Kicking Out: Tyrone's display was 10 months in the making
THE hype machine has propelled Tyrone from being a team with no forwards on Sunday morning to All-Ireland champions-in-waiting by sun down.
But as with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
This is a team that was in complete control against Dublin at Croke Park in February until Mark Bradley got sent off in the second half, that beat Monaghan the following week, yet would have needed bullet-proof glass to keep themselves sheltered from the reckless firing at them over the last two months.
The way they ended the National League was all the convincing people needed.
Tyrone have no forwards. They don’t commit to the attack. They’ve learnt nothing from last year.
And even though they scored 0-22 against Derry, it was still a relatively unconvincing performance that did nothing to curtail the critics’ enthusiasm.
It seems obvious now that they were actually toying with the Oak Leafers, so confident that they’d win the game that they saw no need to show their hand.
Yet anyone studying Tyrone’s performances this year would have seen the blueprint that they broke out of the box on Sunday being prepared.
Even the night they were well beaten in Ballybofey in the League was telling. As Tyrone’s players and management fretted over the lack of showers in MacCumhaill Park on a Baltic night, there seemed less angst about having lost the game.
Mickey Harte stood at the side of the away changing room door almost totally non-plussed, smiling even, in his post-match interview.
Sean Cavanagh was happy to talk Donegal up on to the list of contenders for silverware.
While Donegal were psyched for a significant league win, Tyrone were looking at the bigger picture.
Cavanagh was one of several players that had a spell at full-forward that night. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden were all inside at various times as well.
The style was direct but a poor imitation of what we saw on Sunday.
Conditions were atrocious and so was Tyrone’s supply of ball inside. Everything they kicked in broke down.
But through the torrential rain, they continued to chisel at it.
The precision just wasn’t there. It had been three years since they’d tried to consistently play like that. It was going to take time.
The National League for Tyrone was the breeding ground for everything that came to pass on Sunday. They’d only play that way for a half here and a half there, careful to put all the pieces together away from plain sight.
And on Sunday, it all came together.
The sunshine, the glorious green sward, the lack of any meaningful wind, it all suited the style of play Tyrone brought to Clones.
All that 50-50 ball they'd kicked in Ballybofey had become 70-30 ball. One hop into space kind of ball that a forward like Mark Bradley loves.
It’s a myth that they have been completely immune to the idea of kicking over the last three years.
They set out to kick against Mayo last year but grew frustrated and confused by its failure to work.
Mayo were happy after 15 minutes that Brendan Harrison had the measure of Ronan O’Neill. The green and red shirts were able to defend in a different shape.
Their spare men were able to push out and make tackles on the runners. Kevin McLoughlin, having struggled all summer to cut ball out, didn’t need to any more. He pushed out and made tackles on his own 45 all day.
Tyrone didn’t kick the ball because kicking it wasn’t working. It was coming straight back and allowing Mayo to hammer them on the counter-attack.
Critical to the whole venture on Sunday, and now the rest of the summer, was Mark Bradley. He lost the first two balls but won everything else and pulled Donegal around with his corner-to-corner runs.
They had to protect against him because he was giving Paddy McGrath bother. That Tyrone were prepared to use those runs and feed him the ball in turn opened the space for Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte and Niall Sludden in particular.
Donegal were the first team to see the full jigsaw and they didn’t know what to do. They ended up neither covering their full-back line nor coming out to meet runners. They did nothing as Tyrone ran in 1-21 and missed five clear goal chances.
They’ve hit a record 1-43 in two games but Sunday was one of those days when absolutely everything Tyrone kicked went over the bar.
No matter were it from the sideline, from the corner flag, from 50 yards, one after the other the shots sailed between Mark Anthony McGinley’s posts.
Monaghan, should they beat Down, will look at it and see a lack of defensive pressure on the shot, and rightly so. You can be sure Darren Hughes and Gavin Doogan won’t be sitting back in the pocket watching Mattie Donnelly and Niall Sludden stroll about picking off scores.
Missing five goal chances removes their performance from the ‘perfect’ bracket and moves into the ‘very, very good’ box.
Does anyone think that if they get through Saturday night, Malachy O’Rourke won’t be sitting lapping up all this hype as he ruggedly prepares one of Ireland’s meanest defences to face a team that’s ruined its All-Ireland dreams twice?
Tyrone would not blitz Monaghan the way they blitzed Donegal. They aren’t going to railroad all in their path to win the All-Ireland. It’s conceivable that they won’t even win Ulster.
If they go out on July 16 and it’s teeming from the heavens and there’s a gale blowing towards Monaghan town, they will have to adapt all over again.
For the first time, they look as though they’ll be able to.
And for that reason, they will be very definitely in the mix for serious silverware.