Thursday 17 October 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Tyrone must hold their nerve - and Kevin Walsh must develop one to free up Galway'

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Shane Walsh is one of the most talented players in the country but it’s debatable whether the current Galway set-up is getting the best out of him. Photo: Sportsfile
Shane Walsh is one of the most talented players in the country but it’s debatable whether the current Galway set-up is getting the best out of him. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

In his book, 'The Obsession', Seán Cavanagh tells a nice story about his last year playing for Tyrone.

It was a training session in late winter, one of the younger bucks arriving in with a tan that would turn heads on Love Island. "Jeez, lad, there's a nice gloss off ya," says Cavanagh hoping to kick-start a bit of slagging only to meet the deadpan reply: "Ah yeah, I got the tan done today!"

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As Seán puts it, he just sat down "feeling like I was one hundred years old".

Now that's an image of Tyrone I find irreconcilable with the team that was the bane of Kerry lives between 2003 and '08. Those boys didn't have a self-conscious molecule in their bodies. They were all about delivery, not appearance.

But time passes and teams change and watching Tyrone last Saturday night, the thought struck me that maybe we need to be careful about presuming on old qualities in new teams.

In 'The Sunday Game' studio the following day, a huge number of games played last weekend meant that Ciarán Whelan and I couldn't really get into the nuts and bolts of that Donegal win. Ciarán did venture the opinion that Tyrone maybe would rue moving away from the ultra-defensive shape of previous seasons and, while I don't think he was recommending a complete reversion by Mickey Harte, I'd have loved more time to tease out the argument.

Because maybe the most important thing right now is for Tyrone to keep their nerve. And, by extension, maybe the most important thing for Galway is not to be spooked by what happened in Cavan last Saturday evening.

Because Galway need few things more urgently right now than they need trust in themselves. Have they got that? I honestly have my doubts.

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Put it this way, their performance against a Sligo team that, remember, suffered seven straight league defeats in Division 3, was completely dispiriting. If anything, they looked there for the taking but for the fact that Sligo just dropped everybody back.

And the thing that struck me about Galway that day was just how one-dimensional they looked. How they had a Plan A and nothing beyond it.

Eventually they wore Sligo down, two quick third-quarter goals ending any pretence of a contest. But Kevin Walsh seems to me to think that a single system of play should suffice, irrespective of the opposition. If so, he's wrong.

At some point, you've got to ask different questions.

But you watch Galway play and it's as if they have absolutely no intention of kicking ball in to their full-forward line from distance. And, honestly, I'd love to know what those forwards are thinking privately.

More often than not, Galway position nine or ten bodies between the two '65s, deployed to slow down the opposition's possession. But look what happens when someone puts a ball in behind them like London did in Ruislip. Galway like playing against a slow-building attack because they can drift bodies back.

So they prefer their opponents to take short kick-outs and try to work a way through that central traffic.

In other words, they'd like you to play the game on their terms. Half-backs or midfielders running from deep. Short passing. A heavily congested middle third. In that London game, they were leading 0-8 to 0-3 when cut open by a goal approaching half-time.

And Roscommon should take note of how.

I don't doubt they will because their first goal against Mayo came from going direct, from the very kind of delivery that Galway, clearly, will not welcome. You just a need a forward inside who is able to win a 50/50 ball. It's not complicated.

I was chatting to a Galway friend of mine recently about their team and the potential attacking talent at Kevin Walsh's disposal. Imagine a fully-fit forward line of Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Michael Daly, Paul Conroy, Ian Burke and one more. Now I know Comer and Conroy are injured now but, even when they're not, Galway aren't inclined to empower that kind of attacking strength. This was wrecking my friend's head.

And here's a point I'd make.

Walsh is now into his fifth campaign as Galway manager. The job he has done is outstanding. But it seems to me that he is paranoid about someone getting a run at his full-back line. So his game-plan is, essentially, to slow everything down. To avoid surprises.

But that makes Galway easier to defend against than really should ever be the case.

Michael Daly swept a lot against London; Gareth Bradshaw against Sligo. Burke and Danny Cummins are the two left up the field, but everybody else -basically 11 or 12 players - seems squeezed between the two '65s.

And I couldn't believe how easily that set-up was exploited by London whose number 14, Fergal McMahon, picked up the ball, essentially circled by Tomás Flynn, Michael Daly, Anthony ó Laoi and Liam Silke.

Somehow, McMahon managed to elude them all and kick a quick pass inside to Cillian Butler, who was out in front of Eoin Kerin. Butler turned and burned him.

