Sunday 25 February 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Expectations could hardly be lower for heavyweight contest

Sean Cavanagh leads Tyrone against Donegal last year
Sean Cavanagh leads Tyrone against Donegal last year
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

There will be a great debate in years to come about whether it was Donegal or Tyrone who reduced football to a zero sum. If Tyrone started a new trend then Donegal certainly added to it.

Tyrone have now moved on again and in the last year have produced a style of football which is ugly to watch and, worse still, not getting results. Even the natives - who are absolutely intolerant of criticism from the rest of the world - are getting more than a little restless.

The players have remained steadfast. They either are completely indoctrinated or believe totally in Mickey Harte producing another All-Ireland-winning team.

A couple of years ago a Tyrone supporter, who was not happy over comments I made on television about their players lying down, feigning injury and getting opposition players sent off, decided he was going to take the law into his own hands and administer his own version of justice.

A few people of reason managed to get him away but he had plenty of supporters who were happy to let a man with drink on board make a fool of himself. I was not concerned in the slightest for my own safety but the vitriol that day from both men and women demonstrated clearly to me that the reaction to any criticism in Tyrone seems far more extreme than any other county.

Now that appears to have passed and many of those same people are openly questioning their team's style of play. It must grate with the more talented footballers - and it shows little sign of lifting the gloom. When Tyrone lose possession the sight of nearly all their players turning around, ignoring the ball and sprinting back into defence to get their defensive structure in place is hard to comprehend.

Ed Moses was the greatest 400m runner I ever saw. He was undefeated at the top level for a decade. If Moses was a player in Tyrone he would be expected to run about the equivalent of 40 400m races and not pay much attention to the ball during his runs up and down the field.

It can't be very enjoyable for players to do it so in a sense I can admire the Tyrone team in their slavish discipline to a tactical mindset which won't win them the All-Ireland.

I am not even sure if they decided to shake off this restrictive style that they would succeed but at least they would have a go and would not die wondering. Maybe today things will be different but I would not hold my breath on that one.

Donegal are not much better. The penalty for kicking a ball away or maybe even kicking it at all is a year's hard labour in a handpassing camp - even if things have changed a bit with more young players being introduced.

Whether by design or simply a product of evolution Donegal threw a bit more caution to the wind in this year's league campaign and prospered as a result. It looks too that there is more enjoyment for the players.

The reliance today will be, to a large extent, on the old guard. Neil McGee and Seán Cavanagh will continue their sideshow of snarling, grappling nastiness. It is not for show either and there will be a nasty edge to proceedings, no matter what anyone says.

Peter Harte of Tyrone during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Derry and Tyrone at Celtic Park in Derry. Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Harte of Tyrone during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Derry and Tyrone at Celtic Park in Derry. Photo: Sportsfile

Tyrone have a habit of bringing the worst out of opponents and the marking arrangements will be mainly the same as for all previous battles. There will be a few who will be spared persecution and the reason is that they have not yet earned the dubious pleasure of such attention.

This game will have a similar pattern to last year when Cavanagh was instrumental in getting Tyrone over the line when it looked as if Donegal had squeezed the life out of them. There is still a big reliance on Cavanagh to perform in either deed, or word - or both - and the sands of time have caught up. Tiernan McCann and Peter Harte might try to lead but they don't have the same gravitas yet as Cavanagh and there is a hole in this Tyrone squad.

Leaving Mark Bradley isolated inside against three or four Donegal defenders is not going to work either and Tyrone could spring a surprise by leaving the forwards up front. Wouldn't that be revolutionary?

If viewed from above Tyrone would resemble a hive of ants working tirelessly for the common good. Donegal are much the same but the McHughs are more of a threat than anything Tyrone possess, and Ciarán Thompson has a bazooka for a left foot - kicking points for fun.

He is too young to understand that football is not about enjoyment but the hard yards, the inches that get results, the pain and suffering and all the modern jargon that has been imported from basketball and American football. Murphy and McBrearty will try to control things but Murphy is now a long way from doing real damage. He gets on a lot of ball but, in truth, Tyrone will be happy enough with him in possession around midfield. He can't score goals from there and that is his greatest asset.

There is a sense of rejuvenation in Donegal defenders McGrath and Lacey, while Frank McGlynn seems to have regained his youthful spirit. Either he or McGrath are capable of getting a goal, something which Tyrone have a lot of trouble with. Not something that is easily turned around either.

Their principal front men, like Bradley, Cavanagh, and subs like Ronan O'Neill and Darren McCurry, favour longer-range points rather than working it in close. The reliance for a goal comes from someone like Peter Harte (pictured) to ghost in behind on his runs upfield. A bit like Cowboy Joe in the westerns, you can be sure someone in green and gold has been given the job of cutting him off at the pass.

Tyrone are less effective this year because Mattie Donnelly is not having as good a season as last year. He won't play corner-forward but he is getting a bit lost in games. He needs a big game today, as do the Cavanaghs, while the availability of Justin McMahon and Cathal McCarron has been trumpeted as a big help to Tyrone. If they are still relying on McMahon to dig them out of trouble then Tyrone are really not contenders.

Neither of these had a test in the first round. Derry have given up on Derry and Antrim played like what they are against Donegal: a fourth division side. But this is another heavyweight bout and there will be a huge crowd looking for ringside seats for a contest which won't bear much resemblance to the football of the recent past.

It looks like another boring, low-scoring game but the supporters and players on the winning side will not be even slightly concerned about that. This match goes beyond that and is much more personal. Donegal had it in their hands last year and let it slip away. It will probably be tight again too, but maybe Donegal have more scoring power through long-range points from Thompson and McBrearty from the hand and Murphy off the floor.

Tyrone need to score goals and develop new tactics. That would be another one to take a very deep breath on. Donegal for me.

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