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Joe Brolly: Tyrone will continue to play their 1-13-1 formation and Mickey Harte is to blame

‘Mickey went on to complain that the general reporting around Tyrone is unfair and lacking objectivity’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
‘Mickey went on to complain that the general reporting around Tyrone is unfair and lacking objectivity’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

I was at an event in Croke Park on Thursday evening and afterwards, a group of us were chatting. A St Vincent's man described how he used to bring his son to all the different codes. The soccer bored him stiff. He brought him to Croker to see Derry v Dublin in the league a few years ago, where Derry adopted the Tyrone formation. The child wanted to go home at half-time. He now plays hurling.

Another man in the company said that coming to Croker for the football has become as much a social occasion as a sporting one. For many games, people don't go back to their seats for the second half, preferring to have a few pints at the bar and shoot the breeze, glancing at the telly now and again. But as the Dubs, Mayo and Kerry have shown over the last five years, it doesn't have to be this way.

The sole competitive football competition began last weekend. It was hoped around the country that after Dublin left fear-based pseudo-football in tatters last August, we would see the beginnings of a return to Gaelic football.

The early signs are encouraging, apart from Tyrone, who resumed against Galway where they left off in Croke Park last August, trapped in a robotic defensive game that forbids expression.

It is increasingly clear that the problem is . . . Mickey. Mickey is right, and everyone else is wrong. Permanently. Period. Or rather, Mickey is right, and everyone else is prejudiced against him. RTÉ, pundits in general, most of the media, other teams, ex-players and so on are involved in a vast conspiracy. As John Alderdice, first speaker of the new Stormont government, said about the DUP, you're not paranoid if they really are against you.

After that semi-final last year, Sean Cavanagh had no sooner walked to the sideline in his gear than he was talking about the need for Tyrone to switch to a more attack-based style. "We will not win an All-Ireland playing this way." Tyrone greats from the iconic noughties team, including Philip Jordan, Brian McGuigan, Owen Mulligan and Enda McGinley, lined up to agree on the national airwaves. Tyrone supporters joined them. The media too. All of which guaranteed that nothing would change.

In a hagiography in The Irish Times last weekend, Mickey did his usual 'I don't like to personalise but there is a certain pundit from Derry who I won't name because it's not what I do etc'. "The barking dog," he said, "won't bite you because he is just barking all the time", adding, somewhat ironically, that unlike the unnamed pundit from Derry with an All-Ireland medal who wears glasses and slouches in his chair, he would never try to "elevate himself by putting anyone else down".

A friend of mine from Tyrone rang me on his way back from Tuam on Sunday night to say it was a thoroughly demoralising day, watching Tyrone playing exactly the way they had done last August. "The arrogance is incredible," was his verdict. "I feel sorry for the players."

That Irish Times position piece and another one earlier in the same paper illustrates the extent of the problem. Mickey's analysis of that Dublin semi-final is this: in essence, Tyrone play great football, his tactical approach is spot on, and they could well have beaten Dublin if it hadn't been for a "dishonest" goal by Con O'Callaghan and Tyrone missing a number of chances in the third quarter. Which you may feel sounds like something the Mad Hatter might say as he is pouring tea into his top hat, with steam belching out both ears at right angles.

On that O'Callaghan goal (Dublin's first), he lists a number of excuses. Here they are, in no particular order:

1. The referee got a little bit in the way of Padraig Hampsey.

2. O'Callaghan was supposed to be marking Hampsey and didn't follow him. Con got his goal in a way I wouldn't like - by not being an honest broker and going after his man as he should have done.

3. The media narrative, led by certain Meath, Derry and Kerry pundits who I won't name, was partly to blame for the goal, with the referee somehow failing to notice the number of steps taken by O'Callaghan.

4. Tyrone are systematically discriminated against by officials.

Fair enough, I made up numbers 3 and 4. But did you believe them as you read them?

