Friday 20 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Stars are aligning for impeccable Rory Beggan'

Had Rory Beggan been playing for Coleraine, Scotstown would probably have lost by double figures. Photo: Sportsfile
Had Rory Beggan been playing for Coleraine, Scotstown would probably have lost by double figures. Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Arriving into Healy Park last Sunday for the Ulster club semi-final double-header, I was delighted to find myself sitting beside Gerry Donnelly. Sadly, his joke about the woman breast-feeding on the Magherafelt bus will have to wait until the children are in bed. As a young man, Gerry graced the Newbridge bench for over a decade, and to this day he retains his love for watching others play football.

Gerry gives off a humorous hormone, and so it is impossible to sit beside him without feeling giddy. Before the first game, there was a ripple of laughter in the big crowd when the announcer said, "Would two-year-old Sé Carey please make his way to the back of the main stand." "Could they not just have texted him?" said Gerry.

GAA announcers and the Scór winners who sing the national anthem give these occasions a Father Ted feel, which I very much like. My only caveat is that the girls tend to sing the anthem far too slowly and with too many trills. They should be instructed beforehand that this is a battle anthem ('Soldiers are we' etc), not a Whitney Houston love song.

The games were immensely entertaining. This happens at club level because the teams are competing as equals. If someone in authority suggested a championship that involved pairing junior teams with senior teams they would be taken away by the men in white coats. Because there is no systemic unfairness in the club championships, teams in general feel confident expressing themselves, which in turn means a far superior spectacle.

John Horan's vision of a two-tiered inter-county championship needs to quickly become a reality. It should be at least three tiers, but unlike rugby, which has a vibrant structure and is prepared to act quickly and decisively to make changes for the good of the game and to improve the spectacle, we continue to operate with a Catholic Church mindset, and look where it has got those critters.

Soon, the remaining priests will have to start off with an interpreter while they get English language grinds. If the history of the world teaches us anything, it is that organisations which take the people for granted always fail in the end.

At a packed Healy Park, Coleraine should have beaten Scotstown. Their full-forward Colm McGoldrick has been the hardiest footballer in Derry for a decade and on Sunday he was utterly dominant, winning every ball kicked in his general direction and creating a series of scores.

Coleraine were far better at attacking than Scotstown, and Scotstown were wide open through the middle (Coleraine created four great goal chances, scoring two) but the Derry men blew the chance to kill the game off halfway through the second period. The older reader will remember Ronnie Rosenthal's astonishing miss for Liverpool against Aston Villa in 1992. Ronnie went around the goalkeeper, steadied himself 12 yards out from the empty net, then somehow hit the cross bar. Watch it on YouTube at 'Ronnie Rosenthal epic open goal miss'. Finally, Ronnie has a rival.

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With Coleraine three points up and Scotstown teetering, Gavin McWilliams came flying through the middle, took a handpass, drew Rory Beggan, then went around him. Helpfully, Beggan then slipped and could only turn his head and watch as his dream of becoming an Ulster club champion was extinguished. Somehow, McWilliams hit the crossbar and Beggan's dream, miraculously, was alive.

As with their game against Burren in the quarter-final, Scotstown dominated this one for the same two reasons. Firstly, Beggan's impeccable kicking out gave them a stranglehold. The big man is considerably more accurate than a US military drone. Secondly, their excellent zonal kick-out press - just as it had done against Burren (who eventually took their goalkeeper off, thereby wrongly diagnosing the problem) - meant that Coleraine couldn't get the ball kicked out.

In the end, the goalkeeper's only target was big Niall Holly, so when he got injured halfway through the second half, it was a disaster. Three points up with only four minutes to go, Coleraine couldn't get the ball kicked out, Scotstown's zonal press gobbled them up and with Beggan kicking two immense frees, his last one with 30 seconds to go, Eoghan Rua lost by a point.

A word on Beggan. It is indisputable that Stephen Cluxton is the father of modern goalkeeping and the greatest goalkeeper to play the game. Yet Beggan deserves his All Star this year.

