Jim McGuinness: Tyrone collective building up a head of steam

Harte’s men will feel an All-Ireland final place is at hand but Monaghan have big assets

Tyrone’s Harry Loughran scores his side’s first goal despite Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton best efforts at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Tyrone’s Harry Loughran scores his side’s first goal despite Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton best efforts at MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

The scene in Ballybofey was amazing, a beautiful day with sunshine picking out the colours of the respective counties’ green-and-gold and red-and-white.

The pitch was in great condition and you could get a sense of the possibilities of the Super 8s, as originally envisaged – a packed provincial ground and winner-takes-all football.

This was the biggest game hosted by MacCumhaill Park in Donegal’s long history. It felt like a big occasion and it was great to be there.

Central to Donegal’s prospects on Sunday were Michael Murphy and Ryan McHugh but Tyrone had a plan for both men. How you mark these players can have a critical bearing on the outcome.

Like the Roscommon game, Murphy was being rotated between midfield and full forward, looking to get free of his marker, Pádraig Hampsey, which is easier said than done and brought me back on a personal level to one of the biggest club games we played years and years ago.

I remember being literally taken out of the game. We had just gone up from intermediate and it was a senior quarter-final against Aodh Ruadh. There was no other show in town for the guy who was marking me. Whatever it was going to take to stop me getting the ball, that’s what he was going to do.

It created a strange dynamic for me; two games, one between the teams and the other was me working out how I was going to get away from him. In your own mind you almost feel victimised because of this intense attention and a suspicion the referee isn’t recognising what’s happening. So, you have to do something if you’re even going to begin to have an influence on the actual game.

So you hear about players that, ‘he’s done a brilliant man marking job,’ but his task is solely to stop you and yours is to make things happen; it’s a completely different thing. His job is done if you hardly touch the ball.

This is what top inter-county players have to put up with, whether it’s Colm Cooper, Bernard Brogan or Michael Murphy, throughout their careers. That’s not to dismiss the job man markers do but I don’t think people watching in the stands appreciate what a hard job it is for players to deal with that and still have an influence on a match.

More fundamentally for Donegal, they had 15 men behind the ball and yet couldn’t exert any real pressure. At that stage Tyrone were controlling the play and making Donegal work. That’s actually the opposite of what this tactic was meant to achieve.

Yellow card

Early in the game, and even with everyone back, Donegal had no capacity to create those double-ups or treble-ups and in the end of one sustained Tyrone attack, Leo McLoone got isolated and fouled, which resulted in a free.

This is an aspect of the game I feel needs to be reviewed by coaches everywhere. The game has moved on and in the winter months it would be time very well spent if there was serious consideration of whether getting bodies back is enough, anymore – or how do we get pressure on the ball?

In other words how do you redress the balance again?

Think about the game in general and it’s all about pressure: on the ball to turn it over; on the opposition kick-outs; how they get it on yours. At the moment offences are controlling the terms of engagement – even though there are huge numbers back in defence they have become redundant.

Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh beats Donegal’s Michael Murphy to the ball. Tyrone worked hard to curtail Murphy and another key man, Ryan McHugh. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Tyrone’s Colm Cavanagh beats Donegal’s Michael Murphy to the ball. Tyrone worked hard to curtail Murphy and another key man, Ryan McHugh. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Tyrone’s patience game was an example. They learned the hard way against Dublin, who have pioneered it, in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final. On Sunday, Cathal McShane made an incision after they’ve kept the ball for a while and Neil McGee aggressively tried to stop him and ended up picking up a yellow card.

When you think about the concept of 15 men behind the ball, that shouldn’t really happen. The defender should be able to stick his chest out and shepherd the guy because theoretically he shouldn’t have any options.

In the first quarter both teams were mirroring each other in terms of systems. The difference was Tyrone were able to breach the Donegal defence more often. Mattie Donnelly’s point in the 15th minute was an example of that when he ran direct, broke a few tackles and kicked a very good score, making it double scores, 0-4 to 0-2.

In that first period Donegal were, uncharacteristically this summer, getting blocked down and finding it much more difficult to break through the opposition cover.

At the same time, retention of possession from kick-outs – short, medium and long – was of a very high standard from both sides. Niall Morgan in particular was excellent in beating the press and giving Tyrone a platform to attack.

