Seán Moran: Tyrone’s inability to counter Donegal raises key questions

Absorbing Ulster tie provided a watershed moment for this year’s championship

Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly and Donegal’s Hugh McFadden in action during the Ulster semi-final at Kingspan Breffni Park.  Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

Tyrone’s Mattie Donnelly and Donegal’s Hugh McFadden in action during the Ulster semi-final at Kingspan Breffni Park. Photograph: Evan Logan/Inpho

 

There had already been an unusually warm ripple of approbation for this year’s Ulster championship even before last weekend but this was always in the context that the province had become off-Broadway when it came to handing out big awards.

Saturday’s summit between champions Donegal and predecessors Tyrone has however good claims to be the most significant fixture of the season to date.

This year’s Tyrone had attracted positive reviews for playing a more expansive game, hitting long ball into the full-forward line where Cathal McShane and Mattie Donnelly were causing havoc.

Their league campaign got off to a slow start without which they could well have won the title or at least, certainly have reached the final. In the early rounds in Ulster, it was business as usual with high scores, pulling up, albeit against two counties that had played in this year’s Division Four, Derry and Antrim.

At the weekend though, it was testing time. Tyrone and Donegal have had an at times toxic rivalry this decade and Jim McGuinness’s vice-like grip on the fixture during Donegal’s All-Ireland years may well have influenced Harte’s transition to out-and-out defence for the years that followed, which saw his team competing well at the top level, including reaching last year’s final, without threatening anything more tangible.

So this year’s departure from the strictures of the blanket was widely heralded as the sort of adjustment that might take Mickey Harte’s team that extra step. It was therefore an irony that it all came a cropper against a familiar tactic.

At times it was all quite similar to that extraordinary August afternoon five years ago when Dublin’s attacking verve was going also going to do for Donegal.

It did to be fair come closer than Tyrone’s in that McGuinness’s team was beginning to sink in the early stages or at least take on a lot of water but once the match shifted to being played on Donegal’s terms, 2014 looked suspiciously like Saturday.

The blanket – especially the tireless Hugh McFadden’s intelligent sentry duty – smothered attempts to liberate McShane and Donnelly but lethally, once possession was turned over, Donegal’s running game was piercingly effective. Watch a recording of the goal in the fifth minute. All of the Tyrone defenders are facing their own goal, chasing Donegal players.

Declan Bonner’s team have the skill and pace to make the defensive game work at the other end. The McHugh cousins, Ryan and Eoin, and Eoin Bán Gallagher are lightning fast in the transition but crucially Donegal have a range of quality attackers.

Major blow

Jamie Brennan took the plaudits on Saturday but Patrick McBrearty is easing his way back into the team after injury and the collective impact is sufficient for Michael Murphy to play the roaming role, which in the past looked like robbing Peter to pay Paul but now, Peter is much better resourced and Murphy’s interventions up front all the more menacing.

There were other contributory factors. Losing Peter Harte after 11 minutes to a black card was a major blow.

As detailed by Eamon Donoghue last week (https://www.irishtimes.com/sport/gaelic-games/gaa-statistics-tyrone-s-new-three-pronged-attack-explained-1.3915956), Harte is the vital third leg of the attacking tripod, playing a deeper role than McShane and Donnelly but switching in with the latter from time to time and otherwise conducting the transition from reliance on the running game to a longer-ball attack.

The black card left Tyrone like an orchestra whose conductor got locked outside the concert hall.

There was also a more fundamental issue. Derry All-Ireland winner Damian Cassidy, who has extensive experience coaching in Tyrone, made the point a couple years ago that the reliance on defensive systems had left the county short – to the point of bereft – of quality, man marking defenders in the mould of Conor Gormley and Ryan McMenamin.

It didn’t excite a lot of comment on Saturday, presumably because it happened just before throw-in, but Harte appeared to exhibit signs of anxiety about his new attacking configuration – or at least its defensive implications – in the late changes made. Two familiar forwards, Connor McAliskey and Niall Sludden, were amongst three players who made way for more defensive options.

Kieran McGeary had been an injury concern but he had also been praised by Harte for his man marking role on Shane Walsh in the league defeat of Galway, which cost the latter a place in the final. He’s more of a lively wing back though, than a dour jailer when it comes to one-on-one duties and the gambit didn’t work, as Jamie Brennan ran amok.

Another unhelpful change from the 2000s as far as the Tyrone manager is concerned is the lack of ‘total footballers’ at his disposal.

Tactical change

When threatened by Dublin in the 2005 All-Ireland quarter-final, Harte produced a tutorial on tactical change: changing a centrefield that Ciarán Whelan had been eating alive, by bringing Joe McMahon off the bench and dropping back Enda McGinley, redeploying Seán Cavanagh to attack and Conor Gormley to centre back to counter Alan Brogan.

If it was surprising that nothing particularly changed last Saturday at half-time when Tyrone trailed by seven, a virtual death sentence against Donegal, it’s not as if Harte is playing with the same deck of cards these days.

The qualifier draw was kind and assuming Tiernan McCann’s punishment for the breathtaking attack on Stephen McMenamin finds the GAA still reluctant to go beyond minimum suspensions, he will miss just the Longford match.

Harte will regroup and it would be no surprise if the county is back in last-four territory in the coming weeks but, after the optimism of the spring, it will be a surprise if they manage to go one better than last year.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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