan is to defend and hope for the best - that won't be enough against Donegal

McGuinness methodology has given Donegal the upper hand over Tyrone, writes Joe Brolly

Published 17/05/2015 | 00:00

Neil McGee, Donegal, and Peter Harte, Tyrone, test the strength the strength of each others jerseys
Neil McGee, Donegal, and Peter Harte, Tyrone, test the strength the strength of each others jerseys

A few weeks ago, I was chatting to one of the Tyrone players and casually asked him how they'd do against Donegal in today's game. He told me: "We're f***d Joe."

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When Jimmy McGuinness took over in Donegal, Tyrone had been the big dog in Ulster for years and were feared by a generation of Donegal players. Jim set out to smash them. In that first meeting in the 2011 Ulster championship, Tyrone started with their habitual swagger.

Donegal, meanwhile, were hesitant. Jimmy had promised his players the game plan would work and somewhere during that game the chemistry of football was utterly transformed. Tyrone floundered against Jimmy's bewildering scheme. A terrible beauty was born.

Daniel Coyle is the best-selling author of The Talent Code, Lance Armstrong's War and The Little Book of Talent. In his New York Times column last August, he wrote: "I recently learned of Jim McGuinness, coach of Ireland's County Donegal's absurdly over-accomplished Gaelic football team, who avoids the 'practice' word and who, instead, talks about his team's 'rehearsals'. I love that.

McGuinness' team doesn't aim to 'practice' in some general way - they rehearse specific plays over and over, so that they can hit their marks with timing and precision, exactly as an actor or musician might. Exactness is the goal; so 'rehearsal' is the right word."

As Jimmy has said to me on a number of occasions in the past five years, "the best system wins." Which is Tyrone's big problem. Since 2011, Donegal have owned Tyrone. In their three Ulster championship meetings since, they might as well have put dog collars on the Tyrone men and led them around the pitch. The winning margins haven't been large, but Donegal specialise in two-point thrashings. Now, it is Tyrone who live in dread of Donegal.

Donegal’s Michael Murphy is surrounded by Tyrone players (l-r) Niall McKenna, Danny McBride, Aidan McCrory, Tiernan McCann and Conor Clarke during their McKenna Cup match in Letterkenny Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE
Donegal’s Michael Murphy is surrounded by Tyrone players (l-r) Niall McKenna, Danny McBride, Aidan McCrory, Tiernan McCann and Conor Clarke during their McKenna Cup match in Letterkenny Stephen McCarthy/SPORTSFILE

Tyrone's ultra-defensive strategy in the league was developed with today's game in mind. There is one slight problem: It doesn't work. Tyrone played seven league games, winning just one. Their defensive system worked well, sickening a series of teams including Mayo, Derry and Dublin. But they only scored 85 points, an average of 12 points per game, the lowest of all the teams in the top three divisions.

Jimmy McGuinness made the point recently that Tyrone would have to come up with something new today or they would lose. The fearsome running game that had made Tyrone into the country's dominant team during the noughties has proved useless against Donegal's system. But they are trapped with this.

They do not kick the ball. They do not play with target men. They hand-pass and solo run.

Their plan is to defend today and hope for the best. They are, if you like, leaving it in the lap of the gods.

Surviving on the ropes is not a game winning strategy. Mayweather does it at times, only so he can tire and confuse his opponent before snapping his head back with lightning counters. Donegal do it, but for them also, it is part of a game-winning strategy.

So, they soaked up the Dubs in the first quarter of last year's semi-final, drawing them on and sapping their mental energy. Then, they struck, with the absolute precision that comes from endless rehearsal.

Joe Brolly has rarely deviated from anything but expressions of awe for Donegal manager Jim McGuinness, but his team must take some responsibility for games like the tempestuous league clash against Tyrone in Omagh, a game where you felt both teams deserved one another
Joe Brolly has rarely deviated from anything but expressions of awe for Donegal manager Jim McGuinness, but his team must take some responsibility for games like the tempestuous league clash against Tyrone in Omagh, a game where you felt both teams deserved one another

Perhaps the best recent example is their first round game last year against Derry. Donegal came into that fresh from a mauling in the Division Two final by Monaghan. Their most recent championship game had been an absolute humiliation at the hands of Mayo. There was a feeling abroad that they were finished. Derry believed it and played a full-on blanket defence from the throw in. Donegal spent the first half draining our confidence. They methodically stifled Derry's early enthusiasm and made scores virtually impossible to come by.

At half time, we were two points up, 0-6 to 0-4, but the game was over. Like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense we were already dead, we just didn't know it yet.

At the throw-in for the second half, Donegal suddenly came off the ropes and in a seven-minute blitz of shock and awe, they ended the game. We played on gamely, not too sure of how to break them down and getting nowhere in particular. We even tagged on some consolation scores. The final score looked okay at 1-11 to 0-11. In truth, it was a three point thrashing.

The difference between Donegal and Tyrone is that for Donegal, the defensive strategy is only one part of the game winning plan. This is seen to best effect in their cold, systematic annihilation of the Dubs last August. At each turnover or breakaway, they get into position, like actors on a stage.

When Colm McFadden stepped inside and ruthlessly posted the third goal, it was only the 46th minute and the game was dead. That goal is a good example of their craft. Durcan sees Murphy coming to the middle and kicks long to him. He flicks it on to the runner, in this case Neil Gallagher, who immediately transfers the ball to the onrushing McNialis. McNialis carries the ball through. McFadden splits left.

Now the covering defenders are sprinting with their backs towards their own goal, unable to get themselves into a good position.

McNialis gives it left to McFadden. He dummies to his left and slips it to the net with his right. Shortly before that, McFadden scored a fisted point that was virtually identical in its creation. In Coyle's language, it is a specific play that has been rehearsed over and over, so Donegal can hit their marks with timing and precision. There are variables, but they are cut to a minimum.

McFadden might miss the goal chance, but he gets the ball close in with the defender running across to him. And he has rehearsed this move until it has become second nature. It is, if you like, a habit, engrained and natural. The chances of missing are reduced to the minimum.

Fr Gerard McAleer was the tactical visionary behind Mickey Harte's All-Ireland winning minor teams and the 2003-2005 seniors. He has a fascinating football brain. When he was Dean of Discipline at my alma mater, St Pat's Armagh, he said to me once: "Joseph, people think that football is an art, when in truth it is a science. Not everything should be left in the lap of the gods." With that, he nodded, tapped his blackjack in his hand and continued on his patrol of the corridors.

The gods are an unreliable lot. As Tyrone are about to discover.

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