GAA Football

Tyrone's strength and talent in depth makes them serious players

The performance of Declan McClure (21) as a second half sub in the Ulster final is a perfect indication of Tyrone's squad strength Picture by Seamus Loughran

THE concept that 'you're only as strong as your weakest link' applies to sport too.

Take goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton out of the Dublin team, removing his incredibly quick and accurate kick-outs, and the back-to-back All-Ireland Champions might not have won either of those titles (or their previous two in recent times when Cluxton's placed ball kicking was crucial too).

Remove Cillian O'Connor's scoring away from Mayo and the westerners would not even have been close to challenging for All-Ireland titles over the past few years. Often there's a focus on the important opportunities O'Connor missed, ignoring all the many, many scores he does take, at an impressively high conversion rate.

Donegal simply aren't the same team without Michael Murphy, or a fully fit Michael Murphy. With him, they have were the best for a time and remain competitive; without him they lose much more than merely one player.

Tyrone, though, could probably afford to lose almost any player and they would still remain a major force to be reckoned with.

That's not because Mickey Harte doesn't have top quality players at his disposal; he does, any plenty of them.

Despite what some from other counties say, Tyrone don't have bad footballers.

Indeed particularly under Harte they have tended to have very good footballers throughout their teams, and even throughout their squads.

As an illustration of that, when I interviewed Tyrone captain Sean Cavanagh between their Ulster quarter-final and semi-final, we chatted after the recording device was stopped and he mentioned two players who were 'flying' in training.

Big Sean doesn't deal in BS, he wasn't trying to mislead me – but those two players didn't feature against either Donegal or Down.

They're two players I rate highly, who would probably get into the starting side of every other Ulster county, yet they can't get a minute on the pitch for Tyrone.

The talent and the age profile of the squad were major reasons in Cavanagh's decision to stay on for one more season.

I've been banging on about Tyrone's squad strength for several years now but it should be frightening for every county other than Dublin.

Opposition managers used to target Tyrone at midfield, or at full-back – but now there are no weak spots.

The defence can consist of a dozen players, not the traditional half-dozen, and that obviously makes it very difficult for the opposition to find gaps and carve out scoring chances. When you have very good defenders, and superbly athletic and versatile players tracking back from further forward, that's a formula opponents find hard to crack.

Perhaps the louder and longer criticism of Tyrone surrounded their attacking ability.

The general view was that Tyrone built slowly from the back, too slowly.

Every kick-out would go short, then they'd laboriously hand-pass up towards the opposition '45', keep on hand-passing, then shoot wide or lose the ball.

Yet in this Championship goalkeeper Niall Morgan has launched lots of long kick-outs towards a midfield that has dominated, rather than been dominated, as happened sometimes in the past.

Colm Cavanagh lorded the skies against Donegal in the semi-final; Declan McClure did something similar when he came on against Down in the final.

Sean Cavanagh knew such things were coming. The Moy man was very confident about Tyrone's chances this year, on and off the record, as evidenced by his comments before the Donegal game about their chances this year:

"We might surprise a few people, just put it like that, as the summer goes on. I don't think people have us read right, we're not just the way they believe we are.

"They think we are this team that can only play a certain way. I believe we have much more flexibility than that – and I imagine it will come to the fore at some point…"

That midfield superiority has contributed to Tyrone's comfortable wins over Donegal and Down, both in keeping the ball away from the opposition and in providing possession to Red Hand attackers.

Yes, Tyrone do have attackers, and excellent ones at that.

As well as having very good footballers, the system is 'the secret'.

Tyrone might only deploy one out-and-out inside-forward, but there can be half a dozen other team-mates popping up between the 'D' and the '45', offering a range of shooting options or runners to go in behind the opposition full-back line.

There's still room for individual creativity but there's no actual need for it.

Tyrone players rarely find themselves in a position where they have to play a perfect pass either to get out of trouble or to create a scoring opportunity for a team-mate (although many of them can do that).

They almost always have at least two accessible outlets, forward, backwards, or on either side.

Tyrone averaged 1-20 in the Ulster Championship: 22 scores against both Derry and Donegal (0-22 and 1-21 respectively), 19 against Down, having eased off in the heat long before the final whistle.

Yet there was criticism of their attacking in every match. Slow to get going against Derry; wasteful of many goal chances against Donegal; shooting bad wides against Down.

All valid criticisms; but also all reasons for Red Hands to rub together with quiet confidence, because if Tyrone improve they will be seriously hard to stop.

After their amazing accuracy against Donegal, we almost expected every effort to go over the black spot, never mind just over the bar, against Down.

Yet although some of their wides were undeniably bad shots, Tyrone still scored 2-17 in the Ulster Final, still exhibited a scoring accuracy of around 60 per cent, which is pretty good going.

Tyrone's system so far this summer has produced results greater than the sum of their parts. The beauty is that they're not reliant on one or two outstanding individuals, so won't worry if and when injuries and suspensions come along.

There's still a weakest link, logically, but that standard in the Tyrone squad is so high that that particular player (whomever critics decide he is) is still pretty strong and is unlikely to let the team down.

The Red Hands are linked in a chain that will prove very hard to break and also one that can generate a steady supply of scores.

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