In THE dying seconds of the tough battle between Tyrone and Monaghan, the Tyrone defence turned over the ball and started to work it out.
Just out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Ryan McMenamin steaming upfield in support. The whistle went just then, so we will never know if the veteran corner-back would have capped his day with a point. What we do know, though, is that Tyrone are not yet dead.
I was talking to one of his team-mates recently who said Ryan is the most important club footballer in Tyrone. Dromore with this snarling, spitting little monster, are an entirely different proposition than Dromore without. He is the heartbeat of this Tyrone team.
Over the last four years, we have waited for the inevitable decline. Yet, just when the relatives are gathered around the bedside, the patient awakens, asks for tea, then gets out of bed and wallops someone in Clones or Casement. Ask Down!
On Sunday, they take the field against a very interesting Donegal team. Jim McGuinness admires Tyrone intensely. When he speaks of them, it is with reverence, shaking his head at the excellence of their method. He understands what Pat Spillane doesn’t - that Tyrone’s great successes have been built on method.
When he took over the Donegal Under-21s Jim began to experiment. Interestingly, like most forwards, his main interest lies in defensive strategy.
His Under-21s were virtually impossible to score against. But in the end, they didn’t score enough to get them over the line, leaving Michael Murphy adrift in the full-forward line. The Dublin full-back was given man of the match by TG4, presumably in recognition of the fact that he didn’t have to do anything. There is a but.
In spite of this, Donegal might well have won the game. Because of their defensive phalanx, the game remained tight and with the last kick, Donegal came upfield and won a penalty. Michael hit the bar. Had it gone in, they would have been champions.
The Way To Play?
This experience reinforced Jim’s belief that this was the way to play. The real individual strengths of his team are these: Karl Lacey is a top class man marker and footballer. However, Jim only has one of him, which means he can’t release him to play at right half-back, where he would be able to spray good diagonal balls across to McFadden and join the attack at will. Instead, he will pick up Stephen O’Neill on Sunday so will have to stay in defensive mode.
Rory Kavanagh is a very pacey, skilful midfielder who is extremely hard to watch and is a superb finisher, drifting in from deep. The way Donegal are set up to counter-attack will suit him, since he is an outstanding goal scorer.
Finally, he has three very good inside forwards. Lacking stellar individuals, he has adopted a defensive formation which disguises individual weakness. With 12 men inside his own half of the field, one-on-ones will rarely occur, except against the elite teams.
Also, most teams will eventually become frustrated and then disheartened when they spend half an hour dashing themselves against the rocks. Tyrone made an art form out of the blanket. Jim has doubled it over and added a duvet!
It is a game based on logic. Grind it out, then sneak scores on the counter-attack, relying on the excellence of Murphy, McFadden and McBrearty. The young man is an important addition since it gives Jim the flexibility of letting Murphy roam.
Tyrone have never had problems with a two-pronged full-forward line (with the honourable exception of Bernard Brogan’s miracle work in Croker last August) as they demonstrated, in particular, the day they smothered Kerry’s twin towers in the 2008 final.
Conor Gormley will pick up Colm McFadden. Tyrone believe him to be flakey and for good reason. He has always capitulated to Gormley, a nasty, spitting, snarling big monster. Colm has looked different this year. With Murphy roving deep, he is the go-to forward. Sunday is his biggest test.
The only thing Gormley lacks is pace so he’s in good company with Colm. Joe McMahon will pick up Michael. Which leaves McBrearty, who looks ready to rock, even if my auntie Bernie from Ballinascreen would rock against Antrim and Cavan. Doubtless, they have the potential to sneak the match-winning scores.
Tyrone, ‘blanket defence’
On the other hand, no-one knows better about dealing with the blanket defence than Tyrone, being that they are the copyright holders.
They will probe patiently, slinging the ball about and breaking through from defensive positions to create the opening. From number 2 to number 15, they are comfortable in front of the posts so they can certainly get enough scores in what will undoubtedly be a dour, if compelling game.
Brian Dooher is done. Bleep test scores or not, the great man’s time has come and when I say great, I mean it. Brian McGuigan is a pale shadow, even if he momentarily opned a door into the past against Monaghan.
Stephen O’Neill will be marked by Lacey which is as good as it gets. He will score, but it will be very very hard. Sean Cavanagh remains the best attacking player in Ulster. The equation is this. A youthful passionate, ultra defensive but limited Donegal, against a Tyrone team that is the cleverest in the country but well past their best. Shakespeare once said: “the younger rises when the old doth fall.”
Trouble is, I’m not sure they’ve fallen far enough just yet . . . . .