Mickey went on to complain that the general reporting around Tyrone is unfair and lacking objectivity. So, there you have it. Tyrone will continue to play in the 1-13-1 formation, with attacking an afterthought. On Sunday, they scored three points from play in 77 minutes. It is a pity. I have been saying for years that they have terrific, skilled players who are going to waste, players who would adorn any team. Or maybe Mickey is right, and it's all down to RTÉ, barking dogs not biting, general prejudice, and dishonest brokers playing for opposition teams.

Meanwhile, in Celtic Park, for the first time in four or five years, we had the novelty of seeing a Derry team play with an actual forward line. We pinched each other with excitement as Westmeath went on their first attack and we still had four forwards inside the attacking half. To be fair, the excitement didn't last long. From the first play we got a free from our left corner-back area. What happened was instructive. Instead of kicking it to the half-forward line, the free-taker hesitated, then kicked it short across his own square, where it was intercepted and put in the net by the Westmeath forward. Derry have been playing defensive, risk-free muck for several years now, and reprogramming the players to play the game will not be easy.

A few minutes later, Westmeath were given an unusual penalty, Kevin Johnston adjudged to have been holding the full-forward off the ball and away from the play. This was their second goal. 2-0 to 0-0 after three minutes. Paddy McGurk, Kilrea's third best footballer of all time (after James Kielt and Martin O'Neill) turned to me and said, "I think we have to take the positives out of this."

The game was helter skelter after that. Derry scored a fantastic goal, with slick inter-passing culminating in a brilliant, difficult foot-pass to the edge of the square and a pass to the net. It was a game we could have won, but Westmeath were far more composed and confident, and played some excellent, expansive football.

The performance of Derry's Ciaran McFaul was instructive. He is an excellent long kick-passer, and won several Ulster minor titles with his club, Glen. They play a long kicking game and Ciaran was central to that strategy. But for Derry, he was swiftly indoctrinated into the cult of pseudo-football, instructed not to kick long, since there was no half-forward line in position anyway (they were all inside their own 45 pointing and marking space) and instead to play safe.

So, on Sunday, he refused to kick the ball despite constantly being in possession in the half-forward line, preferring to take the safe option that has been ground into him and his team-mates over the last five years - hand-pass it sideways to someone in a worse position as the inside forwards frantically made runs.

We had an opportunity to get a draw when we were awarded a penalty with the last kick of the game, but we missed. Still, it was an interesting, entertaining enough game and if Damian McErlean can keep his courage and persuade these risk-averse young men to start taking risks, Sundays in Celtic Park will no longer be eyesores.

I was worried that Donegal under Declan Bonner would continue in the vein of his under 21 teams, yet their performance against Kerry was really heartening. It showed what good footballers can do when they are encouraged to express themselves. The performance included something rarer than a baby panda: the first long ball kicked in by a Donegal senior footballer since the 2014 semi-final against Dublin. Hugh McFadden took the honours, kicking a long, hopeful punt to the square where the tiny Darach O'Connor was one on one. O'Connor got a hand to it and it was in the Kerry net.

Older Donegal supporters in the crowd wept openly. The younger fans were speechless, automatically storing it in their brains under the category, 'things to tell my grandchildren'.

Losing by a point to an experimental enough Kerry team was neither here nor there. The way Donegal played was the important thing. Of course Kerry do not play with a blanket and set up man to man. We will see better whether they are prepared to play real football when they face Tyrone. That said, if Declan shows courage, puts Michael Murphy on the square permanently when he returns, and retains a half-forward presence, they are going to be a serious team come the summer.

The best thing about the weekend, yet again, was the Dubs, who played their usual brand of joyful, adventurous, attacking football. One minute they were two behind a skilful, football-playing Kildare team. The next, they were ten up. Like the All Blacks, they can destroy you in the twinkle of an eye. Kildare manager Cian O'Neill said afterwards that Dublin were a brilliant team and are almost impossible to stop when they get into gear.

But as Mickey will tell you, it's all very well for the Dubs. They don't have to suffer media prejudice. Referees are helping them out by blocking their opponents' view, and they are a team of dishonest brokers who attack at will, scoring goals and points when they should be dropping back behind their own 45, marking space.

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