If young McAliskey had handpassed that ball, Tyrone would be in an All-Ireland final and nobody would be talking about whether Mickey Harte should stay on.
The transformation in Tyrone began after the Donegal game. At that point, I would have said Mickey simply does not understand the blanket defence, counter-attack system. After all, Jim McGuinness had schooled him with the same game plan year in, year out. Each year, it looked like Mickey’s first day, gleaming in his new uniform and polished shoes, being bullied by the seniors. But after Ballybofey, it all changed.
If I had to bet on it, I’d say that his coach Peter Donnelly was finally let loose. After an abysmal league campaign and another morale crushing defeat to Donegal, what other explanation is there? Quickly, a good defence/ attack balance was achieved. Disorganisation was banished. The gloom that accompanied their risk free, conservative, but doomed approach disappeared.
Suddenly, they were positively perky. With twin sweepers guarding the edges of the square and a superbly organized zonal defence, it became impossible for opposing teams to even contemplate a goal. Scoring a three pointer against them was the stuff of dreams. Simultaneously, for the first time in years, Tyrone began to attack. At first they were hesitant, but with each passing game they grew in confidence. By the time they played Monaghan, it was clear they were getting the hang of the most important aspect of Gaelic football: Game management.
The problem with leaving it all so late (I am assuming that the Ballybofey defeat was the starting point for this work), was that there was insufficient rehearsal time. In turn, that meant the players lacked the absolute conviction required to win at the highest level. That conviction comes from the players reacting automatically to events during the game. So, McAliskey would have drawn the last defender and hand passed it to McCurry to win the game. That goal would have virtually guaranteed the second goal. Kerry were really vulnerable in the hole behind their centre back and with goals an impossibility, they would have been caught on the counter-attack as they were forced to drive forward. In the circumstances, talk of Mickey Harte being replaced is ridiculous. To oversee such a turnaround requires a very strong leader. Mickey is a dictator. But the best managers are. Ferguson, Mourinho, McGuinness et al are autocrats. As is Fitzmaurice. The difference between Tyrone being in an All Ireland final with a genuine prospect of victory and not being there was a split second of selfishness. Which was not the manager’s fault.
What Mayo wouldn’t give for a few months with Peter Donnelly. Even for ‘Masters of Disaster’ of their stature, Saturday’s events were shocking. When they went four points up in the 54th minute, people watching the national broadcaster must have thought that finally, they were going to close out a big game. Meanwhile, I was looking down at the vast open prairie leading to Mayo’s square, feeling queasy.
Just about the time Cillian O’Connor showed extraordinary concentration and grit to kick the goal that would have won the game for Kerry, Tyrone or Donegal, I realised they were going to lose. Mayo panicked, because they do not have strategy for holding a lead. Just as they do not have a strategy for preventing goals, nor one for scoring them. Hoping for the best is a tactic that invariably results in the worst. And so the inevitable unfolded.
I spoke with Pat Holmes after the drawn game last week and suggested his sweeper was in the wrong place.
“A sweeper’s job,” as Jim McGuinness said to me before throw in today, “Is to sweep at the feet of the full forward.”
What he meant was that the sweeper’s job is to protect the square. Instead, Mayo’s full-time sweeper ran about along his 30 yard line, drawn to the first Dublin player he saw like a moth to the flame. Both Dublin goals resulted from this in the drawn game. For the first, Boyle rushed out to Flynn, collided with his own man Jason Doherty, taking him out of the game and allowing Flynn to run unhindered through the kill zone. For the second, he decided to track Flynn’s decoy run away from the danger area, thus leaving an empty bridge for the grateful Dubs to cross over.
Mayo learned nothing from the drawn game. Nothing. Their strategy for Cluxton’s kick-outs remained a mystery. The “Sort of, maybe, not really, should we, oh, maybe we shouldn’t, ah, go on, oh we better not push up,” strategy is not one I am familiar with.
As one inter county manager said to me outside the stadium beforehand, “What the f*** are they playing at?” In this curious vacuum, Cluxton thrived. Of 19 kick outs, only one was kicked long and it was the only one he lost all day. 18-1.
The second part of their strategy that continued to malfunction was the fixation with kicking long to Aidan O’Sé. Like last week, he was left isolated, expected to work miracles. Dublin had dealt most effectively with his threat by ensuring there was always a sweeper at both the Dublin left-half and right-back positions, so that Mayo could not rake in the diagonal balls that Aidan needed. Denied these positions, Mayo continued to kick long anyway, up into the air and straight down the field. It was excruciating to see it unfold.
Those first two were not however fatal. The angel of death was in the third sorrowful mystery: The non-sweeper. Three laughable goals in nine minutes. These were foreshadowed in the first half when Philly McMahon was so surprised to find himself 21 yards out clean through on goal that he panicked and popped it over the bar instead of hand-passing it to the free man outside the keeper to flick to the empty net. Which is why at half-time I said this is a disaster waiting to happen.
In truth, it is better they’re not in the final. Without any understanding of game management, Kerry would have ruthlessly picked them apart. Just as Donegal did in 2012 and Dublin did in 2013. Fitzmaurice has rehearsed his tactics and system so that it is automatic. Everyone knows precisely what everyone else is doing. Chances are ruthlessly despatched. When the foot is on the neck it is kept there until the body stops moving. Mayo meanwhile, with a half baked long ball game and an entirely incompetent sweeper system, still almost got to another final.
I salute Mayo’s courage and skills. Like this team’s previous defeats in Croke Park, it is not the fault of the players. Without engrained systems of play, victory is impossible.
If only Mayo could tempt Harte and Donnelly to go West….