Eugene McGee: Honeymoon period over for McNulty
NOT too long ago – July 2006, to be exact – Laois dethroned the then All-Ireland champions Tyrone in a qualifier on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon in Portlaoise.
Tyrone, of course, went on to win Sam maguire for the third time in five years in 2008, but over the past few years, they have been slipping slightly in the inter-county rankings. And Laois have really been on the slide since that famous success over the Red Hands nearly five years ago.
The strange thing is that Tyrone had many more players from that game involved in Saturday night’s Division 2 league clash than the midlanders, when it was far from All- Ireland glory we were thinking about in Portlaoise.
This was a different animal altogether, particularly for Tyrone, who got off to a bad start in the league with two defeats, but have set about saving the remnants of their football empire with a couple of wins.
The game was seen as a defining encounter for Tyrone. Defeat would leave them in danger of heading for Division 3, while victory could point them towards promotion to Division 1.
That scenario definitely instilled a greater urgency in the Tyrone players, as they proceeded to totally dominate the first half and they led at the break by 1-7 to 0-3, with Laois having managed only one point from play.
Looking down at the action unfold under the Portlaoise lights was a surreal experience at times. Sure, we recognised some of the greatest players of the past decade lining out for Tyrone – Sean Cavanagh, Stephen O’Neill, Owen Mulligan, Brian McGuigan, Conor Gormley and several others – but somehow it did not seem to be the real thing.
Many of the great stars of their triple All- Ireland successes looked very ordinary indeed, and much of their work was laboured in a way we would never have expected.
Ten All-Ireland winners started the game for Tyrone and, if they were playing at even half the power of their glory days, Laois would have been beaten out of sight long before half-time.
They say form is temporary and class is permanent, and that certainly applied to Tyrone in this clash. Several of their great players showed many of their undoubted talents, particularly McGuigan, an energetic Mulligan, Kevin Hughes and Gormley. So, all told, there were enough reminders of past achievements to leave Mickey Harte believing that the Tyrone show is not over just yet.
Of course, the fundamental tactical approaches which brought Tyrone three All- Irelands have not changed very much, nor will they, one suspects, as long as Harte is in charge. So it was astonishing to observe how naive the Laois players were in coping with this Tyrone template.
As always, as soon as the ball was sent into the Tyrone half by Laois, between eight and 10 Tyrone players appeared from nowhere to totally crowd out the Laois forwards and frustrate their timid attempts at scoring.
This was child's play for the Ulster kingpins and explains why Laois, with all their talented forwards, only managed to score two points in the opening 34 minutes.
Surely, Laois players and management know how Tyrone defend by now and should be ready to deal with this crowding tactic? But no, instead Laois played right into the well-practised Tyrone grinding machine by carrying the ball via short passes into the visitors’ backline with disastrous consequences.
Tyrone have always stuck with this defensive template – and they are right. Of course, playing Laois on a wet, cold, windy night in Portlaoise in mid-March is totally different to playing one of the top five county teams in Croke Park on a hot day in August, and this is at the core of Tyrone’s future prospects.
Super-fit opponents, brave enough to counter attack at speed, will pose very different problems for the Tyrone backs and reinforcements, as Dublin showed ruthlessly last year.
But Tyrone have other ammunition in their locker and, on Saturday, their use of long footpassing was significant, even in the bad conditions. It was two such successive kicks that created the fisted goal by Colm Cavanagh in the 15th minute which turned out to be the pivotal score of this game.
Tyrone were also quite prepared to foul in order to stop Laois attacking moves early on, thus allowing reinforcements to funnel back into defence. In the second half, no doubt inspired by their manager Justin McNulty’s observations at half-time, the Laois players did get stuck into their opponents and doubled their score within 10 minutes.
The great play of John O’Loughlin, surely one of the best young footballers around, posed some problems for the Tyrone backline as the ball was moved more swiftly into the forwards. At the end of the third quarter the visitors had only managed two points from frees, while Laois had added five to their tally. However, the early goal from the visitors turned out to be crucial to the outcome.
Inevitably, as a battle-hardened team, Tyrone were well able to weather the Laois mini-storm and finished the stronger in the final 10 minutes.
Laois’ honeymoon with McNulty is now over following defeats to Kildare and Tyrone in the space of a week, but they seem to have an enterprising set of players, aided by a nearnew backline, and with O’Loughlin and Padraig Clancy around the middle of the field, they can only get better.
On Saturday, however, Tyrone’s cuteness, developed over the past 10 years, was far too much for Laois.