Patience needed but Tyrone have tools to get job done
Down's defensive frailty means they will have to put men behind the ball, writes Colm O'Rourke
After the quiet comes the storm. A championship which began almost silently in New York roars into action this weekend even if the five matches could have involved a better spread and there is only one game involving a realistic contender for Sam.
That is, of course, the clash between Tyrone and Down. The other matches are not huge attractions and if the weather is bad many who will opt for the comfort of home, a cup of tea and settle in to watch the live game between two traditional giants of the Ulster game.
We were treated to great open games in the Allianz League, and the black card was seen to have a positive impact. Today a dose of reality returns and I see little chance of an open, high-scoring match in Omagh. There is nothing wrong with that either. People have become obsessed with the idea of speed, more speed and open attacking football but the skills of the game are about a lot of other things too and it will be a pity if football becomes solely for athletes, with running power more important than skill. That is why I resist calls from those who want to speed up the game. What is wrong with a slow, skilful football match?
This game will be a long way from the champagne football of the league. Tyrone are not hardwired to put entertainment before results and Down no longer have the ability to win a shoot-out. I saw Down in the league in Navan and thought they were the worst side that Meath played. Yet they beat Donegal and drew with Monaghan, the top two teams in Division 2. In Navan, it was the Down style which surprised me most. James McCartan has ditched the full-on attacking game which made Down so attractive to watch in the past. It must have been hard for him to do this as he was part of a forward line of pace and sheer class. That was then and this is now and needs must.
The problem for McCartan is that Down's defenders are nice ball players but not defenders. They can do a lot of things except stop the opposition forwards. Therefore the necessity is to have at least one sweeper. The problem then is that the ball has to be worked upfield in a series of slow handpasses.
Other teams like Dublin can do this too but have the ability to surge forward at such speed that it appears they have a surplus of men up front. They also kick the ball long, perhaps the quality of footpassing is their single greatest asset. When I saw them, Down kicked more ball backwards than forward. There should be a rule that once attacking you can't play the ball back into your own half – it works well in basketball.
What I am trying to say in a nice way is that the Down style is now awful to watch and I don't see much change coming today as McCartan will try to get through the first 20 minutes without conceding a goal and hope that Tyrone will have no more than five or six points. It nearly worked against Donegal last year so why change? Winning, though, is quite different from containing and Conor Laverty and Mark Poland will have to do damage and hope for half a dozen easy frees as well.
Tyrone could be contenders in Ulster and for the All-Ireland. The same cannot be said for Down, even if some of their great campaigns began from very humble origins. In the past, though, Down had a defence, the foundation was solid, but the factory manufacturing stoppers went out of business over a decade ago.
Tyrone are still a work in progress; to make substantial strides players like Darren McCurry, Peter Harte, Kyle Coney and Mattie Donnelly have to become leaders. The safety net has to be taken away and we will see this year if the golden generation can be replaced by these players who now have ownership of the jersey.
Seán Cavanagh remains a link. Despite the controversy, it must be stated that he was one of the very best individual players in last year's championship. One cynical tackle does not change that fact.
It would be great to think this game might be a thriller. Instead I think it will be a rotten ultra-defensive game of few scores from play. I hope I'm wrong but I cannot see anything other than Down setting out their stall with at least 10 of their side being defenders. Tyrone have more flair and will need the patience of Job to win this game.
However, forewarned is forearmed, and Tyrone will know what is coming and Mickey Harte could push another man forward to disrupt Down's defensive strategy. Either way, it has to be Tyrone as they have a much stronger panel than Down and the new era of football places as much emphasis on the subs as the starting team.
In Connacht, Roscommon host Leitrim and anything other than a clear win for the home team would represent a complete shock rather than a mild surprise.
Roscommon are making progress and their league win was a huge boost. Yet the mauling they got from Dublin in the under 21 final must have taken the wind out of their sails as few saw that coming, Roscommon should win easily today but it is a pity that Leitrim and other counties are putting in huge effort and getting nothing but a pat on the back. If this is the best way to run football then I need to join the circus as a clown.
The most interesting game in Leinster is the one involving Offaly and Longford as there should not be much in it. Of course it is between two teams of a certain level and neither will win the Leinster Championship, but Longford have boxed above their weight over the last decade at underage level while Offaly are hardly a sleeping giant but should be capable of better than their league form. Home advantage is important so maybe Longford can sneak it.
An away win looks on the cards when Laois travel to Aughrim. Maybe there was a time when Wicklow were feared at home but that day is long gone. It suited Wicklow managers of the past to paint their team as wild men coming down from the hills but they are teachers, students, farmers, young men working in the financial and computer world nowadays – just like any other team.
Breaking out of their cycle is similar to Leitrim and about 20 others. Laois have greater ambitions and should win today.
Sunday Indo Sport