In the twilight of his career, legendary Panamian boxer Roberto Duran was fond of repeating the maxim, “The wind is old, but it keeps blowing.”
Mickey Harte, the game’s longest serving inter-county manager may be in his 10th year with Tyrone but on the evidence of last Sunday, the wind is still blowing strongly. Henry Downey remarked recently to me that when new Tyrone players come into the side, the process of integration is so smooth you would think a computer chip had been implanted in their brains.
On Sunday, they played with their hallmark composure, moving efficiently towards inevitable victory. Armagh had a wild card in Jamie Clarke but Tyrone don’t lose to teams that are dependent on one or two individuals. Their strength is the collective. They no longer have their great players or great players in their prime, but they will still beat nearly everyone else. All it takes for them to go to the next level again is for a few new great ones to arrive on the scene.
The balance they have achieved between defence and attack is something Jack O’Connor might want to study. He has aped the defensive part of their method, but doesn’t seem to understand the other part of the Harte equation. Their democratic approach to attack ensures that their scores come from everywhere. Corner-backs, half-backs and midfielders are as liable to score as Stephen O’Neill. In fact, their one truly great forward is now operating in so little space that the only scores he manages are invariably breath-taking. In the Athletic grounds, he scored two points, each one a collector’s item. Looking over my notes from the game, I see I have written “Brilliant” beside the first one and “almost impossible” beside the second. Of their 11 first half points, nine were from play and came from eight different men.
The other notable feature of the first half was a truly world class dive from Colm Kavanagh, who appeared to be bowled over by the invisible man. Even by the vaunted standards of the Kavanagh family, this one was a classic. The incident reminded me of the joke about Superman looking down and seeing Wonder woman, lying naked in a field, legs apart. He immediately swoops from the sky to copulate with her. Telling the story to his superhero mates later in a bar, one of them says, “She must have got a hell of a surprise when you landed on her?” “Not half as much as the shock the invisible man got,” replies Superman!
Tyrone’s know-how meant they were able keep Armagh at arm’s length and although they rallied after the sending off, Tyrone’s killing off of the game was a masterclass in cold professionalism. With five minutes to go, there was a point in it. A beautiful point, two dives and a tactical cramp later, and the game was over.
This Saturday, their main opponent in Ulster takes centre stage against a Derry team that have developed the losing habit. Michael Murphy’s absence is a help to us. Their defensive phalanx severely limited Derry’s score-getting potential in last year’s Ulster Final (after we had been in free-scoring form throughout the league and absolutely blitzed Armagh in the championship). But it was Murphy who was the key when it came to Donegal getting enough scores to win (including the penalty that wasn’t).
The problem is that we will be unable to take advantage. We have no high class number 3, 6, 8 or 9. Also, we moved the ball very slowly throughout the league and there is no basis for thinking that will change overnight. Paddy Bradley is very sharp, probably sharper than I have ever seen him. He is also playing with a grim determination that is borne from his two injury blighted years. But Lacey will pick him up and Lacey is without doubt the country’s best man-marker. I see he described Paddy as a nightmare to mark a few days ago. For me, it is Lacey who is the nightmare. Three years ago in a brilliant free flowing qualifier match in Ballybofey, where Donegal went man-to-man, Karl ate Paddy alive, to the extent that Paddy was hauled ashore in the second half, something that is rare as hen’s teeth. Tomorrow, Karl will get substantial help into the bargain. A
lso, there is no obvious supply line for Paddy. Sean Leo McGoldrick is a solo-runner and kicks as a last resort. Gerard O’Kane likewise. Mark Craig, like his two colleagues in the half-back line, is a very solid footballer but again tends not to kick. Our midfielders are hardworking but neither are playmakers. We were very lucky to hang on in a weak Division Two, surviving on the last day courtesy of other results.
Our wild card is John Brennan. It is because John is in charge that no-one is writing Derry off. The game’s most charismatic manager doesn’t give two damns about the league and his teams always perform with passion in Championship. He is the Don King of Gaelic football, the man to fill the journalist’s notebooks and pique our interest. “Martin Luther King took us to the mountain” said King, “I want to take us to the bank. I’m a promotor of the people for the people by the people and my magic lies in my people ties.”
John’s magic lies in those same ties. “I’ve as much interest in the league as I have of putting a man in space,” he said this week. “I don’t think I’ve won a league in my life. If I have, I’m not aware of it. I love the championship. Who won the league last year? Who cares?”
As we have seen throughout his extraordinary career, he is great at inspiring players. The problem at elite county level however is that performances can no longer be turned on and off. Our league campaign was dire, leaving us with no momentum and confidence worries. Eoin Bradley is not fit, so unlike Armagh, we have no wild card on the pitch. Our wild card is on the sideline, and in this day and age, that is not enough.