The magic is in the anticipation

 NO LOVE LOST: Tyrone and Donegal players square up during the recent Allianz Football League clash at Healy Park, Omagh. Picture: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

ULSTER SFC QUARTER-FINAL:
Donegal v Tyrone
For too long, we’ve been decrying the anti-climactic starts to thevarious provincial championships. Now we have a genuine no-holds barred contest in Ballybofey.

“Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it”
[Roald Dahl]

All of the repressed woes, all of the contempt the two teams have for each other and much of the recent history between Tyrone and Donegal has been circling in a holding pattern over tomorrow’s game in Ballybofey since the draw for Championship 2013 was made last October.

The expectation is that when the madness descends at 4pm tomorrow, it won’t be pretty and it won’t be tame. After the game is over, both managers and players will doubtless play down the significance of the bile and the needling as a media creation but it is there, it is tangible and for those who love the Ulster Championship — it is magic.

For too long, we’ve been decrying the anti-climactic starts to the various provincial championships but now we have a contest almost on equal footing with the great Derry vs Down match of 1994. If it gets anywhere near the drama of that, we could have a game for the ages. The cynic in me says it can’t happen but we must believe in myth and magic. The alternative is too depressing this early in the season.

Because Tyrone are aiming to avoid the dreaded fate of losing three seasons in a row to the same opposition, it is assumed that their motivation is greater.

I’m not so sure.

Donegal’s motivation comes from the desire to authenticate the progress of the past three seasons. In order to be taken seriously as champions, Donegal must defend the ground gained in front of their own supporters. After the giant strides of the first two years of the McGuinness era, the next step has the potential to be definitive in how they are remembered as team.

Lose and all the certainty and conviction of the past year is eroded. Win and the highway is theirs until the end of August at least.

Nobody knows what will happen next. This is a new and unfamiliar landscape for all the Donegal players and even the most experienced players amongst the Tyrone outfit, have never had to prepare to take down the champion this early in the season.

Parsing previous playbooks is all we can do to predict what might happen.

Based on their most recent league encounter and on their last championship meeting, it will be as deliberate as a game of chess with both teams figuring each other out as they go along. It would be a surprise to me if Donegal get to blitz Tyrone early on and an even bigger shock to have Donegal fall too far behind in the first 10 to 15 minutes.

In last year’s championship match in Clones and again in the cogadh na mbó maol of league football in Omagh, Tyrone showed a willingness to attack Donegal along the tramlines. This Tyrone tactic of spreading the play as wide as possible had Donegal bamboozled for a while and it was the only time last year that the Tír Chonaill men were behind at half-time in a championship match. But once they got to grips with things in the third quarter, you could sense that they were playing within themselves and they inexorably squeezed the life out of Tyrone. I expect Tyrone to change their ways of attacking tomorrow.

Crucially in all games last year, Donegal weren’t conceding too much in their periods under the cosh and Tyrone’s scores last June tended to come from defenders, Conor Clarke, Seán O’Neill, Dermot Carlin and Joe McMahon from frees. I’m not sure that the champions will do a whole lot differently tomorrow but they may feel the need to tidy up on nagging issues from last season, such as the concession of late goals and some overambitious kick passing.

So what’s another year for Tyrone and what’s changed?

First off, they’ve had an entire season playing in Division 1 against Donegal’s brand of football, be that poor imitations or different strains of the defensive/counter attacking virus. In their previous two championship encounters, Tyrone were coming in on the back of plateau seasons in Division 2. The evidence of a gulf in class between Divisions 1 and 2 is compelling after last week’s game in Salthill.

Furthermore Sean Cavanagh is available this year and Stephen O’Neill is starting to show signs of the form that made him unmarkable in the age of innocence eight years ago. The veteran’s form adds the x-factor to the Tyrone attack this time. Up to now, teams like Donegal could afford to invite Tyrone players on to them safe in the knowledge that no matter who got the ball inside, he would be smothered up quickly. Given the form O’Neill has been in since February — scoring points from what couldn’t even be considered half-chances — Paddy McGrath, the two Magees and all those offering cover will have to be razor sharp tomorrow.

I have a distinct recollection from last year of O’Neill and Michael Murphy scrapping for possession 50 yards out from the Donegal goal out near the sideline in front of their managers’ watchful gaze. We could see that happen again tomorrow but wouldn’t it be great if both full forwards didn’t have to roam — if they fronted up and played an attacking game that asked more questions of the defences?

The other great variable introduced from last year is, of course, Niall Morgan. The championship debutant from Edendork is a game changer in his own right. There is a theory abroad that Kerry’s game plan faltered badly when long range free-taker Bryan Sheehan was forced off the pitch with injury in the All-Ireland quarter-final. Donegal were the better team from start to finish but played with absolute impunity around the midfield area in the second half when Sheehan departed as Kerry had nobody to punish indiscretions from 50-70 yards out.

Morgan has become central to Tyrone tactics this year and I expect to see the two Donnellys, Mark and Mattie, busting a gut to help their defenders turn over the vaunted Thompson, Lacey and McGlynn axis. This will in turn set up the counter- attack through the middle to get within range for a Morgan free. If this happens as much as three or four times, Tyrone are in business.

It may not be the most exciting tactic in Gaelic football but it is certainly novel to see a team’s best forwards play for a turnover 100 yards from goal in order to set up a counter-attack to be finished by the last line of defence!

England won a Rugby World Cup 10 years ago with a similar tactic and as recently as last weekend we saw how Toulon stayed in the game and in the competition long enough by suffocating Clermont, forcing fouls and allowing their kicker, Jonny Wilkinson to punish them every time. It’s not pretty but it’s pretty effective.

A game of Ulster Championship football is not ballet or dressage. It never existed to be rated on its levels of beauty or high expression. The only calibration that seems to count on days like tomorrow is how much effort is invested and how far teams are prepared to go to stop each other playing.

Where is the room for magic in such a hostile environment? Perhaps the magic is in the anticipation. Perhaps it is in the hope we will see a Murphy or an O’Neill, a Morgan, a McFadden or a Donnelly do something to light up Sunday afternoon.

Perhaps Yeats was right, maybe the world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.

Maybe we’re missing something and maybe tomorrow’s match-up will produce one of the best games of recent times.

Either way, I expect a Donegal win.


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