OpinionPat Spillane

Harte will be broken again in tactical war

Harte will be broken again in tactical war

Perception! I simply couldn’t get the word out of my head all week as I mulled over what I’d write about today’s showdown between Donegal and Tyrone in the Ulster championship.

You see, there is a perception among Ulster GAA fans that I’ve never written anything positive about Ulster football.

Of course, I have criticised Ulster football before and I would argue that much of it has been entirely justified. This all started after I coined the infamous phrase ‘puke football’ after watching the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final between Tyrone and Kerry.

The reason I used it was because I foresaw the future of Gaelic football that day and it didn’t look pretty. It was all about being defensive and stopping teams from playing to their strengths.

Do I blame Tyrone or, indeed, any other team from adopting those tactics? Not at all! For many years Ulster teams were in awe of Kerry when they faced them in championship football in Croke Park and let them play football. Tyrone 2003 was different; they got into the faces of the Kerry players and didn’t let them play football. The rest is history!

Ulster no longer has a monopoly on awful football. It has spread nationwide and I have criticised other teams for being slavishly defensive. So please spare me all this nonsense about my so-called anti-Ulster stance. 

Here are some of the comments I’ve made about Ulster teams and players over the last decade:

  • ‘Crossmaglen Rangers are the greatest club football team of all time; they play football the way it should be played.’
  • 'Heffo and Mick O’Dwyer and Mickey Harte are the three greatest managers of all time.’
  • ‘Tyrone’s 2008 All-Ireland final performance was as good as I’ve ever seen.’
  • ‘The Donegal story under Jim McGuinness is truly inspiring.’
  • ‘Peter Canavan, Stephen McDonnell, Michael Murphy and Sean Cavanagh would walk on to any Team of the Century.’

So maybe these quotes will underline the fact that Spillane has said nice things about Ulster football! Three years ago in Clones I stood on the sideline and watched Donegal and Tyrone clash in the Ulster semi-final. The game wasn’t free-flowing or attacking – far from it, in fact. 

But I was utterly enthralled at how the two teams set up their defensive systems and then tried to penetrate their opponent’s blanket. It was the football equivalent of a chess match. I couldn’t take my eyes off it for a moment.

So what can we expect today? Tyrone’s record this spring doesn’t make pretty reading. Relegated from Division 1, they managed just one win – though three of their games ended in draws. They were the lowest scorers in the top three divisions, averaging 12 points per game.

Their worst performance was against Donegal in Ballybofey, when they lost by 10 points. Mickey Harte (right) said it was as bad a performance from any Tyrone team he has ever managed. There are questions marks over the fitness of Sean Cavanagh today and, amazingly, since Harte took over Tyrone have beaten Donegal in just one of their five championship encounters.

There were two disconcerting features about Tyrone’s league displays. They got into the very bad habit of losing big leads – they endured a 12-point turnaround when losing to Monaghan; they were five points up against Cork with 17 minutes to go and still lost and drew with Dublin after surrendering a three-point lead in the last six minutes.

They tended to go for long periods without registering a score – 52 minutes against Monaghan; only two points from their starting forwards against Dublin; three points from play against Donegal and they failed to register any point from play in the second half against Cork.

Nonetheless, it would be foolish to write off Tyrone’s chances. Any team managed by Mickey Harte has to be taken seriously. This is his 13th and possibly last season at the helm and his whole season revolves around what happens today at MacCumhaill Park.

Tyrone’s victory in the All-Ireland U-21 final will have lifted morale in the county. Furthermore, they produced a masterful defensive performance to squeeze the life out of Mayo in Castlebar and when forced to chase the game in the last 20 minutes against Kerry their counter-attacking game was redolent of their best days.

Despite contesting last year’s All-Ireland final, Donegal are not the team they once were. Their defenders, in particular, have a lot of football mileage in their legs. After five years on the road it is difficult to maintain their high-tempo game.

New team boss Rory Gallagher used only 20 players in the league, which suggests that little in the way of new talent is coming through the ranks. Their much-vaunted blanket defence also looked frail at times.

They failed to cope against Kerry, who attacked them with diagonal balls and ran at them, while they conceded four goals in the league semi-final against Cork.
But the positives for Donegal are the form of Paddy McBrearty, the return of Mark McHugh and the tight pitch, which will suit them as they are physically stronger.

This group of Donegal players don’t fear Tyrone; they are aiming for their fourth successive win over their neighbours and I expect they will get the result.

Verdict: Donegal.