Saturday 16 December 2017

Peter Canavan: Superior bench press to lift Tyrone over the line

In a rivalry that has turned toxic of late, discipline will be key in clash with Donegal

Eamonn McGee of Donegal and Tyrone’s Ronan McNabb tussle during last year’s Ulster final and discipline is likely to be a crucial factor in deciding who comes out on top this weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Eamonn McGee of Donegal and Tyrone’s Ronan McNabb tussle during last year’s Ulster final and discipline is likely to be a crucial factor in deciding who comes out on top this weekend. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Donegal and Tyrone find themselves in an unusual spot this weekend.

It's a big game of course. There is a place in an Ulster final at stake while this fixture now represents a rivalry that has bubbled over into toxic territory recently. So it's all to play for on Sunday and yet it isn't season-defining for either side.

Whatever happens in Clones, both of these teams will fancy their chances of rebuilding through the back door if that is to be their fate.

They both have enough about them to be confident they will be strong enough to reach the last eight. But with the likes of Mayo already in the 'A' side of the qualifiers where they'll be joined by either Meath or Kildare, both of whom are improving, it's not a route they'll be looking to take.

There'll be little in this at the end because the similarities between the teams are striking. Looking at the squads, they are almost carbon copies of each other.

In both cases, their young players are full of confidence having come up through successful underage sides. Tyrone have players who have won Ulster and All-Ireland U-21 titles and Sigerson Cups. Donegal have had good minor and U-21 teams recently and you can expect those players to form the backbone of their county sides for years to come.

As well as that, both teams also have a maturing cohort of leaders. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Ronan McNamee know what winning this game will take. Donegal have Paddy McBrearty, who is still only 23 but is very experienced. And they have the excellent Ryan McHugh.

Slighter

I met Ryan at the Cavan-Monaghan game last weekend. Some of the Cavan supporters around us couldn't believe it was him because he looked slighter than they expected. He's not the biggest but to my mind he has evolved into one of the most skilful players in the game.

And then there's the older boys. Justin McMahon and Seán Cavanagh provide the wisdom for Tyrone. Donegal have Michael Murphy, Neil McGee and Frank McGlynn with Murphy and Cavanagh acting as on-field generals. So right through the teams, they are well matched and in my mind, there's nothing to choose between either set of players that will take to the field.

When they met in the league, Donegal looked like a team who were hurting from last year's Ulster final defeat. In Ballybofey that day they were motivated and aggressive. Tyrone got a taste of what is coming their way this weekend. They should be ready for it this time around.

Overall, I think the game will follow a similar pattern to last year's final in that it will be cagey and defensive.

Patience will be key and discipline essential. Both teams have long-range free-takers in Murphy and Niall Morgan so any sloppy tackling will be punished.

The players will know that running on to the pitch but championship football can make you do strange things. I've been there myself, looking back at something I did and wondering how I lost my cool so much.

Just look at Keith Higgins last weekend. He picked up a silly red card that most likely cost his team the game. Diarmuid Connolly got caught up in it too when his side were comfortable against Carlow and, having decided not to appeal his 12-week ban, it will cost him most of his summer.

Throw into the pot that these teams have quite the history and it will be intense. There's bitterness there, arising from wholly unsatisfactory incidents in recent years. Whoever can keep the clearest mind in the fog of war will come out on top.

Within the game of chess that Rory Gallagher and Mickey Harte will play, there will be a couple of fascinating one-on-one battles. You'd be foolish to give McHugh the run of the place but Tyrone are fortunate to have a number of options to pick him up.

Tyrone could look to Aidan McCrory, Rory Brennan or Conor Meyler to be given that job. Last year, the now-retired Eamon McGee tracked Seán Cavanagh and maybe Gallagher will turn to his brother Neil to do that job. Justin McMahon, Cathal McCarron or Pádraig Hampsey have the physical attributes to go with Murphy. How those battles go will have a big say in the final result.

Whatever happens, Tyrone know they'll need to do more damage in attack than they have been. Defensively they have been largely sound but they scored just three goals in the league, with two of them coming in the heavy defeat at the hands of Kerry in the final round.

They've been looking at different things, like putting Mattie Donnelly in the full-forward line. It hasn't convinced some and I accept that you are robbing Peter to pay Paul by throwing him in on the square. In the right game, however, that will yield rewards for Tyrone.

I also think having the physical presence of Donnelly or Cavanagh in there will help our shooters.

Tyrone have real talent that can play in there like Ronan O'Neill, Mark Bradley, Darren McCurry and Lee Brennan. I know one of the criticisms of Tyrone is that they don't have a player like Conor McManus or James O'Donoghue who can find space against the most stubborn defences and turn games.

Changed

I have seen those lads in club games and I have no doubt about their ability but playing in the inside line in the modern game has changed. It's not enough to just kick points anymore.

You're expected to track back and tackle and like everything else, it takes time to learn that. But I think Sunday offers those lads a huge opportunity to show everyone their talent.

Last year a couple of brilliant points from Cavanagh and Harte decided the game. I expect it to be tight coming into the home stretch again but I think Tyrone have a advantage in terms of their bench. Donegal's young players looked comfortable against Antrim but for many of them, this will be their first proper taste of the Ulster Championship.

When Rory Gallagher looks around on Sunday afternoon, he'll see talented players who he hopes will be able to give him something when the heat is on. When Mickey Harte looks at his bench, I think he'll know exactly what he'll get.

A grain of rice will tip the scale. That grain might just be Tyrone's substitutes. But it will still go down to the wire.

Charity cycle in honour of late Paul McGirr

It's a big weekend for Tyrone football and everyone is rightly excited about what tomorrow will bring against Donegal but it shouldn't be forgotten that 20 years have now passed since Paul McGirr died tragically from an injury picked up while playing for the Tyrone minors.

To mark the occasion, Paul's brother Mickey is organising a cycle that will take in all 54 football and hurling clubs in Tyrone tomorrow with proceeds going to the Spirit of Paul McGirr Charity.

Good luck to everyone involved.

Irish Independent

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