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GAA.ie Gaelic Football columnist, Rory Kavanagh.
GAA.ie Gaelic Football columnist, Rory Kavanagh.

Column: Rory Kavanagh on Football


By Rory Kavanagh

So the first round games in Ulster followed a predictable pattern. Monaghan, Donegal and Tyrone, now the big three in Ulster, made short work of Fermanagh, Antrim, and Derry respectively. The first heavyweight clash of the summer up north is here between Donegal and Tyrone. Make no mistake this is the game that has been on Donegal minds all winter ever since the draw was made.

We enjoyed many battles during my playing career. I remember playing Tyrone in 2007 in an Ulster semi Final, we had lost to Armagh in the Ulster Final the previous year and then lost to Cork in the All Ireland Quarter Final by a point.

I felt we were making some progress under the recently appointed Brian Mc Iver. But we bombed against Tyrone. We got hammered out the gate by the double All Ireland champions. Tyrone played with a swagger that you would expect and were keen to squash any sort of a revival from their neighbours. They did so with ease.

The 2007 Quarter Final win against Armagh was the last Ulster Championship match Donegal won until 2011. Winning a game in Ulster became an impossible task. More Ulster Championship defeats followed, Derry in ‘08, Antrim in ‘09 and Down in ‘10, to heap misery on the Tír Chonail faithful. 

I had a lot admiration for that Tyrone team, for what they had accomplished in ’03, ’05 and ’08. In fact, I watched many of those games, willing Tyrone to win.

I liked the way they played, the energy they brought to the game. The ‘psycho for the ball’ mentality.

Hunting in packs, turning ball over and rampaging up the field. All of them comfortable on the ball. Corner backs to corner forwards, they possessed a lethal mix of tough defenders and deadly forwards. The team had a personality, an edge. 

We were often bullied off the pitch. Crucially we accepted it.

When Jim McGuinness came in at the end of 2010 he said we bowed down to them. He was right. Our mentality had to change. We would have to bring something new to the table.

Our blueprint/template was based on the great Tyrone team of that decade. Our mission was to become stronger, fitter and faster versions of them. To build a game plan based on a sound defensive platform that would become the launchpad for our attacks.

Former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness before the 2011 Ulster SFC clash against Antrim.
Former Donegal manager Jim McGuinness before the 2011 Ulster SFC clash against Antrim.

We also had a timely injection of new blood from a successful Under 21 team. Importantly, we would begin to learn how to defend on our terms.

Best defence in Ulster wins.

If I told you the difference between winning and losing was five metres. Would you get there every time?

Those words still ring in my ears now when I think of the way Jim wanted us to defend. The secret was not just telling us what needed to be done, but showing us exactly how he wanted it done. He coached specifics.

We became better at the first, second, third phase defending routines he had set out for us.

Five metres became four, after some months - three, then two ,then  one,  until eventually we started to nail it.

"When you play Tyrone they set up in a way that almost forces you to run the ball."

I remember one training session in Ballybofey, we were practicing our defensive shape. I came flying out of the defensive line toward David Walsh. Now Davy was as slippery as an eel. He sold me a dummy which left me somewhere between Ballybofey and Glenties.

But just as Davy thought he had done the hard work with selling me the dummy there was Ryan Bradley arriving to put in a serious hit which had Davy spilling the ball and our team gobbling up possession.

That was the beauty of it. If one of us ended up on our arses looking like a fool then another man was about to arrive to save your bacon. The first, second and third phase tackling was ferocious. We had each others backs at all times.

We were defending on our terms, forcing the opposition to cough up the ball and the results followed. That’s the challenge now for this new Donegal team.

When I think ahead to Sunday’s match much has been made of Tyrone’s lack of firepower in their inside forward line and their lack of a top class freetaker, but in many ways though, the full forward line is not the most important ingredient in this game.

When you play Tyrone they set up in a way that almost forces you to run the ball. It’s almost impossible to kick good ball inside when you see sweepers and sometimes double sweepers in place. Unless you can get good early ball inside off a clean kick out, it comes down to who can run and gun the best.

This is why I make the case for best defence wins every time. In games that are as tight as this one, most scores originate from mistakes by the opposition team.

A player getting isolated, someone taking the wrong option, a loose ball being intercepted. Tyrone and Donegal are experts on the counter attack and both teams possess players with speed. So the golden rule is dare not be caught in possession and get turned over because the consequences could be devastating.

Tiernan McCann is a key player for Tyrone.
Tiernan McCann is a key player for Tyrone.

Donegal have definitely improved their running game with the injection of youth this year. The transitioning qualities that both panels have at their disposal is frightening. Peter Harte, Tiernan Mc Cann, Rory Brennan, Niall Sludden on one side and Ryan Mc Hugh, Caolan Ward, Eoin Ban Gallagher and Eoin Mc Hugh to name a few, on the other.

When we played Tyrone in the 2016 Ulster final an accumulation of mistakes and old legs eventually cost us. It was death by a thousand cuts. Tyrone asked a question of us physically. They left something on you after each and every phase of play. Just enough to put you back on your heels and enough to stop your momentum.

People point to the massive scores from play from Sean Cavanagh and Peter Harte, but in truth the damage had been done long before that.

The question for the Donegal young guns on Sunday is will they accept it ? Will they allow Tyrone to play on their terms? Will Donegal players allow themselves to be man marked? Or will they look deep inside themselves to find an extra gear to push beyond a tackle, make the all out sprint to support the man on the ball when your lungs are screaming at you, defend on your terms or shadow tackle? Stand off or get there.

Donegal will take encouragement from their League display when the sides met in Ballybofey back in April.  They showed an ability to get up the field in numbers, send dummy runners through and force the Tyrone front line of defence into retreat. Their score taking from distance that night was breathtaking. Ciaran Thompson, Hugh Mc Fadden and Paddy Mc Grath all landed huge scores for the winners.

More of the same will be needed on Sunday.

Mickey ‘The Boy’ O’Donnell, God rest him, was one of the great characters of my club St.Eunan’s for many years. He was always good for a one liner that would leave everyone in stitches, but when the time came he could be serious too. He would never let us get too carried away with League performances. Even if we had played out of our skins.

He used always say; ‘Aye Kavanagh, but what about the Championship?’ 

The Championship is where it is at. Over the last six seasons Donegal have become a serious Championship team. Tyrone are coming to town as reigning Ulster Champions. Everyone in Donegal is acutely aware of this.

Ultimately, the League meeting is firmly in the rear view mirror.  ‘What about the Championship?’ 

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