There were a number of key moments in the game that changed momentum one way or the other. With Tyrone on top in the first 20 minutes, Ryan McHugh came up with a point that was important on the scoreboard but also in terms of redirecting the energy in the game.

He was extremely tightly man-marked and he still had the capacity to come on the loop and then with pace and skill, weave through and kick an excellent score. At that point somebody needed to stand up and he did it.

Under pressure

Seconds later Ciarán Thompson kicked another and suddenly, for all the good things Tyrone had done, within two minutes Donegal were level and the catalyst for that was Ryan McHugh.

By the 34th minute, although I didn’t think Donegal had played well in open play, they were level. Their transition game all summer had been excellent in the way they got up the field and the pace at which they moved the ball and the high percentage of good shots they got off – but none of that was there in the first half on Sunday and it seemed to be moments of brilliance from Donegal versus the collective from Tyrone.

Again McHugh intervened near half-time after Donegal had pressed up aggressively. Niall Morgan looked to execute a risky kick-out but McHugh read it, got a hand in and flicked it to Michael Murphy who finished superbly into the top left hand corner. For all their early dominance, Tyrone found themselves three points behind at half-time and under pressure.

The third quarter was as you were and didn’t change the trajectory of the game. Both teams continued to trade scores and, as the game went down the stretch, Tyrone still trailed by three.

Hindsight proves different but I really felt that a game-defining moment had been reached when Tyrone had a goal chance in the 52nd minute but Ryan McHugh scrambled across the box and bravely blocked. Donegal then broke for the first time with real intensity in transition, six players fully committed to getting up the field and ahead of the ball and it ended with Paddy McGrath kicking an inspirational point.

Instead the real watershed moment came shortly afterwards when Donegal conceded a double turnover. Eamonn Doherty was attacking and got dispossessed. Donegal scrambled and won it back but Tyrone went again close to the sideline and got real, aggressive pressure on the ball. Odhrán Mac Niallais took a heavy knock and Colm Cavanagh rose from the tackle and Tyrone broke with pace, culminating in a Pádraig Hampsey score that swung the direction of the game.

Crucially for Donegal, Mac Niallais stayed down and had to be replaced, which was a heavy blow to Donegal because in that period of the game he was establishing himself as the go-to guy up front.

Tyrone’s recovery was impressive and quite like their response in Omagh against Dublin when they looked dead in the water late in the game but again they just ground it out.

But Monaghan are well placed themselves. They have the marquee forward. They have two marquee free-takers

They’ve unblinking faith in their system and how it would take them through the challenge. They would win the ball, break and support that break, get ahead of the ball and stretch the play and use possession really cleverly through Niall Sludden, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly.

I thought they were in trouble but they replicated what they did in Omagh – except on this occasion they made it home.

If the double turnover altered the dynamic of the game, Tyrone’s first goal signalled that they had now established full control. From then on they seemed to operate at a higher level in all sectors and in the final quarter they managed to outscore Donegal 2-7 to 0-2 – an impressive push for home by a young team at the end of a highly intense encounter.

Transition play

Where does it leave Tyrone in terms of the All-Ireland?

There is no doubt that their biggest strength is in the collective. They defend en masse and are very disciplined. They were able to exert pressure on Donegal on Sunday and put them in more difficult situations than they’ve been in all year. They were able to do the same against the Dubs.

Defensively they are finely tuned and well organised and their transition play is the best in the country, slick, smooth, committing a lot of bodies and having the requisite intensity levels to support the transition, which is vital. You can’t transition with just two or three players. They were exceptional on their own restarts and finished really strongly – critically starting to win the Donegal kickout.

The central question is – and I’ve asked it before – can the Tyrone collective win an All-Ireland?

I don’t know but I have my doubts. Can you win an All-Ireland without a marquee forward? Can you win an All-Ireland without a marquee free-taker? I’m not so sure. They will believe that they can be in the All-Ireland final and Monaghan won’t like to see the red-and-white jersey coming.

But Monaghan are well placed themselves. They have the marquee forward. They have two marquee free-takers and in Rory Beggan they have a goalkeeper who gives them a phenomenal platform to attack.

Something has to give.

Luckily for all of us, we don’t have long to wait for the answers.

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