A BRILLIANT thing happened in The Athletic Grounds last Saturday night. It was the type of occurrence that even those who watch a lot of football rarely ever get to see — a county manager actually did something original.
During the build-up to the game there was little to suggest that we were going to be treated to anything new or exciting. When a few players started thumping at each other it was very much the standard fare that you expect from the Sperrin derby between Derry and Tyrone.
And when it emerged that Mickey Harte had picked a team that included seven defenders (Aidan McCrory, Damian McCaul, PJ Quinn, Cathal McCarron, Ryan McMenamin, Martin Swift, and Conor Gormley), the pattern for the game seemed to have been set in stone.
The selection of seven defenders revealed that Harte was going to use his tried and trusted system for beating Derry.
The logic behind Harte’s thinking is simple. Stop Paddy Bradley and you beat the auld enemy.
To achieve this outcome, he deploys a sweeper. The seventh defender double-marks Bradley, either standing beside the former All Star, or patrolling the area in front of him. It has never failed Tyrone.
And you could almost hear the groans from all nine of Derry’s supporters when Conor Gormley trotted into the full-back line to assume the role of being Bradley’s second bodyguard for the night.
Then a strange thing happened. Instead of Derry responding in the routine manner of also playing a sweeper in their defence, centre half-back Aidan McAlynn jogged into the Tyrone full-back line where Gormley was obliged to mark him. First introduced in 2003 by Armagh, the sweeper system is now a firm fixture in Gaelic football’s one-page tactical handbook. There is also a standard response to any team that employs a sweeper. You just mirror them. That’s what everyone does.
It’s a depressing comment on our game that in the eight years since the sweeper became a common feature on GAA pitches, I have never seen a county manager employ the tactics used by John Brennan on Saturday night.
That tells us two things. First, it reveals that Brennan is prepared to think for himself. Secondly, it reinforces the notion that the overwhelming majority of past and present managers are not so brave.
Brennan’s bold tactic had one major benefit — it prevented the opposition from putting two men on his star forward. Paddy Bradley took full advantage of the extra latitude by delivering a man-of-the-match performance.
At the break Derry led by eight points 1-7 to 0-2. So far, so good. But no tactic is without its flaws and the weakness in playing with only five defenders was exposed in the second half. Once Tyrone got a foothold at midfield and started charging at Derry’s undermanned rearguard, the Red Hands racked up 1-6 in just 15 minutes.
By the 50th minute Tyrone had overhauled the eight-point deficit and led by a point. They had all the momentum and looked set for victory.
Then Derry’s corner-back Ciaran Mullan, playing only his second game for the county, scored a goal that came completely against the run of play. But what was the corner-back doing in the forward line? Mullan supplied the answer after the game when he said: “My man was going back into their defence. He was sitting in front of Paddy (Bradley). I was just told to follow him. Wherever he went, I went. That’s why I was so far forward. When the ball broke, I was just in the right place at the right time to put it in the net.”
Mullan could also have scored a second goal. A superb save from Pascal McConnell meant the Coleraine man had to settle for a point. Ultimately it was the corner back’s haul of 1-1 which allowed Derry to record a one-point victory.
I am not hailing John Brennan as the next Mourinho. And even if he were, I still do not believe that the new Derry manager will win anything major with this group of players.
Admittedly, had he got the job when Sean Martin Lockhart, Niall McCusker, Fergal Doherty, and Johnny McBride were around, then he would have had a much better chance.
As things stand, Brennan is working with a lot of very inexperienced players. And Tyrone demonstrated the value of experience when Mickey Harte introduced Stephen O’Neill and the McMahon brothers as substitutes. Tyrone have another few gears in them.
In contrast, while Derry can improve, it’s unlikely they can bridge the gap which will convert them into champions.
The point I am trying to make is that too many of our managers are slaves to convention.
Our game suffers from a serious lack of independent thinkers. Apart from the one obvious exception, everyone else just sticks rigidly to everyone else’s tactics.
And this is why John Brennan deserves to be applauded. On Saturday night, he tried something different. It was a risk. It could have backfired. But in the end, the gamble paid off. There is ample evidence that such innovation can reap rewards. Saturday night’s McKenna Cup final provided further proof, and as Del Boy keeps telling us: “He who dares…”
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