The terms and conditions for a winter championship were there for all to see last weekend. I was watching Tyrone and Donegal play in Ballybofey and the main thing it brought home for me was that the players who are going to thrive in these two months are the one who keep things simple. I don't mean playing safe, I mean playing smart.
Mistakes are going to come, they’re unavoidable. The ball is wet and the stakes are sky-high because there’s no back door. So there’s going to be a combination of bad pitches, harsh weather and huge tension. That adds up to mistakes, I don’t care who you are. But as the cream rises, you will find the better players making them in parts of the pitch where they’re not going to get crucified.
Darragh Canavan's goal for Tyrone came from a killer Donegal mistake in totally the wrong part of the pitch. I know Eoin Bán Gallagher took a fair bit of stick for spilling the ball but, to me, the culprit there was Shaun Patton, the goalkeeper. His handpass across his goal bounced and skidded before it got to Gallagher and suddenly Donegal were in trouble.
This is what a wet-weather championship does to you. You can’t afford to relax. You can’t assume that the ball will reach its target unless you’re 100 per cent committed to the pass. The simple skills of the game have to be done to the letter.
Patton was under no major pressure as he took the ball across the 20-metre line and Gallagher was an obvious and simple out ball to get Donegal moving. The handpass wasn’t a terrible one, it was just slightly less perfect than it needed to be.
On a dry day, a handpass that falls a yard or two short of a teammate doesn’t matter. It just hops up into his chest and nobody gives it a second thought. But because the ground was like an ice rink by this stage, the skid of the ball meant it shot low through to Gallagher as he bent down to collect it and it got away from him. Canavan didn’t need to be asked twice.
Patton is a fine goalkeeper and he has one of the best kick-outs in the country. The one he sent long for the Donegal goal was as good as you'll see in the championship between now and Christmas. Laser-straight, one hop and perfectly into Peadar Mogan's stride on the Tyrone 45. Within a few seconds, the ball was in the Tyrone net after Mogan fed Michael Langan running through. A brilliant goal and it all came from Patton's kick-out.
But I guarantee you that when the Donegal management are breaking down the game, they’ll be dragging Patton over the coals for Canavan’s goal. Not because he made a bad pass but because he made the wrong pass. Patton needed to fist it straight into Gallagher’s chest or he needed to look out the field for another option. Smart players don’t chance a bounce pass on a wet day to the last man back.
Donegal and Tyrone served up a cracker of a game on Sunday. Part of the reason, in a perverse kind of way, was that the conditions were so bad. How many times have we watched a game between those two on a dry day where there is constant recycling of the ball and long stretches of possession for one team or the other?
Because of the weather on Sunday, mistakes were being made and turnovers were happening. You didn’t have as many of those long drawn-out passages of possession that can be very dull to watch. Add in the conditioning of the players and their willingness to go bald-headed to try and win the game and you ended up with a thriller.
There won’t be a storm blowing through the country every weekend but we can be fairly sure that teams are going to have to deal with rain and wind and cold as we go along. The lessons to be learned from these matches will influence the type of football we see as the championship progresses. The ground isn’t going to get any harder, that’s for sure.
That’s where game intelligence is going to come into play. Players are going to have to fight their instincts to some extent. For a lot of players, their first reflex when they get the ball and they want to accelerate is to hop it so as to get themselves a step away from their marker. But look at the pitch in Ballybofey on Sunday – you were going nowhere hopping the ball on that surface.
As the game wore on and legs and minds got tired, you saw a few players turning into traffic in the centre of the pitch and finding themselves about to be bottled up. In that situation on a summer’s day, a skilful player can kind of reverse out of it by hopping the ball and turning his body position away from trouble all in one go. But you saw players from both teams try that on Sunday and just get gobbled up.
Just like Patton with the handpass, it wasn’t the skills of the game that let them down, it was their decision-making in going into contact. Wet-ball football is based on thinking ahead. What am I going to do with the ball when I get it? Where are my options? Will I need a fist pass or a kick pass? Who is on me? What direction are they coming from?
A really wet day taxes your head as much as your body. Your gloves are soaked before you get halfway through the warm up. You can wear a training top but sure it gets soaked as well and it’s heavy on you within five minutes.
Everybody changes their jersey at half-time to feel fresh after the restart but that barely lasts past the throw-in. I see the Limerick hurlers have got into the habit of leaving the opposition waiting on the pitch at the start of the second half – ordinarily I wouldn't say that there's much to be gained from that kind of carry-on but when there's a monsoon raging outside, it's probably no harm.
The other very noticeable aspect of the game on Sunday was that size makes a difference. Donegal's best players were Ciarán Thompson, Michael Langan, Michael Murphy – all of them over six feet tall. Langan came onto the ball like a steam train for his goal and was able to shrug off a couple of Tyrone defenders along the way. It was pure pace and power. On the flipside, I can't remember a game where Ryan McHugh had so little influence.
But just because the weather was the most obvious factor in what we saw at the weekend, it doesn’t mean it was the most important. No, to me now, the most crucial factor in everything that happened was the fact that these games are do-or-die.
Knock-out football makes you throw yourself into games like there’s no tomorrow. When Cavan were six points down after the second water break on Sunday, the fact that this was going to be their last roll of the dice for the year had to feed into the way they came back at Monaghan. In a different year, it would have been in the back of their mind somewhere that there was a back-door on the horizon.
Not this time. Instead, they got the blood up and came hurtling at a Monaghan team who had gone way too conservative at that stage. Monaghan didn’t bury Cavan when they had the chance and they paid the price. They looked to be happy to contain them rather than going out for the second half with a bit of bloodlust and putting all notions of a comeback out of their head. There should be no such thing as containment in knock-out football. The consequences make it too dangerous.
I don’t expect Kerry to make the same mistake in Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday. You have to really go for it in this format and I think that they will. I’m always wary of this fixture – as people who have read this column before are never slow to slag me about – and the one thing I know for sure is that Kerry won’t keep winning it forever. But I don’t think this will be the game where Cork turn it around.
They have size, which is in their favour. There isn’t an awful lot of height in the Kerry team so there is a bit of potential there for Cork to gain an advantage, especially if the weather is as bad as it was last Sunday. But all in all, Kerry’s league form is that bit better and they look like they have come back from the break in very good shape.
Cork will beat Kerry some day. Hopefully just not this Sunday.