Wednesday 13 December 2017

Colm O'Rourke: I noticed something with Tyrone that I had never seen before on a football pitch

Colm Cavanagh Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Cavanagh Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Tyrone and Derry form one of the great rivalries with all the spite and venom which is needed in any encounter where big championship games are decided. There are others who fit a similar bill but many of these are for those with long memories. Matches between Meath and Dublin, Cork and Kerry, Mayo and Galway once set the blood boiling for both players and supporters. Now they are tepid affairs, drained of all raw bile by the almost inevitable nature of the result. They can be talked up as local derbies but in Ulster that raw passion still prevails, Armagh and Tyrone, more recently Donegal and Tyrone, even Monaghan and Tyrone.

The common denominator is of course Tyrone, and after last year it is easy to see why so many of the other Ulster counties have a significant dislike of their methods. The idea of Ulster solidarity when an Ulster team comes to Croke Park does not apply to Tyrone. Could you see Cork ever supporting Kerry? Why should they? For years it did apply in Ulster but that was when they were easy meat for everyone else. Now they take their chance like all others. In the dog-eat-dog world of Ulster football there are no pretences anymore.

So Derry and Tyrone is tough stuff and the real start of the championship. With a good bit of luck Derry could win Ulster. With a little luck Tyrone could win the All-Ireland. Nobody who has played so far this year in the championship is at that level. At present Tyrone have a big advantage over Derry. It is based as much on modern tradition as superior footballers. In Tyrone every young man is keen to play on the county side. The All-Irelands are recent enough for these players to see themselves as Canavans or McGuigans or Doohers. It drives the underage engine. There is also a collective sense of belonging which is vitally important. It ensures a certain loyalty.

Derry, on the other hand, blew their chance of creating a lasting legacy from the 1990s. Poor planning at board level and a few close defeats meant the chance to build something really big was lost. The ship sailed. It then docked in Tyrone who made better use of winning by putting the foundation in place to keep winning. That is the value of using tradition.

Of course every generation of players must create their own history and a recent winning tradition in a county can sometimes be a weight on young men's shoulders if they become burdened by the tales from the past. Tyrone have no such problem. They have no scarcity of young players wanting to take on the mantle.

Last year Tyrone were hoisted by their own petard. Their antics ensured a total lack of sympathy. In those cases things eventually come back to bite you and tight decisions go against you. I remember the same thing happening to Meath in the late 1980s. A bad call here and there loses big games.

Tyrone now have a winning mentality and a confidence to take on all comers. They improved by winning Division 2 which in itself is a long way short of Dublin's form, but showed continued progress. Yet they have substance, style and a proven method of playing. It is a formation based on three full-backs, two sweepers, three half-backs, three midfielders and only a few out-and-out forwards. The ability to move from defence to attack makes them dangerous opponents and they have any amount of players who can score. This means from right corner-back to corner-forward they have good footballers and often it is a player with a defender's jersey who ends up farthest forward.

Against Meath in Navan in the league, I studied their set-up closely and I noticed something I had never seen before on a football pitch. If Tyrone lost possession in their own forward line, they tried to win it back immediately but if that did not work they often turned their back on the play and ran into their pre-arranged defensive formation. Colm Cavanagh sat back close to his full-back line and he plays the role very well. A few years ago many of the Tyrone supporters argued that if he was called Colm Murphy or Colm Devlin he would not have been on the Tyrone team but it helped to keep big brother happy. If that was the case then it certainly is not now as Colm Cavanagh has become at least as influential as Seán Cavanagh. His athleticism means he can bridge defence and attack easily and with Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Tiernan McCann they have the pace and running power to carve out openings.

In the inside line there are plenty of choices along with Seán Cavanagh - Ronan O'Neill, Conor McAliskey, Darren McCurry and Conor Meyler are all natural finishers. It all makes for a pretty formidable outfit.

Derry know the Tyrone system well. Having lost to their neighbours four times already this year they risk becoming the slow learners of Ulster if they cannot win one out of five. In the league Tyrone gave them a right walloping, 2-15 to 0-12 while the McKenna Cup was quite different and Derry gave away a winning lead at the death. Unless Derry come up with some new plan to get the ball in quickly, they can kiss their chance of winning goodbye. As they have already seen, their ponderous handpassing out of defence allowed Tyrone time to reorganise in the league match. Death by a thousand handpasses. When Derry did kick long they caused problems; it is their only chance as they are not going to handpass through Tyrone with a wet ball. After all, Derry scored five goals against Laois in the league with a bit more direct play. Even allowing for a Laois defence which, even against Wicklow was porous, there is a bit of scoring in five goals.

So Derry must be brave and not play the same game as Tyrone. If they retreat en masse into defence and then build up slowly from the back they will almost certainly be beaten. They must get ahead early to have a chance and they need to leave at least four up front all the time and not be afraid to kick the ball or at least mix things up.

The likelihood is that Derry will turn into Tyrone light. They have players like the Kielts and Mark Lynch who have a bit of class but they are missing the winning tradition while Tyrone are developing a sense of entitlement. A rivalry which was often a battle of equals has now become too easy for Tyrone. Surely Derry will have at least pride but that only works for a while. Tyrone have pride, class and a better method of play. It should be enough to strangle Derry.

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