Friday 26 April 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Tyrone's realisation that attack is the way forward exposes cracks in Dublin's armour'

Mickey Harte celebrates with Cathal McShane following Tyrone’s victory over Dublin in the Allianz Football League last week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Mickey Harte celebrates with Cathal McShane following Tyrone’s victory over Dublin in the Allianz Football League last week. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Tyrone graduated from the school of slow learners last weekend with their best performance for almost a decade. The penny finally dropped - management seem to have realised that they were not getting the most out of their players.

The change in tactics has been revolutionary and must have been foisted on Mickey Harte by Stephen O'Neill or someone else on the management team who realised that playing a small man up front on his own and trying to work the ball down the field in slow handpassing movements was doomed to failure against the best teams. It was pure stink to watch too.

Perhaps I'm reading the tea leaves wrong, but a forward of O'Neill's great talent must have been pulling his hair out last year looking at the style of this Tyrone team. It was never going to win them an All-Ireland.

Tyrone may have got to the final last year, but their tactics were exposed for what they were. Dublin devoured them, and the year before too, and would devour them again this year if they continued to play in that straitjacket.

Now all bets are off. By changing radically, Tyrone have posed everyone a new set of problems. By placing Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly close to goal they have added another significant option: a long diagonal ball to big men inside. It worked 50 years ago, 20 years ago and will still be working in another 10 years. Of course, it will always depend on the calibre of inside forwards - putting in a big donkey won't work. McShane is quite a good player and he can win his own ball.

Donnelly spent most of the last few years soloing around midfield with the occasional point from distance. The wrong Donnelly was inside, Richie; now he can play a bit farther out where he is more comfortable.

This new direction for Tyrone is not a complete conversion on the road to Damascus like the apostle Paul. Rather it is more a marrying of two distinctive styles and the fast hands and short passes are still there with players like Tiernan McCann, Peter Harte and Niall Sludden. Yet Tyrone are a different animal now and this win over Dublin will give them confidence that this is the way forward. They may be an even better team in the summer now that this new template has been shown to work.

The Dublin train has stopped and kick-starting a big locomotive can be hard. There is no need to panic, and even when there is, let it be well-organised. Jim Gavin has a few problems to solve.

In previous years when Dublin did not put much into the league, they still qualified for the final; this time round the performances, even when winning, were a bit ragged. The players know they are a long way short of their peak and they are bright enough to go away, analyse it and put it right.

It will all have to be done by the same players too. Over the last few years they have uncovered diamonds like Con O'Callaghan and Brian Howard; Eoin Murchan and Niall Scully added to the collective last year but this time the well has run dry. There will be no springer in this year's championship. All the old hands will be needed on deck, unless of course somebody finds phone numbers for Rory O'Carroll and Dermot Connolly. And the perception of a weakness under the high ball will now become self-fulfilling, there will be a lot of high balls raining down in Stephen Cluxton's direction this year.

The finalists in (nearly all) the divisions of the Allianz Football League will be sorted out today. Kerry are likely to be in the Division 1 final but are probably not too worried one way or the other.

The same applies to Mayo and Galway. It is a strange competition that there is often less interest at the end than at the beginning. No matter who makes the final, we will see a significant decrease in the crowd. That's the price of Dublin taking their foot off the accelerator.

James Horan will take a lot of satisfaction from the league so far. He has managed to rotate his squad, introduce new players and re-energise some of the most experienced players. Matthew Ruane and Fionn McDonagh are likely newcomers in the championship - that's two more than has appeared for the years before that. Aidan O'Shea gave his best performance of the year (or maybe years) in Kerry but beware the Ides of March, as Julius Caesar was warned.

O'Shea gets the blame and the praise - sometimes at the same time. He is what he is and gives his best all the time. Yet Tralee on a wet Saturday night with a howling gale and a hot August Sunday in Croke Park are not comparable. One is for power and endurance, the other is for speed and mobility. O'Shea is blessed with plenty of the former but much less of the latter.

Having a very mobile Ruane with him certainly helps and perhaps midfield is the place for O'Shea long term. It depends on whether supporters want to look at him in terms of great attributes or some obvious flaws. Any county would like to have him though. There is a lot of expectation for even a big man to carry around on his shoulders.

Kerry have had a great campaign. Peter Keane should be happy that the bubble burst a bit in Tralee. Expectation again. It won't do any harm long-term. There is progress, but also significant flaws. When it comes to Kerry, I have been a bit of a killjoy recently. Putting it simply, they are short specialist defenders. In fact, they may have none. They have quite a few good footballers certainly, but out-and-out man-markers are scarce, while there were times early on against Mayo that there was no midfielder or wing-forward covering back. At times a coach and four horses could have been driven through the Kerry defence. So the search goes on for unglamorous defenders who play no football but do a job.

Meath will be back in the first division next year. The 13 years wandering around the desert on bread and water is coming to an end. No better time too with a new stand planned in Navan and it will be great to see teams like Dublin, Mayo, Tyrone and Kerry coming to town. When Meath were last in the top division, Bertie Ahern was Taoiseach and Mary McAleese was President. Kerry and Kilkenny were winning most of the All-Irelands - they were the punters' double at the start of every year.

This is an important progression for Meath. The result today against Fermanagh makes little difference to that. The business end of the championship involves teams in the top division - seven of the eight teams in the Super 8 last year were first division sides. Even at that there is nearly a divide between the top three or four and the rest and the difference in standard between first and second division is night and day.

It is fantastic for Meath and good for the game to be getting back to the top tier. Then again, I am reminded of what a famous showgirl, Mandy Rice Davies, said at a trial in the 1960s - 'Well, he would say that, wouldn't he.'

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