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Wet, Wet, Wet - Saturday night in Dublin Donegal Chairman PJ McGowan

Record-Breaking Dubs

8th Aug 2011

Croke Park was a wretched place to be on Saturday August 6. It was wet, wet, wet and Tyrone conceded more scores in one game than ever before in the Senior Football Championship - 22.

The record books show that Down amassed 1-19 against Tyrone in 2008 though that was after extra time and it was only 20 scores. Before that, Armagh scored 4-10 in the 1980 Ulster Final but that's only 14 actual scores, while Tyrone's highest ever defeat in Championship history, in 1946 against Cavan, saw 21 scores (Cavan 8-13 Tyrone 3-2).

But let's not dwell on statistics. What was the reason for Tyrone being so soundly beaten by the Dubs? 

There's lots of easy answers out there, ranging from the superb finishing by the Brogans and Connolly to the miles on the Tyrone legs, but I'm looking more for an overview to see what this says about Gaelic Football in 2011. 

Healy Park, 2006

To do this, I feel the need to go back to Healy Park in Omagh in 2006 when Derry came to the home of the reigning All Ireland champions and kept them scoreless for 38 long minutes. It was a sobering day for Tyrone supporters and now, in hindsight, it was maybe the beginning of something significant. 

On that day, Derry targeted Tyrone's running game, pulling down the man on the ball as far up the field as possible. They knew the champions liked to build from the back with the likes of Dooher picking the ball up deep in his own defence, so Derry forwards pounced on white shirts, even from short kick-outs. 

Paddy Crozier's team were quite happy to concede frees and to be punished under the 'tick' disciplinary system of the day. This meant that offenders usually received a tick, a yellow card, another tick and then maybe a red. Basically it meant you could make two or three fouls and then be substituted by someone who could start with a clean slate. 

Now before Derry people get upset, I know they're not the only team to have done this in the last five years and I know that Tyrone have not always been angels themselves. It's just that this was the first time I remember a team doing it so effectively, winning by 1-8 to 0-5. 

Bodies on the Line

Since then, other new county managers have followed suit. The most notable in 2011 are Pat Gilroy with Dublin and the Donegal duo of Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher. They field largely young, athletic, fit and big players who quickly filter back when the opposition has the ball and throw their bodies in the line of duty. Time and again on Saturday night in Croke Park, Tyrone players on the ball were swamped by several blue jerseys and either forced back or wide.

It's a high pressure, high intensity game, aimed at keeping the opposition's scoring chances to a minimum. The plan then works really well if you also have a few top quality forwards because if your energetic charges can break as fast as they defend and if they can fire the ball in quickly, then there should be plenty of room for the men inside to do damage. This is where the Brogans and Diarmuid Connolly come in. Next thing is you build up a lead and it's game over because the losing team gets more desperate in their attempts to rescue the game, which plays into the hands of the defensive system.

Evolution of the Game

I know, I know, you're all going to tell me that it's all Tyrone's fault because they started the blanket defence concept a decade ago. Fair enough, along with Armagh, they perfected the art of applying serious pressure on the ball but this is different. The Dubs, Donegal and others have taken it to a new level. Or, to put it another way, the game is simply evolving. As Mickey Harte himself prophetically said back in 2003 when questioned about Tyrone's tactics - 'Someone will come along and figure out a way of beating it'. 

The sad bit is that I don't think it's good for the game in the long-term. Of course it's great for teams like Donegal and Dublin to get success and yes, there is lots to admire in their game, but where is it all going? 

The emphasis appears to be a little too much on energy and power. Take the current All Ireland champions - plenty of power but lacking in finesse. My father came out with a very astute observation after last year's All Ireland Final, pointing out that 'Cork's subs kept getting bigger and Down's kept getting smaller'.  

Cynical Fouling

I'd like to see some help for the game from the powers that be, specifically in terms of the disciplinary system. I know they have tweaked it and they've tried a few ways of cracking down on cynical tackling, but the system still allows it to have a place in the game. 

I despair when I see players lunging at a runner in a desperate attempt to haul him to the ground, usually well out the field and in the knowledge that the award of a free will allow his team-mates time to get back, so removing the main threat of a running team. Worse still, referees often let the offence go with just a tick. And, even when they dish out yellow cards, they rarely make a difference because sendings-off don't usually happen until late in games and managers can make five replacements. 


So what about Donegal against the Dubs? I spent the weekend at Club Championship games in Donegal and they're far from intimidated by the thought of taking on an in-form Dublin team in a packed Croke Park. They've never been afraid of playing Dublin, going right back to the 1992 All Ireland Final. I remember being surprised at the confidence of the McHugh boys on a filming visit to Kilcar before that game, and the self-belief is there again. 

As county Chairman PJ McGowan told me in Ballybofey, 'I'm glad the Dubs have had their best performance of the season already. They'll find us a very different proposition'.

It'll be a fascinating tactical battle with Donegal playing very deep in an attempt to deny space to the dangerous dubin full-forwards. 

You can be sure of one thing - it won't be a record points total next time out.

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