Wednesday 16 January 2019

Two-nil for positive football but is it really death of the blanket?

Dejected Tyrone players Darren McCurry (left) and Declan McClure leave the pitch after a heavy defeat by Dublin at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Dáire Brennan / Sportsfile
Dejected Tyrone players Darren McCurry (left) and Declan McClure leave the pitch after a heavy defeat by Dublin at Croke Park on Sunday. Photo: Dáire Brennan / Sportsfile

The Monday morning after the massacre before, and we're sitting down to ponder the deeper significance of Dublin's systematic demolition of the previously famed Tyrone 'system'.

Already this has been depicted as the death of blanket defence - a reversal of Jarlath Burns' "death of Gaelic football" tweet in 2015.

And how the purists would love that: a return to full-blooded football engagement where creative spark triumphs over suffocation. But can we really be so definitive?

Writing in the Irish Times yesterday, Roscommon manager Kevin McStay predicted: "I think the days of the blanket defence are over. With the exception of Donegal, these systems don't suit Croke Park because the opposition is always of a higher standard and everything is faster, zippier and harder to shut down."


Meanwhile, over in the Irish Independent, Joe Brolly concluded: "Tyrone's one-dimensional game-plan worked well against lesser blanket defensive teams in Ulster. The Dubs are not a lesser team."

In the same paper, on Kerry's defeat to Mayo, Tomás Ó Sé wrote: "Losing is one thing. Losing playing a sweeper is another and that will be used as a stick to beat (Eamonn) Fitzmaurice with."

It was a bad weekend for sweepers - and a strange, confounding weekend for football generally. A semi-final feast had been anticipated; over 135,000 fans flooded into Croke Park.

It would be wrong to say what transpired was a cumulative damp squib: the two winners, Mayo and Dublin, were positively ebullient in their attitude and brilliant in much of their execution.

But Kerry and Tyrone, in different ways, were both a mess. The Kingdom's lack of discipline was manifest in the accumulation of eight yellow cards, one black and two reds. Tyrone were almost the opposite: too acquiescent. Colm Cavanagh's high boot on Brian Fenton, while worthy of red, was their only booking.

But it was the unravelling of their respective game plans that really stood out. Traditionally Kerry don't play a sweeper and Fitzmaurice's 11th hour conversion was predicated on the urgency of his predicament: he had six days to shore up his sieve-like full-back line. But you can't master the nuances of the system overnight, and it came across as panic.

Tyrone have been doing it for years but, by the same token, there weren't too many nuances evident in a Plan A that was ripped to shreds the very moment Con O'Callaghan buried that unstoppable fifth minute goal.

The problem for Tyrone is where to now: tear up the script, or try and convince players that what ultimately floundered in 2017 will work next summer?

The very best (aka Dublin) have shown that when you combine a magnificent skill set with a cleverly constructed and perfectly executed plan to pull and stretch and eventually rip open the blanket, the game is up for the kings of damage limitation.

Tyrone were embedded in a system that crashes the minute you fall three points behind.

Blue moon

However, a team boasting Dublin's blend of talent, outrageous pace, savage intensity and multiplicity of options comes along once in a Sky Blue moon.

The current Tyrone team lacks the individual brilliance of their noughties forebears - and, for that matter, the most accomplished purveyors of massed defence and counter-at tacking football, the Donegal of Jim McGuinness.

So we're not inclined, just yet, to pronounce the death of uber-defence … but we should be thankful that two teams who play on the front foot, Dublin and Mayo, are in the final.

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