His kicking out and free-taking have been consistently awe-inspiring, and with a team of far less individual ability than the Dubs to work with, his statistics are unmatched. Against Burren, he scored a point from play to add to a near-perfect kick-out display (Burren won one Scotstown kick-out) and on Sunday, he was again the MVP by a long way. Had he been playing for Coleraine, Scotstown would probably have lost by double figures. At county and club level, Rory is this year's number one goalie.

Scotstown's zonal kick-out press, which is organised very much along the lines of Monaghan's, is formidable, and Ghaoth Dobhair will need to prepare carefully for it. Their corner-backs and wing-backs must not fall into the error of going to the sidelines for the kick-outs, as the Scotstown boys will be happy to let them go there and tempt the goalkeeper to try near impossible kicks over their heads to the sideline. Even if the kick succeeds, the Ghaoth Dobhair man will be on the sideline with nowhere to go.

The alternatives are to try a short kick-out against the 3-4-4 press (a crazy tactic now that the ball must be kicked beyond the 21), try to hit the unmarked centre-back with another very difficult lobbed 30-metre kick-out, or to kick long to the midfielders, again giving the advantage to the zonal press.

Their system is very similar to Dublin's, and if Niall Morgan struggled to get the ball kicked out (Dublin won the All-Ireland final with a run of 2-4 from seven Tyrone turned-over kick-outs in the second quarter), what chance does the Ghaoth Dobhair goalkeeper have?

The point of the zone is two-fold: to intercept the kick-out and to leave the forwards free, since with the zone the forwards do not man-mark the defenders, instead leaving them to roam about fruitlessly inside the zone or along the touchlines.

The neatest solution in this situation is for the corner-backs and wing-backs to step inside their men and man-mark them. The two wing-forwards should then tuck in either side of the centre half-back, leaving a 3-5-2 formation. This means that the team kicking out will be defensively solid even if they lose the kick-out. It also means that it can be kicked long, over the top to the midfield area, with the wing-backs and forwards sprinting in to the break or flick-on, leaving them with a vast space to attack into. In this way, the opposition zone is neutralised, something that Tyrone - to their cost - failed to appreciate before the final.

In the other semi, Daire O'Baoill's hat-trick of goals in the space of ten minutes won what was statistically a very tight game, with Crossmaglen scoring very well. Those goals came by the creation of space through the middle, leaving O'Baoill to thunder through, with their number 11 evacuating that area. "He's the tiniest centre-forward I've ever seen," said Gerry. "I suppose it has its advantages."

"Like what?" I said.

"He wouldn't need a key to get into the house, he can just use the cat flap."

Just when Cross were coming back into it in the third quarter and had closed the gap to four (a bad miss from Aaron Kernan would have reduced it to three), Johnny Hanratty got sent off on a second yellow. Crossmaglen manager Donal Murtagh said they hadn't realised that Johnny was on a yellow card. Note to Donal for next year: Johnny is always on a yellow. Much as I admire him, if Johnny isn't sent off in a championship match, the CCCC would launch an investigation.

Ghaoth Dobhair played some blistering football. They also defended their goal very well, with a temporary sweeper dropping and that typical Donegal group defending inside the D when necessary. This prevented a shoot-out, which Cross needed after shipping the three goals in that ten-minute blitzkrieg.

Shortly after Hanratty was sent off, the game was ended when a high ball came off the top of the post and dropped straight into Kevin Cassidy's hands; he put it in the empty net and punched the air with delight. "Not bad for an old man," he texted me afterwards.

"My granny would have scored that," I texted back, "and she died ten years ago."

Ballyshannon's Sean Perry gloated afterwards, and tweeted me to say that given my admiration for Crossmaglen, he looked forward to a similarly glowing tribute to Ghaoth Dobhair given their "masterful performance in destroying the aristocrats". A piece I will write just as soon as Ghaoth Dobhair win six senior All-Irelands, 11 Ulsters, and 43 county championships.

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