Thank God for the Ulster Championship! High intensity warfare packed with so many off-the-ball incidents that no amount of cameramen, never mind referees and officials, could possibly identify the culprits.
Add in a hostile crowd and a few hometown refereeing decisions and you have a recipe for entertainment.
What is it that the TV commentators want? Their patronising approach to Ulster football is wearing thin and the constant kindergarden observations towards player positioning is so 2013.
Accept how the game is being played and dial down the negativity.
The opening of the Ulster championship was an entertaining match throughout the 70 minutes. The initial 35 particularly so, as evidenced by the 30 scoring chances (15 from each team) and the 14 points from play. Yes from play!
Former Tyrone player Conor Gormley was reported last week as saying “stop Michael Murphy and you’ll stop Donegal”. Justin McMahon succeeded in this task by legally curtailing any influence from play that Murphy had.
Such constant attention is extremely difficult to enact and requires a high level of concentration and patience and McMahon should be commended for his role.
After a brilliant first quarter from Donegal, Tyrone found some composure. The key to this was retaining possession for longer periods, slowing the tempo and waiting for an opportunity to attack weak points in the Donegal rearguard.
Where Tyrone could have further capitalised was by pushing higher up the field on Donegal to pressurise the ball coming out — the build-up play. This may sound risky especially against a counter-attacking Donegal team but the advantages far outweigh the negatives when you consider that once you dispossess or overturn possession you are immediately within scoring distance.
However, this is where the first of the controversial decisions by referee Joe McQuillan impacted Tyrone. On 27 minutes a buoyant Tyrone pressed hard to overturn Donegal in their right corner back position but McQuillan opted to give a soft free for a tackle on Eamon McGee.
The result was a swift counter attack leading to a fisted score from Christy Toye.Unfortunately a couple of minutes later McQuillan failed to award a free against Neil Gallagher for over carrying in possession while under severe pressure by Sean Cavanagh and another Tyrone player. The result was the brilliant goal from Martin McElhinney.
These are the breaks but they certainly didn’t fall Tyrone’s way.
The second half was a different match. The ‘wait and they’ll come’ approach that Donegal manager Rory Gallagher and his team adopted certainly does little for the game or my argument that Ulster football is great to watch. With a two point-lead and a gale force wind at their backs Donegal thought it best to sit back and ride this match out. Since when has a two point lead been so comfortable?
My memory of Donegal in recent years was that they liked to suss out the opposition in the first half and blitz them in the second with their superior fitness and work rate.
Now it seems more likely that they want to give it all for the initial half and defend any lead for all they are worth in the second.
Rory is well known as a very bright talent on the sideline as a manager and the training field as a coach and I am surprised that this is what he wanted from his players.
The strategy certainly negated Tyrone’s two most influential runners, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly. Harte had the freedom of the field in the first half and caused mayhem for the Donegal defence. His piercing runs and overlapping play repeatedly paid dividends and he was certainly one of the reasons Tyrone got back into the game after the initial Donegal scoring spree.
Mattie Donnelly was superb for most of the game. He set Tyrone’s tempo and brought composure to his team when they needed it most. His penetrating solo runs constantly assessed the Donegal defence for weaknesses and he exposed these in the first half.
This defensive weakness is Ryan McHugh. His diminutive size and fitness means that he can show up anywhere and usually at the right moment. However, his size and power are insufficient to stop strong runners like Donnelly on the right attacking wing and therefore he needs the protection of the mass defence.
While its only May and Tyrone have already been relegated from Division One and dumped out of the Ulster Championship I firmly believe that they will recoup and still reach the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
They will have improved and the young players who started will gain invaluable experience in the back door. Dismiss them at your peril.
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