TYRONE came to Celtic Park for their annual beating last Sunday and I have to say they took it like men. At least the men did.
At the half-time whistle, with Derry five points to the good and Tyrone not showing any particular enthusiasm, a Tyrone lady in front of us roared over her shoulder: “I was in Omagh Brolly when Tyrone beat you with 13 men. You weren’t much good that day yourself.”
When I loudly retorted that she must only have started supporting Tyrone after they won the All-Ireland because not only was I not playing, but the game was in Clones, she went very red.
“Either that, or you were listening to Jackie Fullerton’s commentary on Radio Ulster.”
A row of Tyrone men beside me wearing their Red Hand coats sniggered at that, which brings me to the real problem: Tyrone no longer view Derry as serious opposition.
I remember vividly the first round replay between the two teams at Casement Park in 2003, the source of Tyrone’s golden era. Myself and Fergal McCusker were sitting in the stand surrounded by the O’Neill hordes. As Tyrone throttled the life out of a shell-shocked Derry, the crowd bayed for our blood. Eventually, one of the Antrim stewards came over to us and asked us to move for our own safety. Now, it is impossible to upset them.
Decade of disappointment?
For Derry’s part, we have done nothing over the last decade to dissuade them of the notion that they are superior. When you go to a game between the two, you are always looking to see if this relationship of Master and Servant might be about to change.
The game wasn’t great but, as always, when you are there in the flesh, it was very interesting. Derry showed great enthusiasm throughout. The lads played with a welcome spring in their step, what I will refer to as ‘the John Brennan experience.’
Chemistry is what John does best. He impassions players, imbues them with confidence and persuades them that they have every right to compete with the best. For Derry folk, the most pleasing thing about the game was that our lads showed no fear. Kevin McCloy was a nervous wreck last year.
In the early days of John’s tenure, he is beginning to look a different man. That inexplicable tendency of Kevin’s to suddenly give possession away under no pressure at all has been absent since January, though his rehab at full-back is in its infancy.
The team in general is happy and is playing accordingly. They are organised along sensible lines. The forward division, in particular, is sprightly and dangerous. Sean Leo McGoldrick at number 11 will present all sorts of problems for most number sixes. Conor Gormley might as well have been trying to hold water in his hands, since Sean Leo was never there.
Now picking up possession at corner back. Now one-twoing with the centre half-back. Now inside the defence to take the pass for Derry’s goal. It was no surprise that even Mickey bowed to the inevitable after 20 minutes and raised the curly finger.
Paddy Bradley was magnificent. His interest levels, which have slumped over recent years, were off the charts. His pace, his crisp, impeccable ball-winning under severe pressure and his lethal finishing suggests a man rediscovering the joy of football.
Most pleasing was his excellent work-rate. His endless motion off the ball coupled with excellent accurate passing from the outfield players rendered him impossible to mark. The real Postman Pat wouldn’t have counted on Sunday.
The Derry defence looked okay considering they were under severe pressure for long stretches of the game.
The problem area is midfield. P. J. McCloskey played with great spirit and tackled and attacked very well. James Conway struggled badly for pace and gave the ball away repeatedly. The problem was that Tyrone exerted their vast expertise in this sector and basically owned the ball.
It became even worse for us in the second half when Mickey introduced the offspring of Eugene (all bow), who promptly caught five clean high catches from kick-outs, soaring through the air with the greatest of ease and drawing gasps of admiration from all of us. Like his da, he doesn’t look that big, but boy has he figured out the mysterious art of high fetching.
Tyrone on Auto Pilot?
Tyrone? Well, they showed little or no enthusiasm, as you might expect from a veteran team thinking only of summer football. They – by their standards – were merely going through the motions. Auto-pilot.
Yet, there were some signs of decline. Stephen O’Neill was anonymous. He couldn’t even pick the ball up when it came to him. As the game progressed, he got his hands on a few balls and in a desperate attempt to get into the game, kicked horrid wides from impossible angles. The point is that three years ago, those kicks were going over the black spot. Not any longer.
Only Mickey’s respect for his tremendous efforts to get back playing kept him on the field. Sean Kavanagh looks as though he is beginning to think of another life beyond football. Nothing worked for him. He was unbelievably selfish, kicking wildly for points on umpteen occasions. Again, he just didn’t look anything like the player he has been.
Put it this way. If an American relative had been at the game with me, I would have said beforehand “That fellow with the number 10 is Sean Kavanagh, one of the greatest forwards the game has seen.” Afterwards, the second cousin would have been privately wondering how I ever got onto the TV.
Tyrone’s biggest problem was that they had no cutting edge whatsoever. Mickey – presumably to avoid having to take off Stephen – pushed big Aidan Cassidy into full forward where he was obviously out of position. The most telling difference between Tyrone now and Tyrone then is that Martin Penrose is now their ‘go to’ forward. Martin is a die-hard and a workaholic. But he is not a young McGuigan or a Canavan at any age.
Tyrone had no spring in the step. Yet they would have comfortably won the game had they had a bit of artillery up front, since they owned the ball round midfield. Derry, meanwhile, played with great energy and passion.
The Derry forward line was extremely dangerous throughout, posting only a few wides and playing with swagger. This was summed up by Emmet McGuckin from Magherafelt who came on midway through the second half and promptly hoofed two huge points, the second one so audacious it prompted an outbreak of laughter in the stands.
Midfield was keen but couldn’t win ball against Tyrone’s sophisticated ball winning factory.
After the match I had a low key chat with a group of Tyrone men. They are worried because they feel they no longer have the forwards to win the All-Ireland.
Derry folk are worried that come August, the Tyrone lads will again be in Croke Park while ours will be in Boston and London.
It is, after all, only February!
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