Tuesday, August 03, 2004

How Mayo Can Beat Tyrone and Shock the World on Saturday

Tyrone will run out in Croke Park on Saturday as red-hot favourites in their All-Ireland quarter-final against Mayo, and rightly so. They are All-Ireland Champions after all, they’ve decimated all opposition since their Ulster Championship wake-up call from Donegal, and the Tyrone system of play is as revolutionary as the Down revolution of the ‘sixties.

However, the notion that Mayo County Secretary Seán Feeney should telephone the GAC to arrange the walkover would be mistaken. For, although he may not realise it now, it will eventually dawn on as astute a student of the game as Mickey Harte that Mayo will present Tyrone with as varied a set of headaches as Tyrone will present Mayo, and those punters who enjoy an enticing investment with their bookmakers would do well to take the points on Mayo, if not the generously-priced 5/2 shock win.

These are two teams that the country hardly knows. The chief reasons for this is the tokenism and sloth that characterises the majority of GAA journalism, when the old shibboleths associated with all teams – teak-tough Northerners, fancy-dan Mayo, whatever you’re having yourself, this is on expenses – are routinely trotted out, and it also has to do with the nature of the teams involved themselves. A Fermanaghman once told your correspondent that the difference between a Southerner, or a Free-Stater, if you really feel like straight-talking, and a Northerner is the difference between the good china that you keep for the station and the mug from which you drink your own tea after a hard day in the bog. Free-Staters watch the Tyrone horde swarm around the man in possession in such numbers that the opposition player quickly disappears is the everlasting grip of the Red Hand, and they wonder: what the Hell has got into those guys? It is a level of commitment and belief with which Southerners are unfamiliar, born of a lifestyle where the wearing a parish jersey was to risk an anonymous bullet in the back on a quiet country road. In the North, this is not just a game.

Belief has the basis of the Armagh and Tyrone All-lrelands of 2002 and 2003. Armagh set the standard, but then Tyrone, who had been disappointed on the highest stage for so often, reached and surpassed that level of desire. That’s what’s so frightening about the prospect of playing Tyrone for Southern teams – it’s not that the players are so much superior, as they’re not, but because the system seems so impregnable. You may be able to beat fifteen men, but how do you beat an idea, a belief, a creed?

By developing a creed of your own, of course. We don’t know if the new Mayo system has evolved or been planned, but whatever its origins, the remarkable way that Mayo have played in the Connacht Championship of 2004 is the greatest challenge to the Tyrone hegemony that we have seen in the past two years.

Since the Tyrone system was first seen in its full effect in the semi-final against Kerry of last year, the one Pat Spillane memorably described as “puke football,” people have said that the correctly struck pass will beat the Tyrone system. The laws of physics dictate that a kicked ball will always travel faster than a man; if the ball is gone when the massed defenders arrive, or better again in just that split second before they arrive, then the Tyrone homestead, in front of the Tyrone goal, is a fold suddenly exposed to the wolves.

Kieran McDonald is the man to hit those balls. The enticing of McDonald back to the Mayo fold is the single most important thing that the Mayo brains trust of John Maughan, Liam McHale and George Golden have done this year. Against Galway and Roscommon, McDonald played at a level which the football public had never seen before, combining the best elements of the midfield general of soccer and the stand-off half of rugby to dictate play in a way that no one man has dictated play since the era of Mick O’Connell – that same era that was cut short by the Down revolution, incidentally.

Mickey Harte will spend this week trying to figure out how to stop McDonald. The first solution, in this craven world, is the cynical one; however, people have been trying to burst McDonald since he was a schoolboy player, and nobody’s done it yet. It would be nice to think that the referee, whomever he may be, would make it a point of his afternoon’s duties to protect an obviously targeted player, but this Spailpín’s romantic heart has been broken once to often to believe that will be so.

Presuming that McDonald is allowed play, from where does he get the ball? This is what makes the game on Saturday so fascinating. The country hasn’t realised it yet, but the way Mayo play now, with McDonald conducting the Mayo orchestra, is every bit as revolutionary as Tyrone. Brian Dooher is Tyrone’s scavenger in chief? Three of Mayo’s six starting forwards are picked to win breaks in midfield, with pointscoring a secondary consideration. Two can play at that game. If the Red Swarm stay in the defensive third of the field, behind their own fifty yard line, they will have only two Mayomen for company, the Mortimer boys, and the rest of the Mayo team will be feasting on midfield possession, the possession that the Swarm normally win to feed Mulligan and O’Neill so they can get the points that win games. If the Swarm come out to root and scurry for possession, the idea is that whatever scraps Mayo’s five-man midfield can win will be fed to McDonald, who will then set up one-on-ones with a Mortimer of his choice and a suddenly isolated and lonely Tyrone defender. And it will be interesting indeed to see how that pans out.

After fifty plus years of disappointment, Mayo people nearly fear success as much as failure. Sunday’s draw did as much as any draw that’s happened this summer to add to the whispers that the fix has been in for the Qualifiers, but that is an argument for the long and football-less winter. In the meantime, Mayo can only dance with the girls in the Hall, and that means Tyrone on Saturday. Because Tyrone are the only possible opponents for Mayo now they are therefore the best possible opponents, and what finer way could there be for Mayo to announce their return as a football power than by the destruction of the Champions? If the bizarre and unprecedented Mayo formation, of a two man inside line, one man on the fifty, and three big and two small men i lár na pairce, can negate the Tyrone system, then that Tyrone advantage, which brought them their All-Ireland, is suddenly denied them, and then it’s just a question of who’s got the best players. And who wouldn’t ask for that?