KIERAN McGeeney said before last Sunday’s Division Two Final that Tyrone were the Barcelona of Gaelic football.
Long before the final whistle sounded in Croke Park, the thought struck me that they looked more like Ballyclare Comrades! If the Barcelona analogy implied a similar sort of attacking creativity, this was sorely absent.
Before Sunday, the possibility was that Tyrone – having taken a year out in 2011 – were back in business. There had been a bit of healing time after the awful tragedy in Mauritius and the five retirements of veteran stars had allowed a number of young men who, up until now, had been bit players to become regular starters.
Twelve consecutive victories in the McKenna Cup and Division Two cemented the notion that Mickey and his group were off on another adventure that might lead to Sam.
But by half three last Sunday, that notion had evaporated as Tyrone toiled laboriously, hand-passing and solo-running their way into the massed Kildare defence.
The most disappointing feature of their play was the utter lack of invention. Their once revolutionary game plan has become one dimensional.
New Foundation Stone
Peter Harte is the new foundation stone of their slightly revised method. Deployed at centre-half back, he doesn’t really play there at all. Rather he uses it as a disguise to attack through the middle. When he takes off, Ronan McNabb drops back from wing half-forward to cover him.
As Tyrone attack, their forwards take their men away from the central column in front of the goals by making decoy runs towards the wing. Peter runs through the unguarded centre, the ball is transferred to him and he either scores or sets up a score. As a result, he was Tyrone’s top scorer in the League.
In their League opener against Kildare three months ago, the tactic had worked a treat. Peter took advantage of Kildare’s confusion that day to score one goal and set up the second in a five point victory.
This time, Kildare were ready. On Sunday, when McNabb dropped back, his man simply switched into the central area to meet and greet Peter. Instead of the Kildare defenders and midfielders following the decoy runners towards the wings, they congregated in the central scoring area. And that, as they say, was that.
Peter spent the game running into a brick wall. Stephen O’Neill, the one forward who could have unlocked Kildare’s defence was, as usual, starved of possession.
Twice, the ball was kicked to him in the danger zone. From these two opportunities, he scored a point, then created and almost took a goal chance that might have changed the game. He must be bored out of his wits playing on this team, particularly now that the better oppositions have cottoned on to their method.
Tyrone’s defenders and midfielders simply do not kick the ball, unless it is a 15 yards foot pass. Instead, they solo-run and hand-pass (admittedly at speed) out of their defence until they reach the opposition ‘40.’ By then, Stephen is swallowed up inside the blanket defence, living off scraps.
Likewise Owen Mulligan. If the Tyrone runners are not allowed to come through the middle area, then the team is in serious trouble.
Jim McGuinness demonstrated last summer how to stop them in their tracks. After a nervy first 25 minutes, which Donegal spent shaking off their inferiority complex, they were in complete control.
The first tactically astute Dublin team in living memory repeated the dose in Croke Park a few months later. Now, Kildare have done the same.
Up until Sunday, this group had played Tyrone four times in League and Championship and failed to win a single game. Now, like Donegal and the Dubs, they have their number.
My, How Things Have
It is interesting to see how things have changed. Before the 2008 final, which almost everyone thought Kerry would win, their old coach Paddy Tally said at a chat show in Sally O’Brien’s (I still have fond memories of those wet t-shirts) that he couldn’t see how Kerry could win.
“Why?” the Radio Highland compere asked him.
“I don’t see how they can stop the Tyrone runners through the middle. You need to plan for that.”
Paddy was absolutely right. You may recall how in the last 10 minutes that day, Tyrone poured through that central scoring column in front of the Kerry goals, kicking five points without reply to close the game out.
“Amazing” Pat Spillane muttered to me at the final whistle, “f***ing amazing.” Amazing indeed, but only when you don’t understand how they did it.
Four years on, the big teams know now how they did it. Most of them have copied and refined that style. This method used to be Tyrone’s trump card. Their loaded dice. Suddenly, a strategy built on Peter Harte isn’t much of a surprise.
Tyrone are back in the pack, and back in the pack to stay . . . .