Jim McGuinness: Tyrone are gathering All-Ireland pace

Ulster title victory showed Mickey Harte’s side are now a real threat to Dublin

Tyrone players stand for the national anthem ahead of the final  against Down in Clones. They are almost as good as they are going to be. Is that good enough? Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Tyrone players stand for the national anthem ahead of the final against Down in Clones. They are almost as good as they are going to be. Is that good enough? Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

 

Tyrone are Ulster champions again. What is crucial, for them, is they are a different calibre of Ulster champion now than they were 12 months ago.

As I watched Sunday’s game, the smoothness and thoroughness of their performance turned the match into a very one-sided contest and the only significant thing about the final is that it brings Tyrone to a new place.

The game brought me back to the summer of 2012 when we defended Ulster – also against Down, coincidentally – and were trying to make the All-Ireland breakthrough. I felt we had to win Ulster again in order to ready ourselves for that task.

Now, Mickey Harte’s team are in much the same place. A year ago, Tyrone were a young team trying to force their way back into the provincial conversation. This year they proved to themselves that they are the absolute kings of Ulster. They dispatched Donegal. They dispatched Down. So there is a huge psychological difference between the titles and the confidence that Sunday’s victory brings.

The team that beats Tyrone will have to look at each player in the eye and say: you are going to be sore walking out of this stadium. This is going to be a battle. That is how you face Tyrone down.

You hear that word ‘confidence’ thrown about a lot. You hear that such and such is a confident player or so and so are a very confident team. Sometimes that terminology frustrates me. In many respects, confidence is a process. I think Mickey Harte is acutely aware of this. It is developed on a daily and nightly basis over many seasons.

It can be stated correctly that Tyrone are a confident team now. But that didn’t just happen. From a planning point of view, that is almost solely down to Mickey Harte. This comes down to the level of detail a manager can bring to the job. You want to go into the dressing room leaving the players absolutely certain of what the task is and knowing that they have the information necessary to deal with an opposition.

For the manager, that might take four or five hours with pause-play to mark down everything that you are seeing as you analyse the opposition. And you might have 10 DVDs to work your way through.

And once that process is complete, you would have 40 or 50 hours of planning around a particular opposition. Then you begin to highlight the key things and the key people and you look at your notes and you see certain themes filter through and then a picture emerges. That’s what you show your players. So when you walk into the dressing room you have absolute conviction in your voice.

You can list off Tyrone’s qualities. There are intense from one to 15. They rarely foul. They are good on both transitions. They are well-drilled.

Having been involved in games with Mickey Harte and having engaged in tactical battles with him – you saw how quickly he was to move people and you were always aware that his tactical mind was very sharp and that he had a clear read on what you were trying to do – it is easy to gauge how much emphasis he puts on preparation.

Think back to 2014. Tyrone were sort of lost. They had to respond to what was going on inside and outside the province. They had to wipe the blackboard and start again. It meant you had a situation where Mickey Harte was planning at a very detailed level for the sort of game he wanted his team to play. And the processes on the pitch at training became very smooth and deliberate over time.

Build momentum

And as a squad, Tyrone were also very aware of how deep they were going within themselves. And they began to build momentum. It is that which brings this thing called confidence.

And the combination of that deep level preparation and very hard work and then living through that experience –winning games and then finally reclaiming Ulster and taking that cup home – is what breeds the collective confidence we saw in evidence against Down. It is a life journey. The last piece of the jigsaw is encouragement. You keep on telling your younger players that they are good enough. And when you look at Tyrone, it is clear that a lot of these elements are in place.

You can list off Tyrone’s qualities. There are intense from one to 15. They rarely foul. They are good on both transitions. They are well-drilled. They showed against Donegal they can deal with a packed defence and be patient and look for that gap and when they make the burst, it is with purpose.

And the old traits – running the ball and stroking points from the edge of the D and taking the best options – are still there too. Tyrone – and Mickey Harte – are masters of the high percentage option. I would do this drill when I was with Donegal: 35, 45, and 55 metre kick passes from line to line. When you pushed that out to the longest distance, the percentage of that pass being completed dropped from 95 per cent to 50 to 60 per cent. You can see that in how Tyrone play. It is never a hopeful ball. It is an expectant ball. As in: I am making that pass and I expect it to get there.

Tyrone players celebrate the final whistle after their Ulster SFC Final win over Down in Clones. They have that innate Tyrone confidence, having also won an U-21 All-Ireland title. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Tyrone players celebrate the final whistle after their Ulster SFC Final win over Down in Clones. They have that innate Tyrone confidence, having also won an U-21 All-Ireland title. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

What is also striking in watching players like Niall Sludden, Mattie Donnelly and Tiernan McCann is their body shape. These were young players struggling for physique in the years I was with Donegal. Tyrone are not a big team and they have never had a big team. I think philosophically that Mickey Harte doesn’t fancy big footballers.

He likes players to have huge lung capacity and be able to get around the pitch and they have to be football players. But he has also taken the lesson of the last few years when they were getting pushed around. So they have hit the gym in a big way.

