Darragh Ó Sé: Ulster football is buzzing because it still matters up there
With stakes high, will Donegal and Tyrone stick to more open game plan this weekend?
Cian Mackey celebrates scoring a point for Cavan against Armagh in the entertaining Ulster championship clash at Clones. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
You have to hand it to the Ulster Championship. It keeps on delivering even when the teams taking part aren’t serious contenders for the All-Ireland.
Both Cavan and Armagh will be gone off stage by the time we get around to the business end of the summer but that didn’t stop them putting together a mighty game in Clones on Sunday.
The reason is fairly simple. It still matters up there. Everyone wants to win the Ulster title, even the bigger teams. At different times in the noughties, you could see that Tyrone and Armagh were happy enough to win it but knew it wasn’t going to matter to them come the end of the year. That’s not the case anymore. Tyrone and Donegal would give their right arm for an Ulster title, no more and no less than Armagh and Cavan would.
More to the point, they all think they have a shot at it. So did Monaghan – and probably Down and Derry too, given how close they pushed Armagh and Tyrone. Fermanagh were in the final last year. So whatever way you look at it, the vast majority of teams up there start the summer thinking if they get a bit of luck along the way, they’ll be in with a shout. That’s just not the case in the other provinces.
It used to be. Even in Munster, when it was swapped between Kerry and Cork year after year, we still went into the summer thinking a provincial medal was a major thing to be aiming for. Cork have fallen away so badly in the past few years that there’s no big whoop in it now. It will need them to get back to being competitive before it starts to mean what it used to.
You get the odd good battle in Connacht alright. But Leinster is a washout because, no matter how close the games are, everyone knows the Dubs are going to demolish whoever they come across. So it always feels like there’s very little riding on those games when it comes right down to it.
So that’s the first thing these Ulster games have. A bit of edge, a bit of meaning. You never got the sense on Sunday that these were two teams just playing away and killing time until the summer is over. Cavan and Armagh would go wild if either of them got to an Ulster final. Armagh haven’t been in one for over a decade, Cavan haven’t made it for the guts of 20 years. They’d fill Clones for the day, full of madness and bouldness.
But as well as all that, there’s a good bit of quality in these teams. You can see that they both have a bunch of handy players who have the potential to go on and be something a bit better. Cian Mackey has been around a long time so the skill and composure he showed kicking those points was no big surprise. But he wasn’t the only one on show.
For Armagh, Jarlath Óg Burns, Niall Grimley, Rian O’Neill can all play ball. For Cavan, Dara McVeety, Niall Murray and Martin Reilly have plenty of skill. The difference with them this year is that they’re playing in teams that are looking to open up a bit and put those skills on show.
That looks to me to be the big change across Ulster. Teams have started moving away from the ultra-defensive stuff that was holding northern football back for a lot of the last decade. Cavan got a bad name for being seen as the worst culprits – the truth was that everyone bought into some version of it and it became the norm.
Everyone can have your own opinions one way or the other about those defensive systems. But the one thing that isn’t really up for argument is that they hid individual players – good and bad – and soaked up their strengths and weaknesses inside one big system. If you build a strong enough defensive system, you cut down on the possibility of individual mistakes. But at the same time, you also cut down on the chances for individual flashes of quality.
There’s a knock-on effect when you do this. The way anybody in any walk of life develops a skill is to do it repeatedly in situations that have a price to them.
Any inter-county player can kick a point on the run off the outside of their boot in training – they wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t. But to do it in a game you have to first of all be in a position to do it and second of all be in a regime where you’re encouraged to do it. That’s not what those systems are set up for.
Instead, the idea is to make yourself really hard to play through, to tackle like dogs and force turnovers and then to eventually work the ball to your main shooters or to buy a free. The skills that are most important to that system being turned into scores are finding good running lines, having plenty of energy, being able to tackle in numbers without fouling.
You don’t need brilliant footballers to do that. What you need are lads who are disciplined, athletic and willing. You actually need the fellas who are classy footballers to shut down a certain amount of the skills that set them apart at club level and give themselves over to working and fighting in a massed defence.
It’s not just attacking players who have to do this. Defenders who play for long enough in these ultra-defensive systems lose the skills that made them good defenders in the first place. If your number one weapon for stopping the opposition is playing a numbers game, then individual defenders find themselves going whole games without having to mark a man one-on-one.
So when teams move away from the whole blanket defence thing, what they’re really doing is telling players that they’re going to have to show more of the fundamental skills of the game. Be they defenders, midfielders or attackers, they’re not hidden as much as they were before. Some players will love it, some will be terrified that they’re about to be found out. But in the end, everyone develops playing this way.
High-end intercounty football is about doing things at speed. Watching Cavan and Armagh on Sunday was light years away from some of the grim Ulster stuff we saw three or four years ago – it just looked so much faster than before.
That’s what happens when teams start kicking the ball more instead of taking it out to midfield, handpassing it around, turning back and starting over again and again.
Cavan and Armagh both did that a few times – it will take more than one season to evolve fully. But you can see that both teams are trying to make the pitch as big as possible and move the ball through the foot. They’re trying to inject pace into what they’re doing as well.
These are the first steps along the road. If and when they come up against the bigger teams, they might get nervous and retreat into their shells again. You’d nearly forgive them if they did because it’s just human nature to go back to bad habits in an emergency situation.
You saw that in extra-time the last day. Both teams were wrecked and both of them went back to trying to play with less risk. The game slowed down and it became a matter of who was going to blink. But again, it’s tough to be too hard on them for that. These are the first steps along the road and you have to give them credit for trying to develop.
The temptation to fall back into that defensive groove must be there for both sides
Given everything that has happened so far in Ulster, you’d imagine Tyrone and Donegal this Saturday night should be another cracker. They’re the two best teams up there and they’ve both been changing the way they play over the past few seasons. The difference between them and the Cavans and Armaghs is that they have developed a more attacking style because they know they stand a chance of doing well in the Super-8s and beyond.
You won’t survive at the sharp end of the summer if the best you can hope for is to keep rotating the ball until you get a shooter in position to take a percentage shot. That’s not an option any more. It was never really an option anyway but that didn’t stop Tyrone and Donegal persisting with it.
They’ve changed over the last couple of seasons, both of them. They keep more players forward, they kick the ball longer and earlier and quicker now. It’s not about keeping six forwards in their positions – Dublin don’t do that, Kerry don’t do that, nobody will ever do it again. But there is more risk involved and the football is better because of it.
So it will be interesting to see what Saturday night brings. Donegal and Tyrone teams know each other inside out and they both have plenty of fellas who played their roles in the blanket defence days. Plus the fact that, as we said at the start, these games have real meaning. I just wonder will they find themselves reverting to type.
It wouldn’t be a massive surprise if this went back to being one of those sticky, cranky Ulster Championship games with loads of men behind the ball on both sides and both teams doing all they can to take the risk out of it. Both of them have won this fixture in recent times so they both know what it takes. The temptation to fall back into that defensive groove must be there for both sides.
But if they do that, how do they balance it against the bigger picture? Both of them know that if they want to make an impact later in the year, they have to be able to play an attacking game against the best teams. This is their chance to road-test the things they’ve been working on. So when the game is in the melting pot, do they go with what they’ve been developing or do they fall back into old habits?
Ulster football has given us plenty this summer already. Saturday night will tell us a lot about where the two best teams from the province might end up in August.