Dublin just ran over traf­fic cones

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SPORT | GAELIC GAMES - JOE BROLLY

DUBLIN might as well have been play­ing against traf­fic cones last Sun­day. Like the trainer who had set out the cones for the warmup, the Ty­rone play­ers looked as though they had been set down into their 13 de­fen­sive po­si­tions. While they rigidly stuck to their one-di­men­sional plan, Dublin played foot­ball. And when the Dubs scored a goal af­ter a few min­utes, the game was over.

I wrote last week that Ty­rone’s big prob­lem would be work­ing the ball out of their blan­ket de­fence. Nor­mally, they have free men to off­load to, but not against the Dubs, who pushed up on them and tack­led fe­ro­ciously the whole way out, just as they had done to Mon­aghan three weeks ear­lier. Mickey mustn’t have no­ticed that the Dubs have been do­ing this since 2011.

Funny, it used to be how we all played foot­ball. The mantra when I was play­ing was that the full-for­wards were the first line of de­fence. The Down for­ward line of the 1990s tack­led like ma­ni­acs, har­ry­ing and press­ing and ha­rass­ing. We all did it. There was no such thing as play­ers strolling out of their de­fen­sive half pass­ing the ball to free men. Now, most teams per­mit it. Last year against Louth in the qual­i­fiers, Derry with­drew two for­wards, al­low­ing Louth to kick all of their kick­outs to an un­marked Louth de­fender.

The Dubs aren’t so dumb. Just by do­ing what they al­ways do, they de­stroyed the first pil­lar of Ty­rone’s strat­egy. In

The Art of War, Sun Tzu ex­plains that the surest way to vic­tory is to turn the en­emy’s strengths against him. Sim­ply by push­ing up on the Ty­rone traf­fic cones, they ru­ined Ty­rone’s en­tire game plan.

This full-court press meant that by the time Ty­rone got to the half-way line they had no free run­ners ahead of the play and were al­ready be­ing forced back­wards. With 5’ 6” Mark Bradley their only out­let in the for­ward line be­ing dou­ble-marked, they were doomed. A5’ 6” tar­get man? Kerry had the Bomber Lis­ton. Ty­rone have the Bomber Bradley.

As Ty­rone floun­dered, so did their man­ager. He stood there as pow­er­less as the wa­ter boy as the slaugh­ter un­folded. Strat­egy and tac­tics be­came crit­i­cal with the ar­rival of Jimmy McGuin­ness in 2011. In the cham­pi­onship since then, against Done­gal’s Jimmy, Kerry, Mayo and Dublin, Harte’s teams have man­aged an av­er­age of 0-11. Dur­ing that time, he be­gan by copy­ing Jimmy’s plan (an in­fe­rior ver­sion that was heav­ily weighted in favour of de­fence) then mak­ing it more and more con­ser­va­tive. Ten de­fend­ers be­came 11, then 12, then 13. Ty­rone’s re­ally skil­ful young play­ers be­came more or less su­per­flu­ous as the train­ing ground be­came a place to re­hearse the 1-13-1 for­ma­tion and get strong and pow­er­ful.

Al­most the whole of Ul­ster has gone down this self-de­feat­ing road, lead­ing to a truly abysmal Ul­ster Cham­pi­onship and cham­pi­ons who were ab­so­lutely hu­mil­i­ated on Sun­day.

Mean­while, the foun­da­tion of Dublin un­der Jim Gavin is skill-based foot­ball. So they have truly learned the game, be­come stu­dents of it. Five years in, they have an enor­mous ad­van­tage. They can play the game what­ever way you want to. They play with a full com­ple­ment of for­wards, who make good runs and play off each other. This chem­istry comes from play­ing am­bi­tious foot­ball all the time in train­ing. They at­tack the op­pos­ing de­fence with pace and ad­ven­ture. You stand off, they kick a point, you push up, they take you on and look for goals. They make snap de­ci­sions on the field, us­ing their ini­tia­tive. Funny, it’s what all teams used to do.

