Let’s not change the rules – let’s pit together two evenly-matched teams in front of a huge crowd in a provincial final with the outcome firmly in the balance. Well, in Ulster we have again been able to deliver in this regard.
Ulster final day in Clones has managed to eclipse all other provincial finals in both hurling and football. Being number one brings its own glare, its own spotlight. For good or bad, there will be a huge focus on the 2016 Ulster final. While people take out their calculators to try and figure out how much Dublin will tank Westmeath by in Leinster, the questions in Ulster are altogether different.
Dublin apart, Tyrone are the in-form team in the country, McKenna Cup and Division 2 taken care of, unbeaten and growing in confidence with every waking hour. When David Moyes took charge of Manchester United after Alex Ferguson retired, United lost their aura, their invincibility disappeared and they became as fallible as the next. In the last six or seven years, Tyrone became fallible, eminently beatable and, boy, did their rivals feed on that carcass. Tyrone’s decline was steady rather than rapid and their rise has developed likewise.
This current crop have had a steep learning curve. No silver spoon for these guys, they have had to endure some sickening defeats in their early years unlike the previous generation who were used to the big stage, the big games and the biggest of prizes. Perhaps it is that hurt that is driving this group on. Their hunger seems insatiable right now.
When Tyrone shifted focus to this defensive style against Mayo in last year’s league game in McHale Park, they did so in reaction to leaking too many scores and looking defensively inept. It took some time to perfect.
To play this style you need a very fit and athletic bunch of athletes (preferably young). Colm Cavanagh’s importance to this team and defensive make-up cannot be understated. I do, however, believe Tyrone have two major issues. There is no sign of improvement is their conversion rates from free kicks.
I noticed during the week I was mentioned in dispatches in regards to this. They made the point I missed a few in my time. That is true — I missed many through the years. But I fear Tyrone may have missed the point. It is now unacceptable to miss scoreable free kicks on a regular basis because, simply speaking, your opponents won’t miss. Tyrone are operating at 40%-50% conversion rate. That damning statistic will kill them in the long run. I do have a secret as to how to rectify the misfiring free-takers though – “practice”. They also now need to decide who their go-to man is for free kicks, stop chopping and changing and believe in their man whoever that may be.
Their other issue is converting goal chances. On the evidence of their replay against Cavan, that seems to be sorted. Five goals in any game is superb, the one caveat being that they created 10 chances. One goal in this game could be the decisive score.
Donegal are a different proposition for Tyrone. Having questioned their fitness and their bite, they were able to answer all of those questions in a half hour of football against Monaghan. They play in a similar style to Tyrone but in their first two games against Fermanagh and Monaghan they struggled to produce the dynamism that we associate with Donegal’s high-octane, high-energy game-plan. In the replay, they rectified a lot of their issues, they looked ravenous for every ball. They looked like the old Donegal at times.
Perhaps a lot of this came from memory. Perhaps Monaghan having the upper hand didn’t sit that well with them. The most likely explanation, however, is Donegal are getting better with every game, getting sharper and certainly finding it a lot easier to get Michael Murphy and Paddy McBrearty on the ball in the crucial areas of the field.
Frank McGlynn dictates the tempo at which they play at. He excelled the last day and, no coincidence, it was their best performance of the championship. I do believe for Donegal, in particular, lifting the Anglo Celt Cup is as much as they can now hope for from this year. Their legs will be exposed in Croke Park more so than anywhere else.
Conor McAliskey is a mainstay in that Tyrone team. This could be his coming of age as he has all the attributes of a modern-day Gaelic footballer. He will be expected to help out in the manning of Ryan McHugh, Donegal’s most consistent performer. Quell him and Tyrone will have gone a long way to winning this game.
Having said all this, the most important person in Clones tomorrow will be David Coldrick. It’s no coincidence the GAA have sent the game’s most accomplished, sensible and authoritative referee to preside over a battle of all battles. Having spoken to a few inter-county players recently, they maintain Coldrick is one of very few refs still communicating with players in regard to decisions.
I really hope he lets this game develop into a ferocious battle, one that, let’s face it, football needs. He can’t be afraid to let this game flow and perhaps those clambering for rule changes might pipe down for a few weeks at least.
Expect these two teams to push each other’s buttons and not in a good way but Jesus aren’t we crying out for such a contest, warts and all. For me, it’s Tyrone by four or five points in the game to save the championship. Other provinces take note.
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