Sport

Up and coming Tyrone stars have the look of winners

Kieran McGeary was one of Tyrone's leading lights in their All-Ireland U21 victory over Tipperary
Philip Jordan

TYRONE are All-Ireland champions. It's great to be able to say that again.

After all the success at minor level over the last 15 years, Tyrone finally have a first U21 title since 2001. In terms of footballing talent and work rate, both teams were very evenly matched, but Tyrone had the edge over Tipperary on the side line.

Last week, I highlighted midfield possession as the key area and it proved crucial in the end. Tyrone's plan was to avoid kicking the ball long and I was surprised Tipperary didn't push up on them to prevent the short kick - they won 11 short kick-outs. Tyrone really struggled when they were forced to kick the ball long.

In contrast, Tipperary kicked the majority of their kick-outs long and Tyrone did an excellent job of breaking the ball. The Tipperary management will regret not working short kick-outs of their own and forcing Tyrone to go long from the restarts.

In the first half, Tyrone looked nervous and their decision making was poor. One of the strengths of the team all year has been the intelligence the players have shown on the ball. Whether it was the pressure of playing in a final or the conditions, they made a lot of poor choices in the first half. They kicked 10 wides in the opening period, but most of those were from distance when they really should have been working the ball inside. Credit must go to Tipperary, though, who played with 13 men inside their own half in the first period, leaving little space in front of their full-back line.

Tyrone won the game in the opening 20 minutes of the second half. The pace, energy and intensity of their game was exceptional. They broke down Tipperary attacks and attacked with pace and numbers. Tipperary lost the defensive shape they had early on and were left exposed by Tyrone's support play. Kieran McGeary, Cathal McShane, Mark Kavanagh and Conor Meyler were superb, but the full-back line in particular give them the confidence to attack in numbers.

Tipperary's inside forwards struggled to pose any sort of threat and that allowed Tyrone to press Tipp further out the field. That lack of threat inside really was the undoing of Tipperary.

Tipperary felt aggrieved about the decision of Fergal Kelly not to give a hop ball after Tyrone's Michael Cassidy was sent-off late on. It should have been a throw-in and was one of numerous poor calls throughout the game.

A special word for Colin O'Riordan, who I thought was exceptional for the losers. Tyrone had identified him as a big danger and, despite such focus on him, he had a huge influence on the game. The two monster points he kicked in injury time, in the most pressurised of moments in an All-Ireland final, showed the character of the man.

Coming back up the road from Dublin last Saturday night, I was a very proud Tyrone man, having seen them come out on top in an absorbing contest played in terrible conditions. I didn't think I would have to use this column to defend the team and county against more accusations of cynicism. The response since the game has made me wonder was I at a different game.

Was there some cynical play? Yes, without a doubt. There were instances of time wasting, players stopping the opposition taking quick frees, unnecessary fouls committed and some off the ball verbal. I don't remember the last time I watched a game that didn't have all of that. However, I thought it was no worse than most games and I certainly didn't feel Tyrone were guilty to a greater extent than Tipperary.

Watching the game, I felt Tipperary had a clear plan in the first half to slow the game down to curtail Tyrone's running game and limit the effects of playing against the wind. They were happy to foul Tyrone coming out with the ball, they stood in front of Tyrone free kicks to stop them moving the ball at pace and their 'keeper was in no rush to take kick-outs. Tipp conceding 13 frees to Tyrone's six in the opening half would back my thoughts at the time.

In truth, I had no issue with it as it was smart football; I was more frustrated with Tyrone, who should have been looking to move the ball quicker. There's no denying Tyrone committed quite a few fouls in the closing 10 minutes and there was a lot of time wasting. Is there anyone who played the game who hasn't stayed down a bit longer to waste time late on in a close game?

People need to remember this was an All-Ireland final. The majority of these players will never play in another and fear of defeat is a very real driving force. Nobody in Tyrone claims we are ‘whiter than white,' but there is a very real feeling within the county that our teams are treated differently.

There are actually some who have been convinced that Tyrone introduced cynicism to football and this is the main reason for the county's All-Ireland successes over the last 15 years. That's the most frustrating thing for Tyrone Gaels. Cynical play has always been part of the game in varying forms. The punching of a player off the ball that was a regular occurrence 30 years ago was worse than what goes on now, but it seems the traditionalists think that was a more ‘manly' type of cynicism.

The one criticism I've made of the Tyrone senior team in the past 12 months has been how easily they have been bullied by their opponents. I certainly won't be criticising the U21 side for playing with the pride, physicality and intensity I want to see in all Tyrone teams. Winning teams play on the edge. The rules are in place and a team with any sort of ambition will play them to the limit. Once you cross the line, then you get punished.

Tyrone as a county took plenty of stick during the 1990s and early 2000s for being too nice and lacking the physicality to win All-Irelands. The winning side is definitely the best one to be on.

Back to the positive side of Tyrone's win.

There is no guarantee that U21 success will lead to wins at senior level. What it does mean, though, is Tyrone now have a group of players coming through who know what it takes to be successful.

Most importantly, this team has learned that work rate and desire are two key ingredients for success. The U21s have brought a renewed positivity to the county - we'll not worry about the begrudgers on the outside.

Tír Eoghain Abú.

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