Last Sun­day, they oc­cu­pied the Ty­rone blan­ket de­fend­ers and made clever runs, drag­ging them out of po­si­tion be­fore de­liv­er­ing an in­ci­sive pass to cre­ate a score. Their first goal was a snap­shot of the tac­ti­cal cake­walk. Ty­rone brought the ball out from their de­fence un­der se­vere pres­sure. When they got to the mid­field they had no op­tions up front and a stray cross-field pass was in­ter­cepted. The ball was quickly kicked 30 me­tres to Con O’Cal­laghan, who was in the clear. He soloed through. Three of his for­ward col­leagues made hard runs tak­ing their men away from the cen­tral col­umn. One dummy and O’Cal­laghan was clean through, be­fore fin­ish­ing to the net. It was 1-1 to 0-1 and the game was over. If that had been a Ty­rone in­ter­cep­tion they would have had to hand-pass the ball back or solo to wait for some sup­port, since a 70-me­tre kick to a 5’6” tar­get man isn’t an op­tion.

Ty­rone’s one-di­men­sional game plan worked well against lesser blan­ket­de­fence teams in Ul­ster. Prob­lem is, the Dubs don’t play with a blan­ket de­fence. They play a thing called ‘Gaelic foot­ball’. So, they swarm and cover for each other us­ing their foot­ball in­tel­li­gence. At times, it might look like a blan­ket, but in truth it is noth­ing more than clever play. If Cathal McCar­ron’s man climbs to the top of the Ho­gan Stand, Cathal will climb up and sit be­side him. When a Ty­rone for­ward runs to the wing or makes a dummy run, the Dublin de­fender im­me­di­ately drops off him and dou­bles up on the man in the dan­ger zone. When they break, they can kick to the wing for­wards or full-for­wards or run it through.

Watching Ty­rone tak­ing up their set po­si­tions and re­main­ing more or less static put me in mind of traf­fic cones. I thought of for­mer Ty­rone greats like John Lynch and Ryan McMe­namin and Conor Gorm­ley and Philly Jor­dan us­ing their heads, cov­er­ing, tack­ling fe­ro­ciously man-to-man, win­ning their own bat­tles. This is be­cause they didn’t have the ini­tia­tive trained out of them.

True, Ty­rone have a bet­ter blan­ket­de­fence sys­tem than the other plonkers in Ul­ster. Who cares? Ty­rone are a great foot­balling county rapidly fall­ing into dis­re­pute. They need a com­plete change in phi­los­o­phy. They need to go back to skill-based foot­ball. If they do, they will quickly be­come not only a su­perb team, but a su­perb team to watch. Look at their un­der 17s in Croke Park last Sun­day. Look at how many skill play­ers they have com­ing through, from Dar­ragh Cana­van to boys like Niall Slud­den, who was only able to show glimpses of his bril­liance on Sun­day be­cause he spent most of his time stand­ing with the other 12 traf­fic cones in de­fence. What a waste.

Ty­rone of­fered noth­ing, so they got noth­ing. What hap­pened in Croke Park was a hu­mil­i­a­tion for them, but a vic­tory for foot­ball. The night­mare for any lover of the game would be this Ty­rone group win­ning big, since it would spawn count­less copy­cats all over the coun­try, at county and club level. The game is al­ready poor enough as a spec­ta­cle. In Ul­ster the county game has been ru­ined by blan­ket de­fend­ing and the move­ment away from skill-based foot­ball has re­sulted in a team as bad as Ty­rone be­ing Ul­ster cham­pi­ons.

The Dubs, Mayo and Kerry should be the tem­plate for any coach. Start with skill, then de­velop a think­ing team grounded on the best use of those skills. Jim Gavin (pic­tured) has fol­lowed this ap­proach zeal­ously. The re­sult is a team that plays bril­liant foot­ball and can play it any­way you want to. They love to play and boy does it show. The semi­fi­nal was a poor spec­ta­cle, but that is be­cause ev­ery game in­volv­ing Ty­rone is a poor spec­ta­cle. When they win it is hor­ri­ble to watch. When they lose it is hor­ri­ble to watch. And don’t start that anti-Ty­rone non­sense. When Peter’s son Dar­ragh Cana­van scored the killer goal for their un­der 17s I jumped out of my seat!

The sad thing isn’t that Ty­rone were beaten. It’s that no­body cares. The way they are re­duced to play­ing means no one gives a damn. There is no joy in it. Noth­ing to savour. Only a rad­i­cal change in phi­los­o­phy can re­turn them to their right­ful place.

I un­der­stand that in Ty­rone it is a crim­i­nal of­fence to crit­i­cally as­sess Mickey Harte’s per­for­mance. On that ba­sis, Sun­day’s an­ni­hi­la­tion is likely to se­cure him an­other five years.

They cover for each other us­ing their foot­ball in­tel­li­gence

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