Thursday 26 April 2018

Joe Brolly: Yes, I was very angry with Seán Cavanagh once, but now I take my hat off to him

Sean Cavanagh leads Tyrone against Donegal last year
Sean Cavanagh leads Tyrone against Donegal last year

Joe Brolly

In Anchorman, there is a scene where Ron Burgundy, the TV presenter with the famously extravagant hairstyle, is in the midst of a blazing row with his wife, when their young son suddenly appears at the foot of the stairs. They fall silent. The boy says, “Did mommy touch daddy’s hair again?”

Tiernan McCann was interviewed last week and talked about his regrets at doing what he did in Croke Park last year. For me the only mitigating feature of what happened was not Mickey Harte’s explanation (there’s a vendetta against Tyrone), but rather that Tiernan had joined a squad where the culture was toxic. Feigning and diving was simply part of the fabric of the group. How things have changed.    

I wrote after the league game between us in March that Tyrone were now “a fully armed football machine” and that they were “ready to win an All-Ireland”. Last Sunday, they began to show some of their potential. But, more importantly, they showed that they are ready for war.

In 2011, Donegal targeted Tyrone. Not that it needed a narrative, but in his book Jimmy McGuinness set it out in stark terms. The idea was to break Tyrone. To take them down. Donegal brought controlled fury to that game, as they had to, and, just as Jimmy had planned, they broke them. This was exemplified in the final quarter when Leo McLoone poleaxed Joe McMahon with a heavy hit and Joe was carried from the field. As John Brennan is wont to say, “in championship football, you need to bone the bastards”. Donegal’s fury was the product of the right game-plan, the right fitness, the right players and the right manager. Let us wind forward to last Sunday.

Now, it was Tyrone playing with absolute concentration and fury. That is to say, they refused to be beaten. There were no distractions in their heads. They weren’t diving or feigning, which are symptomatic of a team that does not truly believe it can win. In that situation, the players will tend to look for shortcuts. Their heads will be distracted with thoughts of losing.

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Diarmuid Connolly on the charge in the Leinster SFC semi-final against Meath. The bookmakers have Dublin as red hot favourites to win their sixth Leinster title in a row tomorrow. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Diarmuid Connolly in action

So, Bernard Brogan or Diarmuid Connolly never go to ground. They will stay on their feet as if their lives depend on it, to create the score or take it. And they are two of the most heavily marked men in the history of the game. The same goes for Colm Cooper, Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue. They will do everything they can to get that score. Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty or Colm McFadden are the same. Murphy could go down and win penalties and frees all day long but he doesn’t. With winners, the focus is complete. There is also a deep sense of pride at how they play. It is more than just a game.

When Mayo were flying, Aidan O’Shea would have carried three men on his shoulders without going to ground. The physical and mental pressure exerted on him over the last three years has been enormous and he has always stood up to it. But now, Mayo are struggling. Their heads are filled with worries and distractions. Why is our strategy not working? Is the manager up to it? Did we do the right thing last year? Why are we not scoring freely? Why are we losing midfield? Is it over for us as a group? So, Aidan is taking shortcuts. I never thought I’d see him take a dive but this is what happens when things aren’t right. 

I haven’t seen a Tyrone man dive or feign this year. Instead, they are playing the way Tyrone teams must play as they work to build a dynasty to rival Kerry or Dublin. Tyrone teams of old could be enjoyed by all of us. They always played furiously, but the right way. Now, after a long gap when they turned off the neutral and played without any worthwhile spirit, they are back.

Early in the second half of the Ulster final, Colm Cavanagh came out with a ball and was hit hard by Anthony Thompson, who is a bull of a man. Thompson not only hit him heavily with his body, but tackled him hard with both arms after the hit. Colm absorbed the hit, then shrugged him off, knocking him to the ground, before continuing on his run out of the defence. At that moment, I knew Tyrone would not be beaten. A few years ago, Colm would have been down in an instant, holding his face and rolling in agony, driving opposition players and supporters crazy and prompting Mickey to say, ‘There’s a vendetta against Tyrone’. Not any more.

Sean Cavanagh of Tyrone lifts the Anglo Celt Cup after his side’s Ulster SFC final victory over Donegal at St Tiernach’s Park in Clones yesterday. Pic: Sportsfile
Sean Cavanagh lifts the Anglo Celt Cup

I have been saying for 12 months or more now that Colm Cavanagh has become one of the country’s most influential players and again on Sunday he was more or less awesome. At one point in the second half he directly contested a Donegal kick-out with Murphy. As Murphy went up, Cavanagh drove hard into the air above him, caught the ball and knocked Murphy to the ground under him as he carried through. He has become the beating heart of Tyrone.

