GAA Football

Ulster's tactical dilemma has an obvious answer

Tyrone and Monaghan meet in the Ulster SFC quarter-final next summer, but face a dilemma as to whether to build their gameplan for the year around that match or the bigger picture. Picture by Philip Walsh.

IF we’re truly honest with ourselves, even Ulster people would admit that the currency of the best provincial football championship has been diluted by the back door.

There are obvious recent examples to the contrary, not least in Donegal ending their 19-year famine in 2011 and Monaghan winning a first in 25 years in 2013.

For the latter particularly, a smaller county that will only see successful spells like this come cyclically, there is a real and genuine emotion about winning Ulster.

It doesn’t carry any more weight than the other provinces in that respect, for an Antrim or Fermanagh or Derry win in the province would mean no more or less than a Leitrim or Tipperary or Carlow triumph would within their own borders.

But like the rest, its annual rating is dictated by the strength of the winners. And Tyrone’s celebrations this year were nowhere near as exuberant as last year’s, either on or off the field.

Once that first success comes to a team, as it did to the Red Hands in 2016 after a six-year wait, it becomes less about Ulster and more about what’s next.

It’s the same for them, Dublin and Mayo (even though they’ve lost the last two) now as it has always been for Kerry. The province is only a door into the room that they want to spend their Augusts and Septembers in.

Next year, the door will take them into the Super 8 quarter-finals. There are plusses to them for the four that qualify who aren’t from that top category of Dublin, Tyrone, Mayo and Kerry, but there are also minuses.

The reward for winning your province will be greater than at any time in the qualifier era.

The unlikeliness of replays means that the most any team will play to win Ulster is four games, and the most to win an All-Ireland will be nine.

If you’re Monaghan or Tyrone, who meet each other in the quarter-final on May 20, then the mind must already start to absorb the possibility of needing to go the qualifier route.

In terms of the number of games, there isn’t much difference. Ten will win you an All-Ireland. But it’s the rest periods and their positioning in the calendar that are significant.

The Ulster football final is set for Sunday 24 June, significantly earlier than at any time in the past. The winners will get three full weeks to recover before the All-Ireland quarter-finals begin.

The losers will be back out two weeks later, which is manageable. But for a team coming through the back door to reach the last eight, they will have to play on six consecutive weekends.

Given that the last three of those will be against three of the other top eight sides in the country means that only a squad with the depth of a Dublin or Kerry can really be expected to soak up that physical and psychological pressure.

The challenge is greater up here than elsewhere because of the differing natures of our parochial conquests and what is back in vogue in the latter stages of the All-Ireland.

Conor McManus and Sean Cavanagh have been the two most prominent voices in admitting that Ulster teams need to change their approach if they are to stand a chance at winning Sam Maguire.

But as McManus alluded to when I spoke to him at the launch of the International Rules series, the problem with basing your gameplan around winning an All-Ireland is that you could well be railroaded at the first bend in the road.

“In order to be competitive in Ulster football, you kind of have to adopt a defensive approach. Then when you come out of Ulster, the thing opens up a wee bit,” he said.

“There’s going to be a wee bit of cat and mouse about how you approach things. I don’t think the defensive thing is going to disappear altogether.

“I’m not naïve enough to pretend that things are just going to move away from all defensive styles, but I imagine there will be some sort of a shift towards a more attacking mindset and trying to keep more men up the field.”

Both their teams’ plan A was ripped to shreds in Croke Park, and what has followed is a series of rather public omissions that Dublin are simply too good to fall into the defensive trap now.

The inference of McManus’ comments are that any team with serious ambitions at the latter part of the year almost needs two gameplans. But the idea of trying to perfect two completely different ways of playing is a non-runner.

Dublin’s plan is tweaked and adjusted to suit the opposition but it never materially changes. Mayo have learnt that lesson and their absolute commitment to attacking the game no matter who they’re playing gives them the confidence to go and take on such a great All-Ireland champion.

The dilemma looks stark but really it’s quite simple.

As Ulster’s pre-eminent side, the question lies more on Tyrone’s doorstep than any other: Are they prepared to potentially forsake an Ulster title in order to implement a gameplan that will take them to that next step?

If they come out all-attack and get unpicked by Monaghan in the summer, was anything else they might have done ever really going to be good enough to win the All-Ireland they crave?

But if they or Monaghan maintain the current style, they might win an Ulster title, but that will be the lot.

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