The Irish Mail on Sunday
Harte to decide fate of Peter’s prodigy
LAST WEEK, St Ciarán’s Ballygawley from Tyrone became the Ulster Colleges’ Treanor Cup champions. They played well in the final against St Colm’s of Derry, but it was the performance of their left cornerforward that stirred the blood.
When journalist Jerome Quinn posted the highlights video on YouTube, it swiftly went viral. This was because St Ciarán’s’ little number 15 looked as though he had been cloned from another little number 15, long since retired.
For his first point, 14 - year- old Darragh Canavan begins by shipping a shoulder charge and going to ground. As the three defenders move in to surround him, he rolls over and in the blink of an eye is back on his feet. He jinks right to wrong-foot the chasing pack, then switches to his left before flashing the ball over the bar with his left foot. Watching it, I got goosebumps.
For his second score, he picks the ball up 70 yards out. With his head up, he sprints to his left precisely in the manner of his dad, before switching direction completely and soloing diagonally across the field on his right foot.
He proceeds to deliver a perfect long fist pass, runs in an arc to shake off his man, takes the return pass and at full speed, kicks a beautiful point off his right instep. As I watched, I realised I was saying “Oh my God” under my breath. A thing of beauty is a joy forever…
When this little magician duly dons the fabled Red Hand senior jersey, will he be allowed to show those breathtaking skills? Or will he be pulled down and body checked and held. Question is: Come 2020, what sort of game will Gaelic football be?
The early signs from this year’s National League have been most encouraging. There were 45 goals in Division 1 in 2013. Twelve months on, with the advent of the black card, we have had 78, almost twice as many.
The number of scores per game has increased by a whopping 10 per cent. Crucially, there has been a 50 per-cent reduction in the number of red and yellow cards issued across all four divisions, compared to 2013. This is crucial because it indicates a transformation in culture.
Systematic fouling has been replaced by honest endeavor, so the skills of the game are once again flourishing. Instead of coaching and condoning the black arts, good habits are being developed on the training ground.
One school of thought is that sticking to the black-card rule was all very well during the honeymoon period of the League, but come Championship it will end in an abrupt divorce. For that reason, at 4pm today, all eyes will be on Omagh when the erstwhile poster boys for cynical football take the field.
AS THEY rugby tackled their way to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, building up a modest lead then protecting it by foul means, Tyrone became the standard bearers for cynical fouling. They even invented a new language to justify it. Tyrone and their manager publicly applauded themselves for ‘the calm and cool way we close out games’.
With Mickey Harte leading the charge, Tyrone attacked the black card furiously in the run-up to Congress. But Gaels, even the intensely conservative variety, had had enough.
In fairness, Tyrone have responded by scrupulously following the new rule throughout the League, playing a superb brand of attack-based foot- ball. It has been a major adjustment for them. They have racked up big scores and really shown their stuff. But without the systematic body checking and dragging down, their opponents have also prospered.
To put that into perspective, in this year’s League Tyrone conceded 11 goals. In their five previous League campaigns, they conceded an average of just four goals per season.
Since they have begun to play the right way, we have been treated to some unusually pleasant experiences.
Their games have been treats to watch. Against Derry, they surrendered a seven-point lead. A year ago, they would have casually strangled Derry’s pulsating comeback, leaving football lovers with a bad taste in the mouth. Kerry’s brilliant corner forward James O’Donoghue got inside his man three times against Tyrone in Killarney and scored a hat-trick of delightful goals. A year ago he would have been pulled down, then treated for whiplash on Monday morning.
There is no doubt that Mickey Harte has been placed in a dilemma. On the one hand, he knows that they are leaving themselves vulnerable at the back. A generation of so-called defenders have been produced in the county, who have had to do little more than shepherd their man towards the sideline in partnership with a sweeper.
Last year, their moderately-talented minors went the whole way to the final with that ultra-defensive, ultra-cynical template. This method had become part of the DNA of their development squads. As a result, these young men are now hitting senior level and haven’t a clue how to actually defend. The process of re-education has begun, but it will take a while. In the meantime, how does Harte solve the problem?
He has two options. Firstly, they can – as one commentator this week suggested they would – revert to type and play a blanket-defensive game, scratch out a small lead, then protect it in the last quarter with cynical fouling.
The problem with this is threefold: firstly, they will be sent off; secondly, the spotlight is now on them and people are no longer afraid to criticise the Harte regime; thirdly, this method will beat most teams but not the best ones
Mickey now has two options: to revert to cynical fouling, or to follow the Dublin example
and d th that t i is no good di in T Tyrone, where h the aim is to win All-Irelands, not perform respectably.
The second option is to follow the Dublin example, which is what they have been experimenting on throughout the League.
THE disadvantage of this approach is that it leaves them more vulnerable at the back, particularly since their full-backs are not used to being left isolated. The advantage is that it holds out the possibility of being able to rack up the sort of scorelines needed to seriously compete with teams like Mayo and Dublin.
If like the Dubs, they go for it 100 per cent, fearlessly putting a full-court press on their opponents, they will develop into serious All-Ireland contenders over the next few years. More importantly, they will play a brand of football they can be proud of and the neutral can savour.
In the greater scheme of things, the result of the game today is irrelevant. What is of critical importance, however, is the way Tyrone play it. I hope they continue with their rehabilitation and set an example to be followed, not shunned. That way, when Darragh Canavan is ready, they might be ready to embark on a golden era, like the one his dad led.
If Harte has any doubts, he should watch the boy work his magic on YouTube (search: ‘Canavan Junior makes history with St Ciaran’s’). If that does not convince him of his wider responsibilities to the game, nothing will.