Seán Cavanagh, in his last season, looks to be in the shape of his life. They are very strong and well put together. They have lean muscle mass. And the strength has its purpose. Guys like Donnelly and Sludden are strong and direct and skilful and they can punch holes in the opposition’s defence.

I felt their decision-making up front as well was very impressive against Down. It isn’t about who scores; it is about getting the scores. There is a selflessness – draw the guy in and then look for a runner off the shoulder and find the open player – which again comes down to coaching.

Regular starters

I may be wrong but I feel that’s why players like Ronan O’Neill and Darren McCurry haven’t been regular starters over the last couple of years. These are out and out scoring forwards. Their mindset is ‘I think I can score’ and not ‘we can score’. That can disrupt the collective thought-process.

Because what Mickey Harte has assembled so brilliantly is a team whose strength lies in the collective rather than the individual. It comes down to the old truth for Tyrone: Peter Canavan doesn’t play anymore. Stephen O’Neill is retired. Brian McGuigan is retired.

Will they perish on the sword that is the once-in-a-generation footballer? Teams that win All-Irelands almost always have both a strong collective and one or two outstanding players. Dublin are going for three All-Irelands in a row.

Bernard Brogan has been their go-to player of this era. Paul Flynn has been incredible for a long period of time. And Diarmuid Connolly is a cut above most players in the country. Michael Darragh Macauley changed the understanding of midfield play. Stephen Cluxton, as a goalkeeper, is at a different level.

Tyrone have many very, very good players. As Colm Cavanagh said after the final on Sunday, when they run the bench they replace “like with like”. The patterns are never disrupted. That allows each player to exhibit his skill set.

Colm, for instance, is thriving in the role Mickey Harte has given him as a sweeper-cum-high-fielding midfielder. He has become a huge player in this set up. In Donegal, Mark McHugh was close to player of the year in 2012. The reason for that was because his role within a system suited his skill set. Had he been asked to play as conventional wing-half forward, he may not have had the opportunity to allow his unique skill set to flourish.

So can Tyrone actually go and win it all with a game plan that is crafted around a team philosophy? It is hard to know.

My mind flips back to the National League game in Croke Park against Dublin. That was an incredible game on a very cold night early in the season. Tyrone brought huge intensity, which I felt was significant. Tyrone’s upcoming quarter-final is a potentially tricky one because there is a strong possibility they will meet Ulster opposition.

Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh breaks through the challenge of Down’s Gerard McGovern in Clones. He has been an inspirational leader and father figure for younger players on the team. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Inpho/Presseye
Tyrone’s Seán Cavanagh breaks through the challenge of Down’s Gerard McGovern in Clones. He has been an inspirational leader and father figure for younger players on the team. Photograph: Philip Magowan/Inpho/Presseye

But for me, the big one is their potential semi-final against Dublin. It is as if the last number of seasons has been building towards this game. And I feel now that they didn’t beat Dublin in the league is a good thing. It means they know how much work has to go into achieving that in championship football. I feel that they have the one massive game in them. And that game could be against Dublin. Because if not now, then when?

Crunch time

If you look at the influence of Mickey Harte over the last number of years based on all the things we have spoken about here and add of all those up, you have to think it is getting close to crunch time for them.

We can say with conviction that the transition is over. They have won Ulster back-to-back and are maturing. Their mindset is: brilliant to win Ulster . . . but . . . there is another competition now. That’s the All-Ireland. That’s the only summit that matters.

I do feel they are one of very few teams with the capacity to beat Dublin. They can drag Dublin into a battle and ask questions of them.

Seán Cavanagh is there holding the hands of the younger Tyrone players and showing them how to cross the road. But they have to make that journey on their own. So this potential game with Dublin becomes a crunch moment in the lifespan of this team. There are not many gaps in their development as I see it right now. The point I am making is: they are almost as good as they are going to be. Is that good enough?

I do feel they are one of very few teams with the capacity to beat Dublin. They can drag Dublin into a battle and ask questions of them. Don’t forget, too, they have won an U-21 All-Ireland title. In their minds, they are winners. Why should senior be any different for them? That is a big thing.

However, even if they can take Dublin, that doesn’t win them the All-Ireland. Can they go all the way without the marquee forward? They have innate Tyrone cockiness. You can see that. And the team that beats them has to be able to knock that out of them.

The team that beats Tyrone will have to look at each player in the eye and say: you are going to be sore walking out of this stadium. This is going to be a battle. That is how you face Tyrone down.

Tyrone are revving themselves up for something really big. I think the portents of that were there in the league and if they meet Dublin, it could be the game of the summer. They have found themselves again in Ulster. Now, they have to find themselves all over again with each game in Croke Park. That’s new territory.

Tradition dictates that All-Ireland teams have the presence of at least one special player. Tyrone are attempting to break that parameter through the collective. If they can do that, it would be Mickey Harte’s finest hour. But history is not on their side.

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