Sport Gaelic Football

Thursday 14 December 2017

Thrilling Tyrone triumph a just reward for ground-breaking blueprint

THE first thing that all fair-minded GAA followers must do today is salute a really great Tyrone football team.

THE first thing that all fair-minded GAA followers must do today is salute a really great Tyrone football team. Salute their players, Mickey Harte and his helpers, the Tyrone County Board and other GAA-related bodies in the county who have drawn up and implemented a new blueprint for the development of Gaelic football in a manner that no other county has done.

Yesterday they all got their due reward when the front men of the plans, the Tyrone players, produced a show of magnificent proportions that matches anything I have ever seen in the All-Ireland championship. They beat the previous All-Ireland champions Kerry much more convincingly than the actual three-point margin. They did so mainly by putting on a show of aggression - in the best sense of that word - all over the field from start to finish. That aggression was the one factor that Kerry, despite gallant efforts by most of their players, could never match.

It was not very obvious in the opening quarter when Kerry held the initiative in terms of possession but once Tyrone found their feet it was downhill all the way after that for the holders. Tyrone gave a fantastic exhibition of super-confident play that was never tainted with arrogance but it was clear from the demeanour of the players that they knew from an early stage that they had the measure of their opponents.

When the opponents are an All-Ireland-winning Kerry team that is a remarkable statement to make, but it only emphasises the level of preparation and expertise which Tyrone have brought to Gaelic football at this level. Lest we forget, they were playing their tenth championship game of the year yesterday, yet they were the ones who were physically and mentally calling all the shots in the final quarter - of their tenth game. This is truly remarkable and has never happened in the long history of the GAA before now.

For the neutrals this was a great final. As I had expected, the greatness lay more in the enormity and intensity of the contest than in an exhibition of the finer points of the game, although we got a lot of those also. This was always going to be a mammoth clash of football principles between Kerry with their great tradition and 33 All-Irelands and Tyrone with the radical, some might say revolutionary, approach to the fundamentals of the game and their single All-Ireland title.

This was the way the game was being viewed around Ireland for the past few weeks and I have no doubt in Kerry even more so. The disastrous defeat by Tyrone in 2003 was a devastating blow to the Kerry football psyche and this match was to be the day of redemption.

Far from redemption, the result plunges Kerry football further into despair because they were humbled almost as much again as two years ago. The effects on Kerry football could be fundamental but most people will hope that they will look for redemption from within their own traditional football resources rather than jumping on the bandwagon of the new style.

That style has been created and perfected by Tyrone who are modifying it all the time. They were much more stylish yesterday than in 2003, helped no doubt by the great confidence and self-belief they have acquired this season in surviving the previous nine games.

BUT of course Tyrone have a fabulous selection of players at the present time and this is the single greatest reason for their success. The type of game they play, based on defence and total mobility of players, simply would not work if they did not have talented players who can think on their feet and make split-second, correct decisions.

This was one of the greatest differences between the teams yesterday. Kerry players kept walking into unnecessary tackles by not releasing the ball early. When tackled many of them took the wrong option and either lost the ball or had a free given against them. When you see this happening to someone like Seamus Moynihan you know Kerry are in trouble.

This inability of Kerry players at this level to make the correct decision most of the time is a huge change from what we associate with Kerry down the years. I believe Kerry opened the door for Tyrone to enforce their particular style of play on this game in the second quarter. Having dominated up to then and leading by three points, they began to mess around with the ball - there is no other word for it.

In the middle third of the field they kept inter-passing instead of driving long balls into their forwards and by slowing down the game, they facilitated Tyrone in employing their swarming way of tackling of the man in possession. This acted like a shot of adrenaline for Tyrone, who immediately took control of the game and smothered Kerry out to such an extent that they only managed to score two points in the final 22 minutes of that first half.

The first weapon in the Kerry armoury if they wanted to cope with Tyrone was to make good use of long foot-passes into their forwards so that the ball would get in there ahead of the retreating Tyrone outfield players. But by allowing centre-forward Declan O'Sullivan and winger Paul Galvin go too far up the field, there were too few forwards to aim at and instead they reverted to holding up the ball in the middle third of the field and paid a high price for that.

Really the writing was on the wall at that stage and the fact that Peter Canavan had scored a killer goal just on half-time only drove that message home more starkly.

The state of confusion which embraced Kerry at that period is shown by the fact that the man who contested the high ball with Eoin Mulligan on the edge of the Kerry square, from which that goal emanated, was the Kerry wing half-forward Paul Galvin. Why was he back there and where were all the full-backs?

THE facial injury inflicted on Colm Cooper in the 10th minute seemed to completely undermine Kerry's confidence. In former times such an incident would have roused Kerry players to extraordinary heights to exact revenge through football. It took Cooper quite a while to recover and the Kerry outfield players seemed to panic as a result and stopped sending in early ball to the full-forward line. This was a disastrous decision which ultimately siphoned this game away from Kerry.

We had some fantastic scores from both teams to adorn this wonderful contest and the game was very sporting considering the high stakes. If Cooper was hit by a member of the Tyrone team, and I don't know if he was, then how in God's name did the umpires not see it - or did they?

But while various individual incidents from this game are important in themselves, they should not be allowed to distract attention from the marvellous, ultra-high-powered competitive game played by Tyrone. They almost swept Kerry off the field at times and it is a tribute to the fighting heart of people like Darragh and Tomas Ó Sé particularly that Kerry were so close at the finish.

Tyrone are now entitled to be called 'Great Champions', whatever that means, but the title 'Team of the Decade' must await developments over the next five years. Tyrone will certainly continue to thrive and further refine their basic defence-orientated game. The task facing the other leading counties is to come up with plans to outwit the Tyrone system and let there be no doubt that will happen sooner rather than later. It has always been so in Gaelic football and now is no different.

Postscript: On Saturday in Melbourne the Aussie Rules Grand Final was won by Sydney Swans with Listowel's Tadhg Kennelly a leading star. The Swans play a type of defensive based game very similar to Tyrone and they also wear red and white. Earlier in the season the Chief Executive of the Australian Football League criticised their style and described it as 'ugly'. Of course The Swans had the last laugh, just like Tyrone. It's a small world.

Eugene McGee

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