For the second year in-a-row we find ourselves licking our wounds. Like last year, this was another Ulster title we let slip.
On top for the majority of the game, one of Tyrone’s star players black carded in the first half, we were looking good.
It’s easy to suggest that on the day the best team won and for the most part you may be correct but that just doesn’t do justice to the position we found ourselves in.
Rory Gallagher suggested in one of his aftermatch press interviews that we were beaten by a better team on the day. Yet for sixty minutes we had the game tied up; they never looked like getting ahead at any time and didn’t take the lead until injury time so how can you explain that they were better on the day.
We played the first half with the breeze in our backs.Scoring was never going to be easy and everyone was more than aware than Tyrone would set up as defensive as they could and they did. So why did we start with an extra defender? Martin McElhinney was dropped from the starting line up to make way for Eamon McGee. I have no problem with Eamon McGee starting any game, one of the finest ever to wear the green and gold. However, you might have thought with the wind in our backs and the way we defend in numbers that McElhinney’s scoring potential would have been more of a reason to start him.
At times Eamon McGee found himself closer to the Tyrone goal than his own. Both teams were guilty of terrible shooting in the first half but because we had the wind advantage we paid a heavier price.
Paddy McBrearty was never given a long ball at any time during the first half. When Michael Murphy drifted into the full-forward line the ball was never delivered. He had height advantage and at many times it was two on two inside yet no ball delivered long. One of the best full-forwards of his time yet we didn’t put anything his way. Surely after watching the Tyrone back line struggling with long, high ball into the full-back line against Cavan we should have at least sent in a few testers; if they did go in they were strays.
We struggled at times to break the gain line, rugby talk for breaking the tackle. When we attacked down the lines we always ended up coming back through the middle. The Tyrone management had done their homework just in the same manner that Malachy O’Rourke had done last year. We had no Plan B, yet we were still winning the game up until the last few minutes.
You would have to ask the question when it wasn’t working could we have done something different? Could we have changed personnel? We have a huge squad of players, some with All-Ireland medals yet they have seen very little game time in this year’s championship. We have sent players back on after they were withdrawn; what must the other lads sitting in the stands think.
Sunday was a clinker, the sun was baking down on Clones. I know what it’s like on the pitch on days like that; it’s extremely hard to get your breath, you lose energy very quickly, men tired quickly yet we left it to the last ten minutes to make four changes.
It’s not something any of us want to do, ask those who have given huge commitment why wasn’t this or that done. I certainly don’t feel the need to interrogate anyone. However, this is the second one that we let slip. These players can only pick themselves up so many times, they can only do so much, so every opportunity they get it’s vital that full advantage is taken.
Tyrone were fresher in the last ten minutes. Commentators suggested they were hungrier than Donegal. Bull. Does anyone doubt that the Donegal lads wanted it any less than the Tyrone lads. Little things went wrong. Karl Lacey’s brilliant pass to Gillespie, a split second either way Gillespie had a great chance for a score; he got hit hard, the chance was lost. We were a point up at the time; two points up the game is over. The same happened when Frank McGlynn shipped a heavy tackle. Like many, I thought it might have been a free. The referee didn’t see it that way; they go down the field and we’re level again; small margins.
But that’s sport. Many will tell you that you will learn more from losing than you will ever find out from success.
The next week or so will tell us an awful lot about where this squad is going, whether they can rise again. I have no doubt they will give their all trying. Of course because of the type of game it was the so called purists had a field day. Yes, there was a lot of lateral passing. Yes, it was hard to watch at times but like all games Gaelic football is evolving; it’s changing just as soccer and rugby have. GAA is no different. With sports science players are fitter, they’re better prepared than ever before and the one thing that most people tend to forget, there is a greater expectation even on the so called weaker teams to perform.
Managers’ reputations can be destroyed by a poor team performance in one game. So of course they are going to make things tight; of course they are not going to go all out. Look what happened Westmeath in the second half of the Leinster final when they decided to have a go. What people don’t consider, a hammering like that can destroy the confidence of the squad; it can take years to build it up again. So of course teams set up more defensively.
Fernando Santos, Portugal’s winning coach said after their quarter-final win over Croatia in the Euros: “Yes I would like to play pretty but in between playing pretty and being at home or playing ugly and being here I prefer ugly.” Winning is all that matters when you play for the top prize regardless of the sport.
It wasn’t all bad last Sunday. At least the minors lifted another Ulster title. This looks a great group of players and hopefully the experience of playing in front of such a large crowd will stand them well for the challenge ahead. The future looks bright at least.