Joe Brolly: 'Tyrone's decision to abandon expansive style after one setback is a major mistake'

In an interview with The Irish Times last week, Darragh Ó Sé pinpointed the reason Mayo have been the only real competitor for the Dubs and the only other team to come anywhere near winning an All-Ireland.

This was, he said, because Mayo’s football culture trusts its defenders to win their individual battles.

“I’m not saying those defenders won’t get burned from time to time. But in general, the Mayo defenders tend to come out better in their 50/50 battles. That’s what allows Horan — and the managers who have been there between his spells — to send Mayo out to play the sort of football you need to win an All-Ireland. The key thing is that the rest of the team have confidence to play open football, to go out and have a go.”

On their bus home from Clones on Saturday, Mickey Harte must have been absorbed in his own thoughts. Perhaps he was wondering whether going back to their 2017 1-13-1 formation is a short-term fix.

Cavan, after all, are not the Dubs. It is worth remembering that Tyrone lost that 2017 semi-final against Dublin by 12 points, and it could have been much worse.

That day, Tyrone dropped back into their normal defensive phalanx inside their own half, with Mark Bradley alone up front, and the Dubs cruised through them, hemmed them in and rendered Colm Cavanagh redundant on the edge of the square.

Tyrone crushed Cavan last weekend with the sort of ominous display that has made most counties fear them, paralysing their attack and putting up a big score.

But it is worth remembering that Tyrone did precisely the same thing in 2017 against a series of lesser opponents. After that 2017 humiliation by the Dubs, Harte said everything was fine and that everybody has an opinion on football and some pundits have an agenda blah, blah, blah.

So they soldiered grimly on into the 2018 Ulster Championship where Monaghan cruised through their zonal defence, hemmed them in and beat them well. Which is why, when they got Monaghan a few months later in the All-Ireland semi-final, they changed tack and went man to man.

That simple decision ruined Monaghan’s strategy and flummoxed Malachy O’Rourke, who like most of us obviously couldn’t believe that Mickey would ever change tack, especially at the suggestion of certain pundits with agendas.

In the final against the Dubs last year, Tyrone had a lively start, but were soon put to the sword by Dublin’s ingenious kick-out press. No shame there.

For me, Tyrone were putting in place the foundations for an All-Ireland-winning game-plan. During the second half of the league this year, when they played a dynamic, exciting brand of football, crushing Dublin, scoring 1-11 from quick, long balls to the inside forwards, they were being rightly talked about as serious contenders for Dublin’s crown.

Then, in the Ulster Championship, they were exposed by Derry through the centre of their defence for an easy goal. No big deal. Then, Antrim scored two similar goals against them, taking advantage of Tyrone’s more open style. Then, Donegal took them to the cleaners through the middle and could have slaughtered them altogether. That game was over after 15 minutes.

Harte’s reaction to that was to abandon any further work on a more adventurous game-plan, pull everyone back behind the drawbridge and have Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden and Cathal McShane revert to their old roles, peeping out from behind the castle wall. All Tyrone needed was to drop someone off to sweep as the attack advanced, as Donegal do with Hugh McFadden, or Dublin with various outfielders depending on who is handiest, and work on defenders dropping off their men when they were posing no immediate threat, as the Dubs do.

Instead, management panicked and went back to the safe option, which will work against most teams, but won’t win an All-Ireland. This is why Darragh Ó Sé said: “I’m not saying Mayo’s defenders won’t get burned from time to time. If good forwards get good ball they can do damage.”

Once the zonal defensive method becomes engrained in a county’s footballing culture, it can be very hard to shift. Galway are a good example of this, a once-great footballing county stuck in a Fermanagh nightmare.

When you move to a more expansive style, you will inevitably be more open at the back, but as Jim Gavin always appreciated, this is not something to be feared. You score more, you concede a bit more, but eventually the culture changes to individual responsibility, the players are stimulated and they learn how to engineer a score and chase a game.

Declan Bonner knew he had to transform the way Donegal played. He made the brave, humble decision to bring in an assistant manager who is an expert in total football and commands respect because of his achievements with Mayo but more particularly Corofin, with whom he helped to pioneer a brilliant brand of attacking football that does not neglect the art of defence.

As a result, Donegal nowadays concede enough to cause Jimmy McGuinness to emigrate to America, but they have the tools to do the job. They concede. But they score. The crucial thing is they no longer play with fear. They crushed Cavan but it was brilliant to watch. Tyrone crushed Cavan, but it was a borefest. 

Having started the process of moving to a more expansive game-plan, Tyrone’s management was not sure how to achieve it, panicked and abandoned it. It looks as though their team will play conservatively, and with fear, for the remainder of their year.

Far better to go out and fight them like a man. To frighten them poor natives to the marrow. To make them run like hell away. Otherwise, these talented Tyrone footballers will never be able to show their wives how they won medals down in Croke Park . . .

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