Monday 21 October 2019

Joe Brolly: Mickey Harte continues to hold Tyrone back

‘Mickey Harte’s autocratic approach to management has been unimaginative and reactive’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
‘Mickey Harte’s autocratic approach to management has been unimaginative and reactive’. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Mickey Harte's unforgivable error was not to dump Tyrone's zonal defensive system after last year's semi-final. Stubbornness can be a virtue but not when it flies in the face of logic. Failing to learn the lessons from that day puts him into the category of climate change deniers.

When he finally made the decision to trust the players and move to a man-to-man set-up with a single sweeper, this was not by choice. He had seen it work in the last 10 minutes against Dublin in Healy Park, and again in the last 20 minutes against Donegal in Ballybofey, when they were four down and facing defeat. It was a measure born of panic. The four weeks this gave his team to prepare for a shot at the title was as realistic as Rocky Balboa taking the heavyweight champion the distance after a month drinking raw eggs and running up steps.

In the event, Tyrone almost lost to Monaghan (saved by a lucky goal against the run of play, and a stupid shot for a point by Rory Beggan at the death) and arrived clueless and hopeless into Croke Park last Sunday. The Dubs seemed a little distracted in the first quarter by the inevitability of the four in-a-row, but when they finally decided to strike, the game was over within minutes. Watching the game over again last week underlined just how badly prepared Tyrone were.

The Dubs have been playing real football throughout Jim Gavin's reign, so they have built up superb chemistry. While they have been working on creative, inventive football in their sessions, Tyrone have been locked into a regimented system for five years now where most of the forwards and creative players are performing defensive duties, then breaking forward from inside their own 45 when they win possession.

For the Monaghan game, they looked like a team that had only been together a week (which, in a way, was true). Last Sunday they looked like a team that had only been together for a month (which, in a way, was also true). So, after farting about in the first quarter, Dublin put on the burners and the game was over before half-time. It takes at least a year to develop creative forward play. In Dublin's case, it took them around four years to get to the stage they are at now.

This can be readily illustrated in the statistics. Here are Dublin's second-half conversion rates (chances to scores) in their last four All-Ireland finals (courtesy of James Robinson, who never fouls):

2015: 27 per cent (0-4 from 15 chances)

2016 (draw): 33 per cent (0-5 from 15 chances)

2016 (replay): 46 per cent (1-5 from 13 chances)

2017: 75 per cent (0-12 from 16 chances)

2018: 72 per cent (0-10 from 14 chances)

You can see that in the space of three years (2015-2017), they have gone from a conversion rate of 27 per cent to 75 per cent, then maintained that. The point is that attacking chemistry cannot be developed overnight. It takes years.

The 2018 Dublin team's running on and off the ball, their kick-passing and hand-passing, their finishing and their selflessness are all products of a huge amount of creative thinking and work at training. Their constant question is: "How do we create and take scores?". With creative thinking at the heart of their philosophy, they have been able to make zonal defensive systems redundant (destroying Monaghan and Tyrone in the 2017 All-Ireland series, and Galway in the 2018 semi-final) and are at this stage as close to a complete team as human affairs allow.

An example of this is their ability to turn a kick-out won into a score. Last Sunday, they scored 2-9 from kick-outs won. Tyrone scored 0-6. Their devastating kick-out press is a classic example of imaginative thinking. Its point is to hem the opposition in and prevent them from deciding where the kick-out goes. The philosophy behind it, however, is to set traps for the opposition and enable the Dubs to score. For Niall Morgan's first bad kick-out last Sunday, Con O'Callaghan stood his ground on the 30, tempting Morgan to kick it over him. When it was turned over, O'Callaghan was free and able to walk through.

The penalty goal that followed killed the game and demoralised Tyrone's supporters and players. The way they deal with opposing kick-outs is consistent with their overall philosophy to play ambitious, adventurous football where players express themselves. This is similar to Mayo and explains why Mayo have always been so close to them.

Tyrone looked awkward and unsure of themselves, because they were unprepared. They got no underdog bounce because to bounce, the underdog has to have a viable plan, not just hard tackling and trying hard. They were unsure how or where to pass the ball. Unlike the Dubs, they never kick-passed into their forwards, so that when they finally hand-passed it to a forward it was too late.

