Red Hands have the know how

IN this strange period of intransigence towards the broadcast media from GPA members and in light of the banalities being uttered by many inter-county players in the build-up to big matches, it was rather refreshing to hear the opinions of injured Tyrone midfielder Enda McGinley in an interview earlier this week.

He admitted that “the fact Antrim is in it (tomorrow’s Ulster final) probably adds to the sense of occasion. It reminds us as players that it is a big event to be a part of and it is big to win these things. From a Tyrone point of view we are seeing this match as a progression towards our overall goals for the season but Antrim being in it, and the whole excitement and sense of occasion that has brought to it, really adds to the day. It probably increases the enjoyment of being part of it from our point of view.”

McGinley, of course, has a unique perspective on the game as he is married to the sister of Antrim senior stars Michael and Tomás McCann but his comments are enlightening in that they surely reflect the way the current All-Ireland champions approach all games – without any semblance of fear.

We’ve heard the total football mantra repeated so often that it’s becoming irksome but because Tyrone have players who are comfortable in all position on the field and adaptable to all situations in which they find themselves, they can be seen to take more risks than most, confident in the knowledge that their superior team ethic will bail them out. This will again be reflected tomorrow when the likes of PJ Quinn and Ryan McMenamin will leave quality players like Paddy Cunningham and Tomás McCann unpoliced so that they can attack the ball.

The two Antrim snipers might well do damage against most opposition but for a team who can afford to leave Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy momentarily unmarked in an All-Ireland final, the back up from alert team mates makes the gamble worthwhile.

Of course, the flip side to that argument is that Tyrone’s supreme confidence can allow traces of complacency to seep furtively into the subconscious and it has been put forward more than once in the build up to tomorrow’s game that Antrim’s best hope of causing an upset is that Tyrone are still prone to the lapses in concentration and effort that characterised their championship exit to Meath two years ago and Down’s ambush in last year’s Ulster championship. While arguments regarding Tyrone’s complacency on those occasions may be valid, it must also be registered that their physio treatment tables were buckling under the weight of injured players at that time.

This time out there are no injuries of note and in light of Derry’s recent performance against Monaghan after their defeat to Tyrone a few weeks back, it appears that the champions are as well placed as they ever were to mount a serious defence of their title. The bad news for Antrim is that many in the Red Hand camp have explicitly stated in all public messages this year the “front door title” is the preferred course in 2009.

Where then, can Antrim realistically hold an expectation of profit on the field tomorrow? And what must they do to bring about the circumstances to create the conditions for success? Antrim manager Liam Bradley, coach Niall Conway and the Antrim players are no mugs and I expect they have their own ideas on this. It is quite likely that the Antrim gameplan involves matching Tyrone in very aspect relating to working on and off the ball, in tackling, in running and in physical combat. I have no doubt, given their age profile, their hunger, desire and motivation and most importantly their fitness levels that Antrim are quite capable of matching Tyrone on all of these fronts.

The difficulty arises (as Longford and Limerick footballers discovered recently) on the home stretch when their sense of belief will be tested to the limits of its possibilities and when that little bit of extra genius and know how on the Tyrone side will emerge to see them home. So while Niall McKeever could conceivably catch four clean kickouts in the opening half tomorrow, as he did against Cavan, or James Loughrey could match Brian Dooher for stamina as he did on Cian Mackey a few weeks ago – the likelihood is that Paddy Cunningham’s conversion rate from hard won possession will not be as good as Stephen O Neill’s and that Sean Cavanagh will vacuum pack more damage into his periods of dominance at midfield than either Aodhan Gallagher or Michael McCann.

All other things being equal, that is still the difference between Tyrone and most others.

Out west in Salthill we will get the chance to see one of the few teams to really rattle Tyrone these last few seasons, Mayo, being tested for the first time in championship football this year. After the procession to Salthill against New York and Roscommon, I imagine John O Mahony will welcome it.

All year, I have had a feeling that Mayo are slowly and quietly getting things together and while Galway have had the greater steeling on their way to tomorrow’s Connacht final, it would come as no great surprise to see the Mayo evolution continue. If Ronan McGarrity shows no ill-effects from his recent injury, Mayo will have one of the strongest and most mobile spines from numbers 3 to 14 of any team left in the race.

Despite Finian Hanley’s continued excellence, the Galway full back-line could struggle with an aerial bombarding and captain, Alan Burke will have to do a bit more thinking on Aidan Kilcoyne than he had to against Conor Mortimer in recent seasons. While the weather usually has a bearing on the outcome in Salthill and familiarity with the breeze is often an advantage, the notion that Galway are exceptionally difficult to beat at home in Pearse Stadium was shattered by Westmeath a few years ago. Tomorrow, I expect Mayo to take their scalp, avenge the defeats of the last two years and deliver John O Mahony his first Connacht title in his second stint as Mayo boss.

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