Saturday 21 April 2018

Joe Brolly: Courage won't get you to the summit - as Tyrone will find out

Tyrone are best defensive team in football but they can't win big prizes by making forwards redundant

Man of Sperrin competitors tackle the brutal gradient of Benbradagh. Photo: Bruno Tamiozzo
Man of Sperrin competitors tackle the brutal gradient of Benbradagh. Photo: Bruno Tamiozzo

Joe Brolly

Last Sunday morning, Men of Sperrin answered the call. It was probably the toughest sportive ever conceived, starting with Benbradagh, the best-kept secret in world cycling. Paddy Heaney helped to organise it for Derry GAA, and Paddy is a student of pain, amongst other things.

As I drove up the Glenshane on Sunday morning at eight, the skies were black, the rain was hitting the car like locusts and a gale was blowing. When I got out at Owenbeg, 300 hardcore cyclists were huddling in the archway at the centre of excellence. Heaney greeted me. He was standing at the corner of the wall, exuding the sort of aura that heavyweight fighters exude at the weigh-in. "Weather could be worse," I said. Paddy laughed aloud at that.

There were so many familiar faces, Derry to the core. All-Ireland winners, Lavey, Slaughtneil, Bellaghy, Dungiven. Tough cyclists. Students of pain. We began by spinning through Dungiven, then almost immediately we were on the monster, nicknamed 'Big Ben'. The road up Benbradagh is rarely used. Heaney had to get the farmers who have sheep up there to open their gates so we could continue on over the top. Sheep are the only animals that live up there.

The boys who didn't know the mountain were soon in trouble. It starts off steep and steadily gets worse. Then, with 500 metres to go, the gradient goes to 27 per cent and the front wheel of the bike is rearing up like a bronco. If you stop you're done. With the rain and driving wind the bike wanted to sway and stagger.

The key is a steady rhythm in the right gear. The trick is to shut out the world and let man and bike become one. Over the wee bridge near the top it was mayhem. Bodies all over the road. A man wearing a Tyrone cycling vest was vomiting at the verge. "Up Derry," I roared, " f**k Tyrone." Bikes were lying in the ditch, men heaving for air. Someone took a photograph of it and tweeted it under the caption 'Carnage'. "Tyrone men dropping like flies," I tweeted. "They'll be doing the same on Sunday," said a Donegal man.

They may be many things this Tyrone team. Footballing diazepam. Tick. Cynicism as an art form. Tick. Enraging. Tick. But one thing they are not is lacking in courage. No. Tyrone men do not drop like flies. And today, they will not be doing so either.

I stopped in Kee's Hotel in Ballybofey for a coffee recently on the way to a game and the young barman stood chatting about football. "What has happened Derry?" he said. "No fight in them at all, it's embarrassing Joe. They have no heart." "Say what you mean, kiddo," I said.

"Sorry Joe," he said, "I didn't mean to offend you, I'm just saying what everyone up here is." We went on to talk about the game this Sunday. He was worried. His point was that Tyrone are a powerful, hard-hitting, proud group and he was worried about how Donegal's young players will stand up to that.

A relieved Joe Brolly feels at peace on his descent. Photo: Bruno Tamiozzo
A relieved Joe Brolly feels at peace on his descent. Photo: Bruno Tamiozzo

It is clear that both teams have gone in different directions since last July. In one of the dullest Ulster finals in living (or dead) memory, both teams waited until the last 10 minutes before making tentative efforts to win the game with long-range potshots and frees. Tyrone's went over. Donegal's didn't. Mickey Harte said it was a great game so there is nothing more to be said on the subject.

Tyrone followed that up with the dullest, most defensive, most fearful ever performance by a Tyrone team in Croke Park. Against a Mayo team crying out to be beaten, they couldn't manage a single point in the last 16 minutes, which seemed an eternity for neutrals. During that same 16 minutes, Mayo did not even get a shot off. Once again, Tyrone tried their patented 'defend with 14 men for 60 minutes, then try to win it with long-range potshots' system. Only this time, the potshots didn't go over, so they lost without ever committing to the attack. Eamonn Coleman is dead 10 years this week. "Go at them boys," he used to roar in the dressing room. "See what they're made of."

Donegal have spent the league working on just that. Like Monaghan, they are learning to commit to the attack, finding a balance between defence and attack that enthuses the players and supporters, and means you learn how to go out and win games rather than hope the opposition will lose them.

By contrast, Tyrone have remained stuck in the dullest rut, keeping things tight at the back at all costs. The system has destroyed initiative. Kerry - who are also finally getting the balance right - cut them to pieces in the league. As did Donegal. They were six up against the Dubs and instead of driving the nails into them, they retreated into their defensive dullness. A delighted and relieved Dublin banged off six scores and got the draw. The Tyrone team of the noughties would have beaten the Dubs by 15.

The great Philip Jordan has bemoaned Tyrone's defensive obsession for years, pointing out that a succession of excellent forwards have been wasted in the process. But management hasn't yielded. Better to be safe and lose by one or two. Three weeks ago, they were unbelievably cautious against a Derry team that has no confidence, no structure, and no system. I wasn't even depressed watching it, since depression is an emotion and the game didn't inspire emotion. Tyrone won a lot of frees in the first half to get a good lead. Their full-forward line (Cavanagh, Donnelly and Bradley) had nil influence as the ball was never kicked in, and eventually they all drifted back into their familiar defensive positions.

Some statistics illustrate the point. In their last five championship games against Donegal, Tyrone have scored only one goal. In those five games, their inside line have scored a total of 1-12 from play, an average of three points per game. They got only two points from play against Donegal in the league. Peter Harte is Tyrone's top scorer in league and championship this year. He has managed a grand total of 1-4 from play. Tyrone have half-a-dozen really exciting young forwards who have been brought in for a while and then discarded when they cannot perform the miracles required. They come into the team, get absorbed into the dull defensive collective, and eventually become demoralised and demotivated.

They remain the most formidable defensive team in the game. But in Gaelic football there is no end-of-year award for best defensive team. If Donegal commit to the attack, they will beat them. Because Tyrone won't.

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