OISIN MCCONVILLE: Down have been lucky, and that’s not sustainable

Down look like a team who would love to play open and expansive football. Yet they know to do so would be folly.

They have safety in numbers; in their average individuals they are larger than the sum of their parts.

Down are the aristocrats of Ulster football, if they were not, they would now be extinct, but the fight they have shown is the fight of an ill animal who has zero chance of survival.

I grew up being programmed to dislike Down yet I loved James McCartan and what he could do on a field, and I hated their superiority complex and arrogance.

In sport , you can be strong or you can pretend you’re strong. These guys in the 90s were strong, they loved criticism yet they never once mentioned it. The current crew use it as a crutch.

Truth is, they have been lucky and this luck is not sustainable. That sounds like the bitter kick of a has-been Armagh man, yet when you look at how this team has managed to survive on little pockets of air, even the biggest begrudger must hand them huge credit.

The jury will remain out on what they have beaten. If they can beat Tyrone, then they have officially landed, and another large slice of humble pie will be on the menu for yours truly.

Tyrone are of a completely different mindset. They have grown massively in confidence. They appear to have binned the normal silliness that Tyrone can sometimes get bogged down in.

No celebrating in lads’ faces, no nonsense off the ball, they keep the ball in play for as long as possible and they dictate the pace of the game.

Their pace against Donegal was relentless, the attacking concise and the support play was timed to perfection. So what about the lack of a marquee forward, when you play like that, it doesn’t matter.

Down the line, though, it has to be a worry. Tyrone can also play any of 21 or 22 players and not dramatically disturb the nucleus of their gameplan.

This leaves them quite hard to plan for and as Donegal found out, it is really difficult to quell their bigger players.

As regards the aggression/devilment/cynicism, it looks like Tyrone have sat down and decided to dispense with it. They have implemented a strict adherence to discipline and the lack of nonsense as a deliberate ploy rather than this being something they have stumbled upon.

Tyrone also come into the game forewarned about Connaire Harrison, Down’s biggest surprise in the championship so far, and no doubt Colm Cavanagh may spend a lot more time than usual protecting that full-back area where Harrison loves to pick the ball up either side of the “D”.

Shay Millar was a complete unknown before the Armagh game yet he was in the running for man of the match, Anthony Doherty and Niall Donnelly the same. The only problem for them now is that Mickey Harte has had two looks at them, so their unknown quantity and quality is well and truly out of the bag.

Down brought aggression and attitude from minute one against Monaghan, Conor McManus and Vinny Corey put on the broad of their backs from the first play.

That signals intent, but I believe it made their travelling fans sit up and realise they really have turned the corner. I believe Down have spent the last few years questioning their DNA.

This current crew have had their credentials and their right to play for Down questioned. That rite of passage has now been stamped and their credentials proved. The impossible is now possible — that in itself is a statement I didn’t think would be associated with Down in 2017.

If Down are struggling with their DNA, then Tyrone know theirs inside and out. They have also ironed out the goalkeeping position.

Niall Morgan is off free kicks and seems to have settled back into his goalkeeping, with his distribution from kickouts having improved with every game.

Also, they were converting as low as 35%/40% from free kicks last year. Seán Cavanagh has taken over the duties — and not before time — and now their success rate is up with Dublin’s and Kerry’s around 80%/90%.

Joe McQuillan’s responsibility is huge on Sunday. He has to let this game develop, let them at it for the first 10 minutes.

There is always a pretty ferocious start to Ulster finals, a sorting-out period, a my-chest-is-bigger-than-yours period. Maybe some of it is bravado, perhaps it’s laying down an honest marker.

Whatever, it is essential McQuillan lets this game
develop the way David Gough let Donegal and Tyrone at it.

Éamonn Burns has tactically out-skipped Kieran McGeeney and Malachy O’Rourke so far. Now he faces the ultimate challenge in Harte; for me, a step too far for him and his charges.

Down won’t be overwhelmed by the challenge or freeze on the occasion, that’s for sure. They will bring tenacity and bravery akin to what they have shown so far, but they just don’t have the quality nor do they have the bench to pull off the final five-card trick.

Tyrone, on the other hand, are on a completely different tangent altogether. They see another All-Ireland in their sights, a chance to once again rise to the top with another new crop. Tyrone are also here to stay.

Like Dublin, they have the infrastructure in place to be a long-term thorn in all our sides. This Sunday should see the start of another dominant period in the history of Tyrone football.

For an Armagh man, there is no worse final. Like a Manchester United fan watching Liverpool and Man City in a Champions League final, no result is a source for solace.

Hopefully, it is a game befitting of the packed house and the occasion.For me, it’s
Tyrone with a bit to spare.


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