Thursday 14 November 2019

Joe Brolly: No good can come from a system that doesn't work

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte Picture: Sportsfile
Tyrone manager Mickey Harte Picture: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Watching Tyrone and Mayo labouring soullessly through a robotic 70 minutes last Sunday reminded me of Eamonn Sweeney's immortal line. Watching modern Gaelic football, he said "is like watching sufferers of obsessive compulsive disorder."

The condition is widespread: Trot back into set positions in the defensive area. Let the opposition kick out to the unmarked corner backs (Mayo had a 100 per cent kick out success rate doing this, even if it only got them as far as their own 21). Two sweepers on the square. A lot of pointing and shuffling. Then the turnover (causing the home crowd to waken briefly from their slumber), then head down and solo before a backwards hand-pass. Next man repeats. Next man repeats. All at three-quarter pace. Then, get to the opposition defensive area, now packed because of the amount of time spent bringing the ball upfield. So, the only option is to sling it around before taking a potshot under pressure.

It is an inevitable statistic that Tyrone have managed only one goal in the entire league. They could have a young Peter Canavan on the edge of the square and you might as well give him an armchair and set him in front of a TV watching reruns of Sky matches (nobody else does). Unluckily for Sean Cavanagh, he got the bum deal last week. So he stood around in the full-forward line, alone and palely loitering. Eventually, his condition got the better of him and he dropped back into the defensive area with his fellow OCD sufferers, where he was relieved to be able to solo and hand-pass a bit.

David Clarke of Mayo and Tyrone’s Sean Cavanagh (left) clash in Omagh. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Of course no Tyrone game is complete without Big Sean - all 6' 4" and 15 stone of him - rolling on the ground holding his head in his hands. Midway through the second half he ran full steam towards Danny Kirby then went sailing up into the air as though he had stepped on a landmine. As he lay on the Omagh turf, apparently breathing his last, I thought of the Tyrone state funeral that lay ahead, followed by a ceremonial burial in the very spot where he came to rest. One imagines the priest, no the bishop, amongst a crowd of 30 or 40 clerics on the pitch, saying, "It will be a great consolation to his loved ones, that Sean's last roll was in a place where he had some of his greatest rolls, here in his beloved Healy Park".

Anyway, my musing didn't last long. Sean lay there stricken until the black card was issued, then got to his feet and raced back into the heart of the defence. There he was a moment later soloing, hand-passing, swarming.

At that moment, a renowned sports journalist texted me to say: "When I see the Cavanagh Roll, it makes me feel guilty for all the times I've written 'You wouldn't see that in the GAA' as Carlos Sanchez Klinsmann di Rodriguez writhes on the ground in the Estadio Del Tapas."

It used to be the most depressing sight in Irish sport, but it has long since been overtaken by modern football. Two Tyrone sparks were in my house on Monday morning to do a bit of electrical work. They were, needless to say, wearing their club hoodies. I asked if they'd been at the game. "Naw Joe, you couldn't watch them. Deadly boring." "I'll look at it on the TV," said the other one. They both used to go to all the games. What a shame.

Mayo had been well beaten by Cavan the previous week and absolutely slaughtered by the Dubs before that so they were especially vulnerable, just as they were last August in Croke Park. When Cavan played them, they were worried for the first quarter, thinking Mayo are better than they are. But as soon as they realised how porous the Mayo defence is if you attack them quickly, they ran and kicked through them with ease. Mayo defenders were continuously turning and running towards their own goal and Cavan took full advantage of the mayhem. They should have won by nine or 10.

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Sadly for Tyrone, trapped in their diazepam system, they never tested that creaky Mayo defence. Instead, they - mystifyingly - surrendered every single kick out. Like automatons, they dropped back into their stupid positions, pointing at each other and going three to one on the opposing forward, thereby allowing it to turn into a game of attrition which would be won by a potshot. A stalemate until one team wins it with a free or a freak long range score, like the Ulster final last year, when Murphy missed his 60-metre effort to win it, and Harte and Cavanagh scored theirs.

It is horrible to watch, the players hate it and the spectators go out of loyalty. But it also defies logic. How can you attack if you have no half-forward presence? Why do you need 13 men inside your own half? Last Sunday, all they did was allow a Mayo team very low on morale, to build that morale. Mayo are comfortable ball carriers and were delighted to be coming out of their defensive area under zero pressure. It was a welcome relief from their experience a fortnight earlier against the Dubs when they were subjected to a full court press, couldn't get out at all, and were quickly overwhelmed. The Tyrone video analysts mustn't have noticed that.

As a result, Tyrone allowed a mediocre Mayo team with a poor forward line to play the game at a very comfortable pace. Basically Tyrone surrendered all their advantages. Why? As a result, the game was an unbelievably tedious, depressing affair, won in the end by a potshot from Kevin McLaughlin.

Because the system is so robotic, it was a carbon copy of their meeting nine months earlier in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Mayo won that day courtesy of two potshots from Lee Keegan. Tyrone maintained their 13-man defence to the end then as well, even when they only needed a single point in the last 16 minutes to draw. They couldn't get that point because they no longer know how. Adventure and commitment to the attack has been bred out of them.

The result of this scripted, inflexible system is that Tyrone's players, like so many others (the Dubs being the honourable exception) have succumbed to a culture of fear. Adrian Colton, a Tyrone fanatic and eminent High Court judge, said to me last week: "We don't have the forwards." It tells you how ridiculous it has become when even the shrewdest supporters have succumbed to the culture of caution.

I respectfully pointed out to Mr Justice Colton that Mattie Donnelly is in the top 10 footballers in Ireland. Niall Sludden is a superbly skilled, heads up centre forward who can unpick any defence. Peter Harte is a pretty decent player by any standards, and a current All Star. Mark Bradley has every trick in the book. Last week he scored a wonderfully amusing point with a bewildering dummy. Mayo's Colm Boyle is probably still diving through the air as I write. Yet that score aside, he was repeatedly blocked down and swarmed. As were the rest of them. Add Sean Cavanagh and Darren McCurry (who averages around 2-5 a game at club level) and they possess a formidable offensive arsenal. But it has been mothballed for several years. The OCD has become entrenched.

There is help available. Instead of more rehearsal of a system that doesn't work, Mickey should immediately contact

Chris Barrett of Mayo and Ronan McNabb get up close and personal. Photo:Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Chris Barrett of Mayo and Ronan McNabb get up close and personal. Photo:Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

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