Wednesday 13 December 2017

Joe Brolly: Tyrone will contend if they commit to counter-attack

‘Tyrone, as always, stationed Colm Cavanagh as the guard dog on the square’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Tyrone, as always, stationed Colm Cavanagh as the guard dog on the square’. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

If you are not familiar with ('News from among the bushes') then you should be. It is a blog full of angst over the travails of Tyrone footballers since 2008.

In recent years, the concentration has been on club matters. For example, the anonymous blogger recently wrote a piece headlined 'Terror in Tyrone as Windmill GFC Plan to Reform' starting with the line: "Gaels throughout the county have reacted with shock to the news that Windmill GFC are on the verge of reforming and may even take up hurling this time too."

The Windmill was disbanded in the early 1980s after a series of notorious bust-ups at their grounds. Joe Hackett from Augher remembers being at the Windmill for a game as a child, where their goalie was wearing his Sunday suit and chain-smoked throughout the game. As an attack developed, he set his cigarette beside the post and readied himself. When the danger abated he picked it up and resumed his pleasure.

The Tyrone tribulations piece quotes "Moortown stalwart Paddy Quinn" saying: "I only played the once against the Windmill in 1977 and I lost my complete bottom set of teeth. And I was a sub who didn't even get on." The piece also quotes a retired referee called Gary Coyle who refereed a match between Urney and Windmill in 1980, at the Windmill, just before they were permanently disbanded. "I sounded the final whistle with Urney a point ahead and left the pitch, slowly walking backwards, pointing a gun at the furious Windmill contingent. Unfortunately I was hit over the head by an elderly supporter wielding an umbrella and woke up in Cookstown, stripped bare, with my hands superglued to my head."

The Donegal boys know the feeling, after playing an entire 70 minutes last Sunday with what must have seemed like their hands superglued to their heads. It has been said that Tyrone brought a new game-plan that bamboozled Donegal but that is inaccurate. Both teams set up virtually identically to how they set up in last year's Ulster final. Tyrone, as always, stationed Colm Cavanagh as the guard dog on the square. When they lost possession, Conall McCann dropped back in front of him behind the centre-back spot. They played with 13 men inside their half, leaving a lone forward in the other half of the field to occupy two Donegal defenders. Donegal's two inside forwards were man-marked. Beyond that, Tyrone played their patented fearsome zonal defence. Their tackling was as we have come to expect: powerful, no fouling, and as close to perfection as human affairs permit. Crucially, their intensity was absolute.

Donegal's promising league campaign, where they had been working on a more attack-based plan involving getting their counter-attackers ahead of the ball and breaking forward at pace, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, they reverted to the dismal system that has become customary under Rory Gallagher. So, they soloed the ball forward until they hit the defensive cordon, then turned and hand-passed it backwards to a colleague running at the diagonal, who soloed forward until he hit the defensive cordon, then hand-passed it backwards to a colleague running at the diagonal. This worked okay for the first 10 minutes, but as soon as Tyrone got up to battle speed, they were doomed.

After a few kick-passes to Paddy McBrearty early on, which pre-supposed he could work miracles against his marker and Big Colm as they shepherded him towards the sideline (he did score one brilliant point) and an extraordinary long-range effort from Michael Murphy off the outside of his boot, Donegal tried to solo and hand-pass through the middle of the most formidable central defensive column the game has ever seen.

They got through it once, when it was 0-4 to 0-4, but missed the goal that probably wouldn't have made any difference to the result. It was after this point that Tyrone began supergluing their hands to their heads. Time and time again, Tyrone surrounded a hapless Donegal man as he ran through the middle, stripped him of the ball, and powered away on the counter attack. The tackling, as I said on The Sunday Game, was ferocious and perfect.

Unlike previous years, though, Donegal's blanket defence was a mess. Their set-up was fine. The man-markers with the sweeper and the packed zonal defence. Tick, tick, tick. But the execution was appalling. Frank McGlynn wasn't sweeping at all. Instead, in stark contrast to Colm Cavanagh, he positioned himself in no man's land around the centre half-back spot and was, as a result, constantly running towards his own goals with his back to the play as Tyrone thundered forward.

But the critical difference between the teams was the lack of intensity with Donegal's defending. They had the numbers back, but unlike Tyrone, who played like a pack of hyenas who had cornered a herd of sheep, Donegal defended like sheep surrounded by a pack of hyenas. So, from 0-5 apiece, Tyrone broke them with seven straight scores, kicking points without a Donegal man getting a hand on.

Donegal's only relief, which was temporary, was that the goalkeeper was allowed to take each kick-out short to his unmarked corner-back. This in turn created another problem. They were starting each play from corner-back, which gave Tyrone ample time to get back and set up their defensive zone. By contrast, Niall Morgan kicked out to Tyrone half-backs, putting the kicks over their heads as they ran onto it up the wing, which meant Tyrone were on their way into the Donegal defensive area much more quickly.

Donegal's young players were savaged by the Tyrone men, who simply swept them aside with absolute authority and power. Rory Gallagher has a massive job on his hands now to restore their confidence. The only solution I can see is for him to beg Jimmy to come back. Such lackadaisical tackling would never have happened with him on the sideline.

The gap between Jimmy and Rory is widening. True, Rory does not have Colm McFadden or Neil Gallagher. But on the other hand, it was Jimmy who made both those men into stars. McFadden was an also ran in his late 20s when Jimmy arrived. No one outside Donegal had even heard of Neil. The extent of McGuinness's achievements with Donegal is still unfolding.

With Donegal defending so half-heartedly, there was no repeat of last July's attritional war between the teams. After the first 10 minutes of seriously high-grade football, Donegal caved in and Tyrone were left to look superb.

I have been saying for three years that to make the step to being real All-Ireland contenders, Tyrone need to commit fully to the counter-attack. Last Sunday, the nervousness and hesitation of last season was gone. They counter-attacked with great pace and width, stretching Donegal to the limit and unlike Donegal, getting ahead of the ball. They should have had two goals in the first half, which would have made the final scoreboard look like a hurling match. But no matter. They took their shots on with conviction, and finally showed what they are capable of with a series of superb scores from play. The second half was neither here nor there.

The way Tyrone played will surely convince them that failing to commit fully to the attack has been the missing ingredient. The balance was excellent. Can they win an All-Ireland? Even taking into account that Donegal were not, as it turns out, a serious opposition? Looked at logically, Dublin always struggle against Tyrone's defensive system. Everyone does.

In the league, Dublin couldn't make any headway against them and fell six points behind. At that point, Tyrone should have powered on. But instead, they retreated into a defensive shell and tried to hold out. A relieved Dublin reeled off the six points they needed for the draw. What last Sunday surely does is convince the players that they can and must commit fully to the counter-attack. Otherwise, they will go to Croke Park and be caught in the same gloomy trap as they were in last year's quarter-final, squandering their talents against a limited, hesitant Mayo.

There are a few factors pointing against them, namely the absence of a truly great forward and the fact that they still do not have a reliable left-footed free-taker in the starting 15. But in my view that is balanced out by the strength of the collective, the fearsome defensive system and the team's all-round skills. They can be fairly sure of holding any opposition to between 10 and 15 points. A goal against them will have to come from a penalty or a fluke. But their conservatism until now has meant that they are hard to beat in big games but won't score enough to win them.

Once everything else is in place, it is mindset that makes champions. Only the men from the bushes can decide whether they have the balls to really go for it. If they do, Tyrone's tribulations of the past decade will be over. The mystery blogger can sell his operation to a Donegal outfit and finally get on with his life.

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