Sunday 22 July 2018

Comment - Time to take stock in underwhelming Ulster

Cathal McCarron of Tyrone leaves the field dejected after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Cathal McCarron of Tyrone leaves the field dejected after the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final match between Dublin and Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Declan Bogue

THE hay is won, Tyrone are bate, and now it's time for a little reflecting on an underwhelming summer of Championship football for Ulster representatives.

Not before time, the All-Ireland football Championship is set for radical change. There has been a gradual whittling down of the term 'Super 8s' - coined as a handy reference to next year's quarter-final group stages - to Super 4s, and now just Super 3s in light of recent results.

In examining the overall health of the Ulster counties and their performance in Championship football, you have to question if we indulge our existential tendencies too much.

At times likes the '90s when Sam Maguire resided in Ulster for four consecutive years, Ulster was regarded as the best Championship with the best teams, gaining a reputation then that still clings on despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Another period of dominance spearheaded by Tyrone and Armagh, but also enlivened by the presence of Fermanagh in an All-Ireland semi-final, meant the middle of the last decade was flush with cash and football.

At other times, a team can come like a comet - Cavan had that in the ancient world of Gaelic football. Down in the '60s and Donegal did it all more or less by themselves for a few years there.

The overall quality within a province wasn't something that ever caused concern throughout the other three provinces, but it is a sign that Ulster GAA is spoken, discussed and thought about as a place apart. There was nobody fretting for the collective health of Connacht football when Galway snapped up two Sams under John O'Mahony, and virtually no discussion takes place now about Leinster as the other eleven spend their time trying to hide from the playground bully that is Dublin.

But just to reiterate, here is how 2017 looks; Fermanagh took a trouncing in the Ulster preliminary round from Monaghan, who eventually got one of their own from Dublin. Antrim as expected were crushed by Donegal, who in turn were hammered by Tyrone, who also dished out heavy beatings to Derry, Down and Armagh.

Out of all those mis-matches, the standard-bearers were Tyrone. And few could have comprehended the scale of their defeat to what is now accepted as a truly excellent Dublin side.

Tyrone's season was a total enigma. They won the Ulster Championship racking up record scores but the margin of the Dublin defeat was the heaviest Sean Cavanagh and Mickey Harte had experienced across sixteen seasons.

Although the hat is deservedly tipped to Dublin for being outstanding in their gameplan and execution, Tyrone suffered the same fate as Donegal did in the 2014 All-Ireland final; a counter-attack game only works if you are ahead. If not, then the system swallows itself whole, with a defence lying deep while the opposition toss the ball about among themselves with no thought to aesthetics and appearances.

It wasn't just in this way that Tyrone and Mickey Harte got it wrong though. The questions have been flying about the lack of bite last Sunday. The presence of players such as Conor Gormley, Ryan McMenamin and Mickey McGee - somewhat unfashionable, snarling and unafraid to use methods on the edge - is notably absent from the Tyrone line-up.

Playing a zonal defence, Dublin players could sneak in between the lines, Tyrone players casually strolling into their allotted defensive position, passing on players to the next man, pointing fingers. All labourers without a charge hand.

In the meantime, Ciaran Kilkenny was left unmarked and allowed to rack up almost a touch per minute. He set the pace of the game,  Tyrone consenting by not detailing a man marker.

Meanwhile, Dublin simplified things. They looked at Tyrone's main men and Peter Harte in particular. They tasked John Small with following Harte all day, banging into him, getting in his face, and clinging to his jersey. He tread a fine line throughout and negated Harte completely.

In Harte's early years with Tyrone, they had a mantra among the team that they needed to be 'Psycho for the Ball.'

It's easily forgotten, but in the trio of late majestic points from Sean Cavanagh (the equaliser), Peter Harte (to take the lead) and Kieran McGeary (the clincher) in the 2016 Ulster final, the turnover that gained possession for Cavanagh's came when Johnny Munroe clattered hard into Frank McGlynn for a loose ball.

Another referee might have awarded a free in that could have closed the door on Tyrone for the day. But Munroe got away with it. He was 'Psycho for the Ball.'

Earlier this year, Munroe walked away from the panel, frustrated at the lack of opportunity.

On Sunday, nobody was 'Psycho for the Ball.'

In keeping with another sporting shambles over the weekend, Tyrone have vowed to 'Win or Learn.'

Strategy might have been off. Personnel certainly can be worked on. And nothing lasts forever. There is an air of this Dublin team that Kilkenny carried into the 2008 All-Ireland hurling Championship that culminated in a 23-point trashing of Waterford in the final.

All the nice things that are being said now about Dublin echo what was being said about Kilkenny then; tradition, winning culture, investment in the games and a healthy underage scene. 

As Mickey Harte said afterwards, "Nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it."

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