Enda McGinley: Tyrone can bounce back from Donegal disappointment
WITH all but the final played, it’s fair to say this year’s Ulster Championship has given a very timely reminder of the value of the competition.
Even the most optimistic of supporters of a Champions League-type system are bound to doubt the ability of that format to match the cut and thrust of the Championship action.
Even with the back-door safety net, every game managed to carry and live up to that unique atmosphere Championship football brings.
The biggest story from last weekend was Tyrone’s loss to Donegal. It says much that even though Donegal’s performance was excellent, everyone is contextualising the result by referring to Tyrone’s poor performance.
As ever in Tyrone, the result has allowed many barely concealed knives to be taken back out. The ability of any GAA team’s supporters to overreact both positively and negatively to a result is far from unique to Tyrone.
This year, however, Tyrone are joining Mayo in testing the emotions of even their most sensible followers such are the swings from optimism to despair that their performances are inducing.
Following the annual victory in the McKenna Cup, the League got off to a bad start. Rumours of problems on the team holiday and an unhappy camp gained credibility with off-colour displays on the pitch. The end was nigh. Cue a run of wins and performances culminating in the sound defeat of Dublin, despite finishing with 14 men.
Their football was converting previously ardent critics in its style and effectiveness. The new Tyrone were being talked about as one of the few able to potentially stop the Dubs’ five-in-a-row bid.
The positivity about the new style meant even significant losses of Lee Brennan and Ronan O’Neill were nonchalantly dismissed as unfortunate but understandable.
Early Championship tests against Derry and Antrim were seen as further evidence of this exciting new era as Tyrone continued to be lauded for their positive play. As I wrote a few weeks ago, this was a highly unusual (and likely uncomfortable) position for many to be in.
The classic English tabloid tactic of building something up only to enjoy cutting it down could be sensed in the barely concealed enthusiasm of many pundits when picking through the rubble of Tyrone’s poor performance. The Tiernan McCann incident was like the icing on the cake for them.
Many Tyrone supporters too are back calling for Mickey Harte’s head and suggesting the team are miles away from challenging for an All-Ireland.
While the ease of Donegal’s victory surprised me, I had feared and somewhat expected a Donegal win before the game.
Tyrone’s new system hadn’t passed any serious form of examination, and their previous running game was off-colour due to loss of form of key players within it.
Donegal have a strong side, experienced management team, big-game experience and serious ambition. Crucially, they appear to have more top-level forwards and that, when things are tight, remains the most significant deciding variable in the game.
So, Tyrone were certainly up against it and that was before they went out and, quite simply, played poorly. That sounds incredibly basic, but that doesn’t make it wrong.
There is a strange dynamic within teams that when some things start going wrong, it can act as a contagion that spreads throughout the team. Simple mistakes are made, confidence is lost, fitness built up over months inexplicably drains away.
I believe Tyrone, to an extent, had one of those days but, equally, the result, and particularly the manner of it, cannot be written off as merely that.
The most common line is that Tyrone simply does not have the top level quality, especially up front. It is hard to argue against this when looking at the talent that the likes of Kerry, Dublin and Donegal themselves possess in this department.
However, it is worth realising that the long-ball game is in its infancy and, while it failed its first major test, there certainly appears merit in it and Cathal McShane again emerged with much credit from Saturday’s defeat.
Outside of that, though, Tyrone’s running game and defensive solidity need to be regained. Crucially, we know this group has those two aspects within it. The key question is: can the components from recent years be merged with the long-ball game?
That is the challenge the management now face and, if the issues are as stark as they appeared on Saturday, the Qualifiers is the right place for them if they are to stand any chance of improving things before the Super 8s – which I still believe they will make.
In the end, in the unpredictable world of team sports, things are rarely as bad or as good as they seem. As the saying goes: a pat on the back is only a few inches away from a kick in the ass.
In reality, Tyrone were not the great All-Ireland contender people were making them out to be – not yet anyway – but neither are they the no-hopers some would now have you believe.
Regarding their Qualifier tie against Longford, Tyrone have to forget about the bigger picture and concentrate on the basics.
I was once working in theatre on a joint replacement operation when there had been a small incident and the surgeon had to act swiftly to avert trouble.
When all was back under control, and he was proceeding with the procedure I asked him what his mindset was amid this sort of potentially serious incident. He quoted the pilot training maxim: “In an emergency one rule always applies: ‘first fly the plane’.” Like all the best advice, it was obvious and simple. Go back to basics and take care of the most important thing.
Tyrone undoubtedly sustained a major hit at the weekend. There is now much criticism and negativity swirling around the team that can bring them down completely if allowed in.
Joining in the wailing and gnashing of teeth will do nothing for them. They must simply get on with the basics of being a football team: training, sticking together and getting ready to go out and compete.
It is these fundamentals they must return to this week to steady themselves. It’s not possible to suddenly change a player’s formline or unveil a new, talented footballer or seamlessly merge playing styles. But, if you can buy time by surviving a few Qualifier games, it is strange how a season can still turn.