Tyrone’s evolution showing signs similar to glory of 2008

Win over Roscommon was first against non-Ulster Division One side since 2013

Tyrone’s Peter Harte is tackled by Cathal Cregg and Enda Smith of Roscommon. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

Tyrone’s Peter Harte is tackled by Cathal Cregg and Enda Smith of Roscommon. Photo: Oisin Keniry/Inpho

 

In the rumble of percussion over the course of the first Super-8 weekend, one of the high notes hit by Tyrone got a little lost in the noise. By beating Roscommon last Saturday, Mickey Harte’s side posted their first win over a non-Ulster Division One team since 2013. And only their second since their last All-Ireland in 2008. Most of them won’t have noticed and to those who did, the two points will naturally have been more meaningful. But still, it was a box they couldn’t go on leaving unticked.

In the space of two months back in 2008, Tyrone beat Mayo, Dublin and Kerry to win their third All-Ireland. They beat Wexford too but for the purposes of this piece, they are beside the point. Wexford were a Division Three team that year and in the 12 seasons since (this one included), Tyrone have played seven ties against non-Ulster Division Three teams and won all seven. Division Three teams have not been a problem.

But back to Mayo, Dublin and Kerry. Beating the three of them in the same championship was a feat worthy of winning any All-Ireland. Mayo weren’t then what Mayo have been since but they’d still been to two of the previous four finals. It was pre-Blue Wave Dubs too but they still had to be dealt with. And Kerry were Kerry, the other team of the decade, suiting up for three-in-a-row.

Tyrone beat them all. Had you pulled any of them or their people aside at the banquet that night and told them they wouldn’t win so much as single a game against any of the three for the next decade and more, you’d have got some look. Not so much at the lack of another All-Ireland – even at the time, they knew they were living in the good old days – more the complete cessation of hostilities against the southern teams around their level.

Since that 2008 championship, they’ve had 11 games against non-Ulster Division One teams and lost nine. Before the Roscommon game last week, you had to go back to a fourth-round qualifier against Kildare in Newbridge in 2013 for the last time it happened. Otherwise, they’ve lost five against Dublin as well as two each against Mayo and Kerry.

Ulster teams have never been a problem for them. Or if they have, it has almost never been fatal. Across the 16 seasons Harte has been over Tyrone, only once has their summer ended at the hands of another Ulster team. In 14 matches against northern teams outside the provincial championship, their only defeat has been to Armagh in a second-round qualifier in 2014.

Of those 14 matches, eight were against Division One (or pre-2008, 1A/1B) opposition. Tyrone won them all. Regardless of how well or badly they were going in a given year, a knock-out game against an Ulster opponent has never been a hurdle on which they’ve caught a toe. Only with their peers from the other three provinces.

The pattern is too strong to dismiss it as mere happenstance. The obvious extrapolation says that the style of football that was so efficient in seeing them past other Ulster teams on the biggest days was lacking when it came to facing the more expansive teams from the south. It’s a view Harte and his brains trust seem to have arrived at themselves and it has led to the evolution in their shape and formation this year.

There was plenty of talk in the aftermath of the defeat to Donegal six weeks ago that Tyrone were going back to what they knew and were comfortable with. They ground Longford, Kildare and Cavan to dust with an old-style counter-attacking game and seemingly headed into the Super-8s as a reasonably close approximation of what they were last year and the year before at that point in the competition.

Last weekend against Roscommon showed that they are a bit more than that, however. Reverting to type somewhat was understandable in order to hoist themselves up through the qualifiers but there were signs last week that their initial instinct to try and keep more players in forward positions is returning in time for the bigger challenges ahead.

Witness Frank Burns’s point after seven minutes. On a hot day, the build-up for Roscommon had been slow during the previous attack, so much so that they held the ball for close on a full minute before Shane Killoran’s shot came down off the right-hand upright. In that scenario, all teams – the sainted Dubs included – will end up with huge numbers behind the ball. It’s just the nature of the game’s gravitational pull.

There was plenty of time for every Tyrone player to get behind the ball if they had to and most of them did, sure enough. All except Cathal McShane at full-forward and Niall Sludden at centre-forward.

Two players may sound like very little but it’s double what would have been there in other years. Sludden’s positioning halfway between the masses in front of the Tyrone goal and McShane at the other end of the pitch meant that when Tyrone gobbled up the loose ball and gave Niall Morgan possession, the big-booted goalkeeper was able to ping a 60-yard pass out of defence to pick him out.

Sludden made a huge catch around midfield and was able to immediately dish off a pass to Burns running off his shoulder. McShane stayed rooted to the D inside, keeping the Rossie defence occupied and leaving Burns plenty of time to turn inside onto his stronger right foot and take the score.

Though involved only as a decoy in that particular score, McShane is the key to how Tyrone set up. In other years, when they’ve made shapes at keeping men forward, none of them had the hands or ball-winning ability of the red-topped 23-year-old. Played as a midfielder at underage, he was a wandering soul in his earlier years as a Tyrone senior. This year is a different story.

McShane is the championship’s top-scorer so far but, just as crucially, he is the constant in the Tyrone attack. Sludden, Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and Darren McCurry all have an onus on them to get within kicking distance of him and when they do, Tyrone pose a serious threat. It was too much for Roscommon last Saturday and Cork have a mountain to climb this evening.

Bigger tests lie ahead, though. If Tyrone are to pass them, the evolution must continue.

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