Owen Mulligan lamented their shot selection on RTÉ after the game. In truth, it was a combination of this and poor, unconvincing shot-taking. This is illustrated in the statistics, but again, what could be expected? The late conversion to a game plan that is viable but needs a lot of work is illustrated by how many shots each team had on goal. In their last four head-to-heads, including Sunday, Tyrone had an average of just one shot on goal per game (four in total, with two of these coming from penalties). Dublin, meanwhile, have had an average of four per game.

Against Monaghan, Tyrone's man-to-man kick-out press was dismantled by Beggan and his team-mates, who might as well have been doing kick-out practice unmarked, before bringing on the B team to spice it up a bit. This was highlighted across the media. I did a TV package illustrating this straight after the Monaghan semi-final and made the point that unless Harte switched to a zonal press for the final, the Dubs would run riot. Needless to say, Harte stuck with the man-to-man kick-out press for the final, and the Dubs ran riot. In the second half, Cluxton's kick-out success rate was 100 per cent (16/16).

Meanwhile, Dublin's zonal press dismantled the Tyrone kick-outs. Dublin won a total of 36 kick-outs. Tyrone won only 19.

Something else was obvious. After Dean Rock missed his first free, Tyrone players ran to him to trash talk into his face. Dean went on to score 0-7 (0-3 from play) from just nine shots. This sort of stuff doesn't work but, more importantly, it highlights a culture in this team that distracts them from the concentration required to succeed at this level. Take the second, killer goal.

Jonny Cooper was running towards the sideline going nowhere, surrounded by three Tyrone players. Cathal McShane gratuitously shoved him over the sideline, then the three Tyrone men began trash talking and jostling him. Cooper, ignoring them, realised they had left unmarked men inside and took a quick free as they were still jostling him. Con O'Callaghan soloed through, then laid it off for Scully (who had ghosted through unmarked to the edge of the square) for a simple, simple goal. Or what about Morgan (who is a serial offender) dragging a Dublin player along the ground by the leg? Or Harte accusing Sky of having the pitch narrowed in Omagh?

This culture is condoned by Harte and it always has been. From the days of serial diving, feigning injury and pulling players down until the present, he has pretended it isn't happening and instead spreads the blame around. The Dubs must have found this behaviour childish and counter-productive. They ignored it, kept playing the game, and it was another contributing factor in a very easy victory.

Tyrone have plenty of good players and plenty coming through, including a young Master Darragh Canavan, who didn't lick it off the ground. They, and the people of Tyrone, deserve better. Hampsey, McGeary, McCann and a few others would not look out of place on the Dublin team. Shot selection, kick-passing, good attack positioning, good runs off the ball and good supporting runs are all things that will improve with training and playing real football together under a manager who treats players like adults, establishes a culture of respect and understands modern tactics and strategy.

It is a matter of indifference to me, but the problem is Harte. He won't go, of course. Some sugary commentators describe him as a tactical genius but the truth is that since the great team of the noughties (bearing perhaps the greatest forward line of the modern era) Harte's autocratic approach to management has been unimaginative and reactive.

He reacted to serial defeats by Jimmy McGuinness by copying Jimmy without knowing how to do it properly. He sleep-walked into an utter humiliation against Dublin last August, then reacted by not reacting at all, instead blaming isolated events in that game for the defeat.

Even after Monaghan took them to school in Ulster this year, taking their zonal defence to pieces, he persisted with the zonal defence. Their overwhelming defeat to a Dublin team that performed well below its best is being heralded by Harte as a success, when the reality is that only their penalty, when the game was long over, saved them from a very similar final scoreline to last year.

Imagine the huge lift it would give this great county if Peter Canavan or Fergal Logan came in, with the superb Peter Donnelly remaining as coach? Sadly for Tyronians, imagination is as far as it will get.

Finally, last weekend, I was taken aback by the strength of my emotions. Spending the weekend with my old Derry comrades for our 25th anniversary was very spiritual, even if Tony Scullion threw me over a bar table just for fun (Scullion has form here, he also did this to a bewildered Declan Bonner in 1993, in Glasgow) and Brian McGilligan left my left arm black and blue after some playful punches at the bar. I punched him back several times but may as well have been punching the heavy bag.

Eamonn Coleman's daughter Margaret was on the pitch in Eamonn's stead and for me this was the best thing about the day. She sat with her brother Gary at the dinner in Croke Park, and looking at them both it was easy to feel their father's presence amongst us.

All-Irelands come and go. People like that do not.

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