In that instant, Galway's swarm tactic was completely undressed. By London. By the breaking of tackles and an early kick inside.

People imagine that by simply having numbers in place, you become impenetrable. You don't. Every one of those Galway players actually got a hand on McMahon, but didn't stop him. Four big men and nothing more complex than aggressive running beat them.

If I'm setting up a team against Galway, I'm going to target their ball-carriers. Just as Donegal did to Tyrone last weekend. I'm going to target Silke, I'm going to target Kieran Molloy, I'm going to target Fintan ó Curraoin, I'm going to target Johnny Heaney and I'm certainly going to target Shane Walsh.

Because you've got to identify and isolate the players that Galway's system depends upon.

Walsh is one of the most exciting players in Ireland, equipped with phenomenal skill and pace. But are Galway getting what they should be getting out of him? Not possible when he's stationed so far from the opposition goal.

Here's the thing. Good teams make their opponents do what they don't want to do. Just watch what Donegal will do to Cavan in the Ulster final.

Look, a system is only as good or as tough as the men operating it. You still need players who can go man-on-man. And, if you're deploying a sweeper, he needs to understand that that role involves more than simply positioning an extra body in defence.

Tyrone's tackling against Donegal was abysmal. And, in hindsight, that's what we saw against Antrim and Derry too. They got carved open by nothing more complicated than aggressive running down their throats.

I think Harte will be the first to admit that Tyrone were a bit of a shambles on Saturday. Physically passive. Mentally slow. But they need to avoid an over-reaction. They can't just revert to the closed, old system that we all know will eventually come up short.

In my opinion, they've got to keep Cathal McShane, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly up the field. They've got to start Niall Sludden. But, above all, they've got to realise that this doesn't have to be one extreme or the other. It's got to be a balance.

People might think I'm daft when I say this but, if Tyrone can get themselves into the 'Super 8s', I still think they could be the main threat to Dublin.

People go on ad nauseam about Dublin's man-markers, but they've also had the best sweeper in the game in Cian O'Sullivan. And I'll ask you this. How many completely ineffective sweepers are being used today? Players who simply don't have the football intelligence to reprise what O'Sullivan does for Jim Gavin?

You see, the use of sweepers isn't a blight on football today. The clueless use of sweepers is.

For a sweeper to work, the key men are your numbers 15 back to nine. If the player kicking the ball in isn't under pressure, your defensive system just won't be fit for purpose. So many teams try it and quickly abort because they don't quite understand this. For a sweeper to be effective, every other player on his team has to be on the same hymn-sheet.

If that's not happening, everybody just looks stupid.

So don't write Tyrone off. They were shockingly disappointing last Saturday and, on RTÉ, I highlighted separate incidents where Peter Harte and Richie Donnelly weren't tracking their men. The reason they weren't was that they'd left to track other players.

In other words, they ended up trying to do someone else's job. Someone who wasn't tuned in.

And Donegal, to be fair, gave the best counter-attacking performance since Jim McGuinness was in his pomp. Tactically, they zoned in on everything Tyrone did in their previous two games and adjusted accordingly. It was a brilliant example of pro-active coaching.

So their opponents ended up looking like rabbits caught in the headlights, neither one thing nor the other. And I don't doubt that Kevin Walsh is determined the same thing doesn't happen to Galway now.

But if he sticks to what he's done so far in this championship, his team will play exactly as Roscommon would like them to play.

Anthony Cunningham, on the other hand, will be looking for his players to get early ball inside to the likes of Conor Cox and Andy Glennon. To bypass the swarm in other words.

Now I happen to believe that Roscommon remain an extremely poor team defensively, that Mayo essentially beat themselves in Castlebar on May 26. James Horan's men created enough chances that day to win two games, but that statistic of 15 wides must be haunting them ever since.

And my argument about Galway is that they need to be able to adjust to what's in front of them, not play the same, regimented game-plan every time. You cannot have just one, non-negotiable style of football. That's not going to work.

I accept that injuries have meant the starting 15 has been unsettled but, if you're not changing or evolving tactically, what's the point of even having a team-talk? The best teams are never slaves to a single plan. Yes, you must have a defensive foundation, but it can't be one that chains the team offensively.

I'll finish with this. If Galway really decided to trust themselves tomorrow and go after Roscommon, I think they'd win the Connacht final comfortably. But they won't do that. And because of that I can only give them a hesitant vote. I have a feeling it won't be a classic!

Five years into this project, that's not where Kevin Walsh needs to be. Deep down he surely knows that.

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