As for his big brother Seán, awesome is really not a sufficient word. In the first half, I thought, ‘Here we go again’ as he was tied down and making no headway against a Donegal defence that has subdued and bewildered him for five years. In the second half, when Tyrone were in that limbo where they could easily wilt, it was Seán who won them the game.

In the replay of the first round against us in 2003, he lined out against Anthony Tohill. Anthony was at the very end of his career but was still a colossus of the game. Irish captain, multi-All Star winner, minor and senior All-Ireland winner and general all-round legend. Cavanagh tore him to pieces and I sat there with Fergal McCusker thinking, ‘Holy fuck’. It is scarcely believable that 13 years on, he is once again the driving force for his county. I was very cross with him a few years ago after a series of games where he dragged men down. But that is gone from his game now. Instead, on Sunday he gave one of the greatest performances he has given in a Tyrone jersey, perhaps the greatest.

And I include in that his 2008 final against Kerry. Whereas in that game he was essentially unmarked, since although he was nominally midfield on Darragh ó Sé he simply attacked at will, on Sunday he was swarmed by one of the heaviest defensive set-ups the game has ever seen. A few years ago, when he was being tackled by three men as he went to pull the trigger he would have been down rolling on the ground, settling for the free.

On Sunday, for the crucial point, which is one of the best I have ever seen (my jaw dropped as it went over), he absorbed the hit as he took the shot. And that was the end for Donegal. Peter Harte followed up with a great score, but it was Cavanagh who won the game in that moment. He led. The others followed.

Seán, my hat is off.

Tyrone’s strategy was well worked, but they didn’t execute their attacks with anything like enough confidence and adventure, instead allowing Donegal to defend on the ropes for long periods, especially in the first half. That said, they will not encounter anything like that Donegal defence again. When they had no choice but to go at them with vigour and purpose in the second half, they looked superb. The trick is to do that all the time, rather than wait until you’re so far behind you’ve no choice but to do it. Kerry and Dublin can score heavily in short bursts, winning any game in a five- or 10-minute spell. This is because they go for it when they sense the moment has come. Tyrone are well able to do this. Their coach Peter Donnelly has rehearsed this attack strategy with them religiously. It is time for them to trust themselves.

'The arrival of packed defences will be Jim McGuinness’s (pictured) main contribution to Gaelic football and if imitation is the greatest form of flattery, the Donegal man is surely a man apart in modern Gaelic football.' Photo: Sportsfile
Former Donegal boss Jim McGuinness

Jimmy McGuinness’s facial expression when he refers to “the Donegal management team” reminds me of Plutarch’s great line about Julius Caesar, whose eyes, he said, were “like the smiling surface of the sea”. The old dictator has been settling scores for a few years now and his polite assassination of Rory Gallagher in his Irish Times interview with Keith Duggan last week was one he clearly enjoyed. Having very deliberately heaped undue pressure on “the Donegal management team” since he stepped down, saying amongst other things, “Donegal are the team best placed to defeat Dublin”, and “Donegal will win Ulster because they have the marquee forwards”, it is clear that he hasn’t much to learn from old Julius.

Donegal’s system has become far too one-dimensional. Last Sunday, they carried the ball forward, then turned to handpass to the supporting player running behind at the diagonal. So, they weaved their figures of eight like a rugby league team, hoping for a gap in the defensive line, but got nowhere because Tyrone had strung a line of seven or eight players across the 50 and were watching for exactly that. Tyrone refused to budge from that line, so Donegal were turned over or reduced to passing the ball backwards, backwards, and backwards. At one stage in the second half, entirely unable to make headway, Donegal passed the ball about in the middle third for three minutes and 23 seconds, which must be close to a record. At no stage did Donegal mix things up. They never rotated Murphy to the square alongside McBrearty so they could kick long over the Tyrone line. They never tried to attack through the line at pace with a team-mate in front of the ball. So, Tyrone weren’t kept on their toes and never had to guess or adapt. When the long-range points dried up, so did Donegal.

And when a young unknown called Jonathan Munroe poleaxed All Star Frank McGlynn, prompting the reflection that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree (his da Raymond was a brick shithouse too), it was back to the future and that day in 2011 when a young unknown called Leo McLoone poleaxed All Star Joe McMahon. The wheel had turned full circle.

Tyrone’s subs fizzed and scored and the overall impression is of a team that is only beginning to realise its potential.

Last week, a series of dramatic photographs were released of Diarmuid Connolly holding Sam with a golden sea glittering in the background. He may savour his time with the sacred trophy. The Tyrone men are coming for it.

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