Like many others, I was looking forward to what was the biggest game of the qualifier round, in Navan on Saturday night, and it turned out to be a high-quality contest. It was massive for both counties because you’re facing your championship being over before the provincial semi-finals have even been played. That prospect of a long summer creates real pressure.
Tyrone were favourites, but Mickey Harte had his issues, with half of his first-choice forwards unavailable – Peter Harte (suspended), Mark Bradley and Lee Brennan (injured) – and his team selection was interesting. He made five changes, with the dropping of goalkeeper Niall Morgan, which I felt laid down a marker.
Richie Donnelly’s positioning on the edge of square was significant as well. A couple of weeks ago I spoke about Tyrone after the defeat by Monaghan and how they attack in a certain way. Whereas it’s often effective and dangerous – they can be slick and run the ball very well through their hands – they don’t have huge variety in their game.
Donnelly at full forward was designed to give them that outlet to go route one and play diagonal ball, which is a slight departure but worth doing in terms of evolving for the rest of the summer.
I thought Connor McAliskey looked sharp all night but particularly in the first half. He scored the goal and almost got a second when Andy Colgan went for a short kick-out, which he intercepted and looked to chip him. It nearly came off.
He’s a wee bit of an enigma, McAliskey, because he’s a player with a lot of potential after coming through the under-age ranks where he was very highly rated in Tyrone.
What I like about him is his ability almost to let attacks develop before showing his hand. At more or less the last second, he offers himself for that final pass and, as he’s being handed the ball, he’s just turning and shooting. He doesn’t get in the way of the attack too early. It’s an intelligent skill to have.
I was thinking back when looking at him that it is a skill Peter Canavan had as well: you knew he was there all the time but he could find that bit of space at precisely the right moment and just pop around the corner. Remember the goal in the 2005 All-Ireland against Kerry.
McAliskey’s performance was very important for Tyrone in establishing the early lead.
They won’t be unhappy in the circumstances with surviving a big challenge when they were under-strength.
They also had to contend with Tiernan McCann’s sending-off. I think if you’re Mickey Harte, how frustrated with that would you be? The game’s in the melting pot. He’s out of the tackle and he stops, waits and fires an elbow back.
He’s a seasoned player at this stage, someone who in that situation young lads would be looking to for leadership.
But if there was one thing that stood out for me at the weekend, it was just how critical kick-outs have become in the modern game.
I referred to the kick-out from Colgan that led to McAliskey nearly burgling a goal. What was interesting about that was that Meath were absolutely sensational in the middle of the field but yet they still felt the need to go short. So he was trying risky kick-outs even though his own team were dominant in the middle of the field, which was in turn forcing Tyrone to vary their kick-outs.
But there is a difference between the short kick to secure possession and get the ball away and these dangerous short kick-outs that can be picked off and intercepted.
Then you look at Sunday’s Ulster semi-final and the kick-outs absolutely shaped the game. On their own kick-out, Down simply kept giving the ball to Donegal.
It gave Donegal a huge platform to go forward, right away from the middle of the field. They were able to transition quickly into attack with Frank McGlynn, Ryan McHugh and Eoin Bán Gallagher getting on the ball.
When Donegal did get possession they were absolutely excellent, a huge variety to their attack – running strong lines, very aggressively, very direct. But they weren’t afraid to kick on top of that, getting ball into Michael Murphy or Patrick McBrearty on the diagonal, with Jamie Brennan playing well off those two, bigger stars.
The number of times the ball was kicked straight out to Donegal meant they could get that high-tempo, hand-passing game going, which has become a feature of their attack this season. The big thing on that is that it’s underpinned by a selflessness that is not about the individual trying to create scores for himself; it’s about putting the ball into the next man’s hand that will increase the chances of getting scores on the board.
All of these things were in play because Down kept kicking the ball out to Donegal. It was crazy.
Neil McGee was sent off extremely early in the game, but Down couldn’t exploit the numerical advantage. They just couldn’t get their hands on the ball because Donegal were doing well on their own kick-out and Down were kicking the ball straight out to them on theirs.
For me this opens up a bit of a debate. I feel that ironically and if executed properly, teams can actually score more off the opposition kick-out than their own. Historically it was just about matching up, man to man, six backs, six forwards, two midfielders, and the ball was kicked out to them and the best midfielder on the day had the biggest impact.
