The marketing gurus that came up with the tagline “nothing beats being there” for the GAA knew what they were talking about, particularly in the context of the global pandemic that is still leaving its mark. It was a privilege to be in Croke Park over the weekend to witness the fare on offer — they were right, it was great to be there. There certainly were plenty of talking points.
While I appreciate it might not have been to everyone’s taste, I thoroughly enjoyed the Tyrone and Monaghan arm wrestle on Saturday evening. It wasn’t as open as the rest of the Ulster Championship but it was more realistic and has helped prepare the champions for what is to come.
Monaghan were game and never gave up, but they never led the game. They lacked composure late on when they could and probably should have forced the game to extra-time. They deserve immense credit for the way they have carried themselves in the wake of the Breandán Óg Ó Dufaigh tragedy. They have shown all that is good about the GAA community and deserve our admiration.
Overall, Tyrone did just about enough to deserve it. They will know the performance was good enough to win the Ulster final but they will need to improve big time for the All-Ireland semi-final in a fortnight. Scoring only two points in the third quarter and five in the second half won’t do next day out.
It is worth bearing in mind that because of Covid complications, they were shorn of some important players both in terms of starters and finishers off the bench. Rory Brennan, Frank Burns, Tiernan McCann, and Richie Donnelly will be back.
That they dealt with these absences and still got a bounce from their bench shows they have considerable strength in depth.
Tyrone got many of their tactical calls spot on, including placing Conor Meyler on Ryan McEnaspie and Niall Sludden on Karl O’Connell. Both Tyrone players blotted their opposite numbers out of the game, which robbed Monaghan of those strong runners from the back that is central to their game.
An intriguing aspect was the battle of the goalkeepers. That position has been revolutionised in the last decade and continues to develop. I have long been a fan of Rory Beggan and wondered how Tyrone would deal with his length and variety of kickouts. In the first half, they flummoxed him and affected Monaghan. Ironically opposite number Niall Morgan was the key factor in this. On the Monaghan kickout he came and positioned himself 65m from his own goal in the pocket to the left of midfield from Beggan’s perspective. It spooked Monaghan and in effect, took away half of the field for their restarts.
They were forced to go short or right, weren’t as efficient as usual, and it put them under pressure with Beggan visibly frustrated on more than one occasion. In the first half, Tyrone won five out of eight of Monaghan’s long kickouts, scoring two points via this method.
It also robbed the Farney men of one of their primary ways of generating scores and they only scored three points this way. At half-time Monaghan fixed it. They scored four points in the second half from their own kickout and Tyrone got none. They introduced fresh legs in the middle of the field and got Niall Kearns to make runs into the space in front of Morgan’s position and Beggan hit him with a few.
Gradually, this got things going again. Significantly, Beggan turned the tables on Morgan and replicated what his Tyrone counterpart had been doing to him in the first half, taking up a similar position and even challenged for a few kickouts late on. At one stage he had to sprint back and dispossess Mattie Donnelly with a last-ditch tackle to prevent what looked like a certain goal. At another stage, Morgan ended up tracking Andrew Woods all the way up to the 20m line with Peter Harte deputising in goals in his absence. It was entertaining stuff.
The only question I would pose is: Should Beggan have marked McShane or McCurry in the last minute or so to allow them free up a man to push out and put someone marking Morgan to nullify him as the outlet to keep the ball as Tyrone managed the game out?
Tyrone are still working on their style of play and are trying to achieve the balance that will allow them to score enough against the best teams while remaining defensively solid. For much of the first half when they were on top, they resembled their setup from 2019. Two attackers close to goals at all times, man-markers at the back on the opposition key men, and everyone else transitioning up and down the field as required.
They are willing to go direct but for me they are still missing the half-forward line link between the lines and I am sure it is something they will look at prior to the semi-final. Mark Bradley did it at times but not often enough. They still have to carry a lot of ball in the counter-attack which is a debilitating game to play as evidenced by their obvious fatiguing in the final quarter.
One notable difference from 2019 is the manner in which they went after the game late on. When Brian Kennedy got injured and Conn Killpatrick tired it was forwards Brian Dooher brought on. Conor McKenna and Mattie Donnelly went to midfield so in effect they had eight forwards on the pitch in the final game-deciding moments and their bravery won the day.
As we look forward to the next game, one feature that Kerry will be planning for is the Tyrone ‘boomer’ kickout that aims to travel over everyone. Morgan has a big boot and on a couple of occasions he was landing these almost on the opposition 45m line. They had little success on it the last day as the runners were not getting around the breaks to help Kilpatrick and Kennedy. It looked to me to be a communication breakdown. They were expecting it short so weren’t committing numbers to the breaks. Kerry will plan for this as they will know that kick can take out their whole press.
The press has paid dividends so far this year and Kerry will realise that if they back off Morgan can pick holes and Tyrone will run it from the back which is hard to play against. A conundrum for Peter Keane and his brains trust and they may elect to mix the approach. Kerry come into this game as the form team in the country but we are unsure about the challenge they have been presented with so far.
Conversely, Tyrone are far more battle-hardened but we are uncertain if they have enough yet to take down one of the big guns. It will make for a ferocious battle in two weeks’ time and one which we can all look forward to.
Dublin are into an All-Ireland semi-final without getting out of third gear. While they weren’t at their best yesterday, they still won by eight, helped by Kildare’s profligacy as they kicked ball after ball into Evan Comerford’s grateful hands.
What impressed me most about them was their work-rate when their customary fluidity was absent. They were hunting in packs and forcing turnovers, with players like James McCarthy — who has done it all — chasing back as hard without the ball as if he is still waiting to win his first. This shows that they are not ready to let go of Sam just yet and anyone who wants to take it off them will have to tear it from their grasp.
In possession, surprisingly, they made a lot of uncharacteristic errors, with Kildare scoring 1-5 from turnovers. Dublin will be annoyed with this and will realise that kind of sloppiness will play into Mayo’s hands in a fortnight.
Impressively, Comerford found men with 100% of his kickouts and Dublin scored nine points from this. Anyone that hopes to beat them will have to disrupt them at their restart to have any chance.
While they may not be the team they were, they are not going away either. From now on the opposition stiffens as we all wait to see what is really left in this Dublin side. One thing is for sure: The sight of Mayo in a fortnight is bound to spark something in them.