Mickey Harte believes no team can win an All-Ireland from Division 2. More than that, he believes that winning the league is the best possible foundation stone for an onslaught on Sam, a double he last landed in 2003. It is an interesting perspective and explains why he and his troops have approached the current league with such vigour.
The Derry team I played on won four Leagues but only one All-Ireland, though it needs to be pointed out to younger readers that that was in the pre-qualifiers era. In the current era, Cork have won three leagues in the last five seasons but only one Sam Maguire. The strength of Mickey’s argument is what we have seen with our own two eyes. I have been to several games in the top two divisions in the last four months and there is no question that Division One is operating at a different level. My own county for example has blazed a trail through Division Two, but there is a world of difference between Longford and the Dubs.
Sunday’s game between Kildare and Tyrone was very brisk and very enjoyable. But it was played well below championship intensity. Importantly, Kildare’s habit of charging upfield in too great a number left gaps behind that a much cuter Tyrone took full advantage of. McGeeney’s naive defensive structure is to Donegal’s what the Irish Army is to the US Marine Corp. It is no surprise that they have conceded considerably more scores against per game than any team in the division.
That said, Tyrone played very well, with Stephen O’Neill and Mattie Donnelly adding the most delightful icing to the cake. Stephen’s point taking was a thing of the utmost beauty. His final two efforts couldn’t have been better if they’d been acted out for a film.
The dummy has a special place in all our hearts. Geoffrey McGonigle made me chuckle in fields all over Derry for over a decade, grown men diving through mid-air only to land in a humiliating heap. Or who can forget the blonde one’s era defining goal against the Dubs in 2005? The defenders knew it was coming but like bluebottles, one after the other, they buzzed straight into the fluorescent grill. Stephen O’Neill is one of the country’s foremost purveyors of the dummy and on Sunday he produced one for the ages, provoking a twitter storm that almost matched the tsunami that greeted the demise of Mrs Thatcher. There is nothing as heartwarming as a defender diving full length for the block and realising halfway through that he’s been nobbled. I was still smiling about it on Monday morning when I was cycling in to work.
As one great was reminding us of tricks from his heyday, another young Tyrone man was introducing himself to the nation. Mattie Donnelly has been known to aficionados for a while now but on Sunday the country had notice served upon it. His goal was taken with absolute ease and conviction, as was his left footed long range point. Beyond that, his all round game suggested a great one in the making. As for his team, they do almost everything well. Their defence is excellent. Don’t forget that they are the one team that has been able to stand up consistently to Donegal’s attack formation. In the 2012 championship, when Jim’s men were blitzing all comers, they ran into quick sand against Tyrone and required a tremendous last gasp save from big Durcan to survive. Tyrone’s short game is also superb, weaving fast, decisive patterns upfield. The problem is that they have no long game at all, unlike both the Dubs and Donegal who mix the long and the short to devastating effect. Tyrone meanwhile are solo runners and hand passers. When big Sean gets the ball - great and all that he is - the first thing he does is put his head down, give it a few shakes, then set off on a solo. The same goes for all their defenders including the corner backs. The failure to kick quick 40 or 50 yard passes means that Stephen O’Neill and his inside colleagues never get the ball early, in good scoring positions. Instead they must resort to circling around hoping for a lay off from the runner. Nine times out of 10, all they can do is to lay it off to the man coming through. This is why against the best teams, Tyrone’s attack has been relatively easily soaked up over the last four seasons.
The North’s other heavyweight manager has an entirely opposite philosophy to the league. After Donegal’s relegation, Jim McGuinness didn’t appear the slightest bit put out.
“It doesn’t make any difference to us,” he said, looking and sounding as though he meant it, “Because we don’t really like the league to be honest.”
He then went on to explain that being in Division 2 next year will be far more useful for his team: “It’ll give us a chance to roll out our annual plan a lot easier than this year or last.”
So far, everything that Jim has told us has turned out to be true. We won’t have to wait long to find out if this is. Donegal v Tyrone, Ballybofey, 26th. My money is on the Division Two team...