Thursday 16 August 2018

Joe Brolly - Let's celebrate a victory for football but Dublin just ran over traffic cones

The Dublin squad before the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final against Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
The Dublin squad before the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Final against Tyrone at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Dublin might as well have been playing against traffic cones last Sunday. Like the trainer who had set out the cones for the warm-up, the Tyrone players looked as though they had been set down into their 13 defensive positions. While they rigidly stuck to their one-dimensional plan, Dublin played football. And when the Dubs scored a goal after a few minutes, the game was over.

I wrote last week that Tyrone's big problem would be working the ball out of their blanket defence. Normally, they have free men to offload to, but not against the Dubs, who pushed up on them and tackled ferociously the whole way out, just as they had done to Monaghan three weeks earlier. Mickey mustn't have noticed that the Dubs have been doing this since 2011.

Funny, it used to be how we all played football. The mantra when I was playing was that the full-forwards were the first line of defence. The Down forward line of the 1990s tackled like maniacs, harrying and pressing and harassing. We all did it. There was no such thing as players strolling out of their defensive half passing the ball to free men. Now, most teams permit it. Last year against Louth in the qualifiers, Derry withdrew two forwards, allowing Louth to kick all of their kick-outs to an unmarked Louth defender.

The Dubs aren't so dumb. Just by doing what they always do, they destroyed the first pillar of Tyrone's strategy. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu explains that the surest way to victory is to turn the enemy's strengths against him. Simply by pushing up on the Tyrone traffic cones, they ruined Tyrone's entire game plan.

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

This full-court press meant that by the time Tyrone got to the half-way line they had no free runners ahead of the play and were already being forced backwards. With 5' 6" Mark Bradley their only outlet in the forward line being double-marked, they were doomed. A 5' 6" target man? Kerry had the Bomber Liston. Tyrone have the Bomber Bradley.

As Tyrone floundered, so did their manager. He stood there as powerless as the water boy as the slaughter unfolded. Strategy and tactics became critical with the arrival of Jimmy McGuinness in 2011. In the championship since then, against Donegal's Jimmy, Kerry, Mayo and Dublin, Harte's teams have managed an average of 0-11. During that time, he began by copying Jimmy's plan (an inferior version that was heavily weighted in favour of defence) then making it more and more conservative. Ten defenders became 11, then 12, then 13. Tyrone's really skilful young players became more or less superfluous as the training ground became a place to rehearse the 1-13-1 formation and get strong and powerful.

Almost the whole of Ulster has gone down this self-defeating road, leading to a truly abysmal Ulster Championship and champions who were absolutely humiliated on Sunday.

Meanwhile, the foundation of Dublin under Jim Gavin is skill-based football. So they have truly learned the game, become students of it. Five years in, they have an enormous advantage. They can play the game whatever way you want to. They play with a full complement of forwards, who make good runs and play off each other. This chemistry comes from playing ambitious football all the time in training. They attack the opposing defence with pace and adventure. You stand off, they kick a point, you push up, they take you on and look for goals. They make snap decisions on the field, using their initiative. Funny, it's what all teams used to do.

Last Sunday, they occupied the Tyrone blanket defenders and made clever runs, dragging them out of position before delivering an incisive pass to create a score. Their first goal was a snapshot of the tactical cakewalk. Tyrone brought the ball out from their defence under severe pressure. When they got to the midfield they had no options up front and a stray cross-field pass was intercepted. The ball was quickly kicked 30 metres to Con O'Callaghan, who was in the clear. He soloed through. Three of his forward colleagues made hard runs taking their men away from the central column. One dummy and O'Callaghan was clean through, before finishing to the net. It was 1-1 to 0-1 and the game was over. If that had been a Tyrone interception they would have had to hand-pass the ball back or solo to wait for some support, since a 70-metre kick to a 5'6" target man isn't an option.

Tyrone's one-dimensional game plan worked well against lesser blanket-defence teams in Ulster. Problem is, the Dubs don't play with a blanket defence. They play a thing called 'Gaelic football'. So, they swarm and cover for each other using their football intelligence. At times, it might look like a blanket, but in truth it is nothing more than clever play. If Cathal McCarron's man climbs to the top of the Hogan Stand, Cathal will climb up and sit beside him. When a Tyrone forward runs to the wing or makes a dummy run, the Dublin defender immediately drops off him and doubles up on the man in the danger zone. When they break, they can kick to the wing forwards or full-forwards or run it through.

Watching Tyrone taking up their set positions and remaining more or less static put me in mind of traffic cones. I thought of former Tyrone greats like John Lynch and Ryan McMenamin and Conor Gormley and Philly Jordan using their heads, covering, tackling ferociously man-to-man, winning their own battles. This is because they didn't have the initiative trained out of them.

True, Tyrone have a better blanket-defence system than the other plonkers in Ulster. Who cares? Tyrone are a great footballing county rapidly falling into disrepute. They need a complete change in philosophy. They need to go back to skill-based football. If they do, they will quickly become not only a superb team, but a superb team to watch. Look at their under 17s in Croke Park last Sunday. Look at how many skill players they have coming through, from Darragh Canavan to boys like Niall Sludden, who was only able to show glimpses of his brilliance on Sunday because he spent most of his time standing with the other 12 traffic cones in defence. What a waste.

Tyrone offered nothing, so they got nothing. What happened in Croke Park was a humiliation for them, but a victory for football. The nightmare for any lover of the game would be this Tyrone group winning big, since it would spawn countless copycats all over the country, at county and club level. The game is already poor enough as a spectacle. In Ulster the county game has been ruined by blanket defending and the movement away from skill-based football has resulted in a team as bad as Tyrone being Ulster champions.

The Dubs, Mayo and Kerry should be the template for any coach. Start with skill, then develop a thinking team grounded on the best use of those skills. Jim Gavin has followed this approach zealously. The result is a team that plays brilliant football and can play it anyway you want to. They love to play and boy does it show. The semi-final was a poor spectacle, but that is because every game involving Tyrone is a poor spectacle. When they win it is horrible to watch. When they lose it is horrible to watch. And don't start that anti-Tyrone nonsense. When Peter's son Darragh Canavan scored the killer goal for their under 17s I jumped out of my seat!

The sad thing isn't that Tyrone were beaten. It's that nobody cares. The way they are reduced to playing means no one gives a damn. There is no joy in it. Nothing to savour. Only a radical change in philosophy can return them to their rightful place.

I understand that in ­Tyrone it is a criminal ­offence to critically ­assess Mickey Harte's performance. On that basis, ­Sunday's annihilation is likely to secure him ­another five years.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport