The qualifiers provided redemption for Tyrone after a disappointing Ulster Championship exit to Monaghan, but as they prepare to lock horns with the all-conquering Dubs, can Mickey Harte conjure up a Plan B to triumph on Sunday?
All Ireland Semi Final, 2017
The match was not yet five minutes old when Con O’Callaghan waltzed through a hole-ridden Tyrone blanket defence, blasted a shot high into Niall Morgan’s net and ended the Ulster champion’s involvement in the 2017 All Ireland Championship.
No matter that it only gave Dublin a one-score advantage or that there were 65 minutes of Championship football left to be played. Every sinner in Croke Park understood the significance.
Tyrone would not get back into the match for the simple reason that they were not set up to do so.
The Ulster men had hoped to keep the game as tight as a miser’s wallet, force the Dubs down blind alleys and win turnover possession to forge attacks of their own. They hoped for a low-scoring affair. And they hoped that at no point would they be more than a point or two down.
And once Dublin had breached the supposedly impenetrable defence of their opponents with O’Callaghan’s early goal, Tyrone were done. There would be no plan B.
The system with which Mickey Harte has persevered for the entirety of his managerial career had been dismantled with the minimum of fuss, his tactical thesis utterly debunked.
This wasn’t just a bad day at the office for Tyrone. As the final whistle blew in Croke Park just over a year ago, it appeared that Tyrone’s entire approach to the sport had been defeated.
An occasionally wise man once referred to it as “puke football” and in the intervening decade and a half the GAA community has yet to come up with a more appropriate term. The tactic is most often credited to Mickey Harte and the Tyrone team of the early 21st century who collected three All Ireland titles in a five-year period.
That team bamboozled opposition with the ferocity of their tackling, their pack mentality and the rapidity with which they could shift from defence to attack following the turnover of possession.
It was a dramatic new tactical approach and crucially, it worked.
Over the next few years, numerous county sides followed this blueprint with varying degrees of success, particularly in Ulster where Donegal, Armagh and Monaghan would become the most enthusiastic proponents of Harte’s revolution.
But at its heart, this approach to Gaelic football was inherently cynical.
It works off the assumption that your team is just not as good as any of your opponents and that therefore the players should ignore their instincts to go and create in favour of an all-absorbing pack mentality.
Rather than force your skills upon an opponent, why not sit deep and use 13 men to press the opposing players once they hit your 45.
It could lead to mistakes and mistakes mean turnovers.
Matches between opponents of differing philosophies became battles of beauty v the beast – the beast being the blanket and beauty being absolutely anything else.
However fresh and appealing it may have seemed in 2003 this much-maligned tactic is showing signs of decay in 2018.
The Tyrone system is predicated on turnover of possession, the belief that opposition forwards will charge recklessly down narrow channels before eventually being gobbled up by two or three ravenous Tyrone defenders.
But what happens if the other team avoids those dead ends? What if they press high up the pitch so that when the ball has been turned over in your full-back line there are then a horde of opposition players waiting for you at the 45, blocking your route up the pitch?
That is what Dublin did to Tyrone in last year’s semi-final, but what was most startling was not that the blanket defence was malfunctioning, but rather that they did nothing about it.
Throughout the first half Tyrone were being pummeled relentlessly, but stuck to their shape like a boxer who is too dazed to raise his guard or counter punch.
The cult-like adherence to the blanket was never more perplexing than 20 minutes into that second semi-final.
One thing is clear though Tyrone cannot adopt the same game plan as they did against Dublin in last year’s semi-final. If they do, they lose the game and Mickey Harte knows it.
What are Tyrone going to do on Sunday?
There is a train of thought in the game right now that the only way to even compete with the Dublin juggernaut is to play the Dubs at their own game – to play expansively and with a hard running game that commits plenty of bodies to the opposition half.
The likelihood of Mickey Harte deciding of his own volition to do this is about as likely as a Leitrim v Louth All Ireland final in 2019.
It would border on the unfair to expect a manager of such conservative values to even consider such a thing, but Mickey Harte will certainly have to bring something to the table beyond his blanket defence shenanigans that were so easily dismantled a year ago.
For one thing, he could look to press Dublin higher up the pitch and perhaps even try to put some pressure on their kick outs. In last year’s final Mayo had some joy in this regard.
Another option would be to do a job on the free-roaming Ciaran Kilkenny. Kilkenny serves as the fulcrum of the Dublin side, an immaculately calm and calculated performer who ghosts in and out of opposition 45s at his leisure. He is on course to become the Player of the Year based on his flawless performances this season, but perhaps if Tyrone were willing to man mark him (or double mark him), the wave of Dublin attacks could abate.
Stopping Kilkenny could be the first step in stopping a clean supply of ball into their lethal inside forward line.
Whatever happens, the minimum Tyrone fans should expect of their manager is that he has a few tricks up his sleeves and that a football mind as celebrated as his should be able to learn a thing or two from last season’s miserable defeat.
Dublin and Tyrone battle it out in the All Ireland Football Final on Sunday, September 2nd at Croke Park.
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