Now you see teams pushing up zonally: three players marking space in the full-forward line, half forwards behind that and maybe sometimes a half back pushed up to the middle of the park to add another line of three behind that.
Fermanagh will be extremely defensive and it's going to be hard for Donegal to break them down
That’s a 3-3-3 formation with another line behind and two in the full-back line. It creates a lot of pressure on kick-outs and goalies, which gets us back to the start of the conversation.
Was it that Down weren’t prepared strategically for that pressure or was it just a bit of a meltdown? It looked to me a bit of both. They didn’t appear to have a strategy and as a result the guy didn’t know where to go or what to do and that creates a situation which affects your decision-making.
You also have this dynamic with Donegal playing Fermanagh in the Ulster final. Fermanagh will be extremely defensive and it’s going to be hard for Donegal to break them down.
So the kick-outs will be vital. In the semi-final Fermanagh committed a lot of bodies to the re-starts because winning the kick-out gives you an opportunity to get at the opposition.
With more and more teams pushing up, the capacity to play through that pressure from the goalkeeper’s point of view and win primary possession on long kick-outs has become a really, really important dynamic within the game.
It was all the more interesting on Saturday night to see the different strategies of both teams and then to look at the following day’s game through the same lens.
If the road is opening up for Donegal, it’s reached a dead-end for Meath, which is frustrating after they led so late in the 70 minutes and had complaints about a free not being given at the end of extra-time.
For all that, Tyrone could have been out of sight by half-time. McAliskey was inches away from a second goal, nearly shattering the crossbar, and Pádraig McNulty was straight through and hit the ball at the Meath goalkeeper.
Meath at that stage were almost just hanging on.
I focused on how they were trying to stop the opposition and their tackling. The very first free they conceded was when Mattie Donnelly was chopped down. Obviously they were pumped up for the game and wanted to bring physicality but this is all about the capacity to stay intensely physical without fouling.
This can come down to what referees are programmed for – whether tackles from behind, hands on the back, two-handed tackling, pulls on the jersey and high challenges. At critical moments in the game Meath fell foul of this.
It’s about discipline and it’s about intensity, but it’s also about knowing what the referee will tolerate.
Seán Curran fouls Conor Meyler in extra-time and it just kills the momentum of the game. Graham Reilly fouls Mattie Donnelly in extra-time and there’s the same outcome. Players stay down for one or two minutes. Adam Flanagan fouls stupidly and gets a black card.
There is a difference between lifting your hand and landing solid hits, a difference between brain and brawn. That brawn needs to be channelled through intelligence as well as cuteness; otherwise it can become a liability and at times Meath were just too raw.
For all of that, Meath owned lots of the second half. They continued to dominate in the middle of the park and had some big performances from Ben Brennan, who is also a reliable free-taker in the Meath tradition, Joey Wallace and Cillian O’Sullivan, who really took the fight to Tyrone. This coupled with a driven half-back line started to give them a platform to attack consistently, which ultimately put Tyrone on the back foot.
Both managements deserve credit. Tyrone set up the way they set up and forced Meath to play possession football. You could hear the moans and the groans and frustration of the Meath crowd, wanting their players to let the ball in.
Meath looked psychologically gone and demoralised in extra-time only to force the game once more in the dying seconds
It’s difficult to overestimate how hard it is to hold your discipline when your own supporters are urging you to go long, but I was impressed at how focused Meath remained on playing intelligent ball, what I call “high-intensity composure” in the final third when they needed to.
So they mixed their tactics up.
So we had this dynamic where Tyrone kept edging in front and Meath kept coming back. They looked psychologically gone and demoralised in extra-time only to force the game once more in the dying seconds. I also feel their frustrations were justified about the foul on James McEntee at the death, which would have forced double extra-time.
So it’s a tough one for them to take, but I feel that there are positives for them here and that they have made progress this year.
Critically for me they must keep this young group together, build on the age profile and athleticism in the squad, become sharper and cleaner in the tackle while retaining their intensity, and there could be a squad that would be competitive in Leinster again, which is something that would be good for them but also good for football in general.