The wearing of county jerseys has become extremely fashionable in recent times. It affords the wearer an opportunity to advertise his or her identity in a subtle way that often leads to a conversation about the chances of their team in an upcoming championship encounter. I was descending Croagh Patrick last Thursday morning when I noticed a family bedecked in their county colours. This Fermanagh family was heading for the summit to plant their county colours ahead of the Ulster final replay between Fermanagh and Armagh. Having stopped briefly to engage with them and to offer my best wishes I recognised a striking resemblance of the father of this particular family to that of Marty McGrath, the towering Fermanagh midfielder. He excitedly told me that he was indeed Marty’s brother and, as he would normally travel to climb on Reek Sunday, the clash of fixtures left him with no option but to travel west a few days in advance.
My few prayers and those of thousands of others for Fermanagh could do nothing to stop the juggernaut that is Armagh when they are in mean mode. They have the capacity to smother opposition with their physicality and industrious style of play. Of course they were assisted in this victory by a miss-firing Fermanagh forward line, particularly in the first half when easy scores went a-begging. The beauty of sport is the uncertainty of outcome and that is the reason we have such terrific summer Sundays every year. Fermanagh supporters arrived at Clones last weekend full of hope and expectation that this present crop of players were finally going to land an Ulster title that their efforts over the last four years so richly deserved. Unfortunately for them there was not going to be a fairy tale ending to this romantic journey. However, they have contributed wonderfully so far to this year’s championship campaign and I am sure their loyal supporters will not abandon them next weekend in Croke Park where I expect they can overcome Kildare.
The luck of the draw
I was in Balleybofey last Saturday evening for the home side’s clash with Monaghan. In a game that was played in Mediterranean like conditions it was Monaghan that prevailed by the narrowest of margins. This game could just as easily have gone the other way and I am sure Brian Roper and Kevin Cassidy slept uneasily last Saturday night after reflection on the two glorious goal opportunities they had at critical junctures. They both missed when presented with great chances and that ultimately cost them the game. I can’t help but feel this Donegal side have underachieved over the last four or five years. They are such a “nearly” team that you are always left with the impression that if they pushed themselves that little bit more they could be a top four team pressing for honours every year. That was the impression too from many of whom supporters that I spoke to as I headed west on Saturday evening. However, I was hugely impressed with Monaghan. I have mentioned here before how impressive they were last year. They lost their way a little a few weeks ago with an early Ulster Championship exit, but have proved themselves a very serious outfit in fantastic victories over Derry and Donegal last weekend. I was hoping that Mayo would avoid them at all costs when the draw was made last Sunday evening. As we now know it is Tyrone we play tomorrow in Croker and I believe it is quite a good draw.
So Tyrone it is
I watched most of Tyrone’s match v Westmeath in the clubhouse at Ballybofey prior to the Donegal/Monaghan match. It was a strange kind of game and I was left with the impression that Westmeath could definitely have won it had they not lost their discipline with 15 minutes to go. In a crazy 30-second spell they were reduced to 13, having two players sent off for stupid fouls that ultimately cost them victory. Even then Dessie Dolan had a wonderful opportunity to score a goal at a time when I felt a goal would have won them the game. Tyrone powered on and in the closing eight minutes kicked over a few insurance points, much to the relief of their management team and supporters in Omagh. So what do I think of our chances of beating them next Saturday? Well, first thing is our team won’t have to spend endless hours sitting in front of the video this week analysing their style of play as we know each others game extremely well. Both sides will go to Croke Park confidently predicting they are good enough to beat each other. The question remains: are we good enough?
Having watched Tyrone up close this season I can confidently say that they are very beatable. They are not nearly as formidable as they were a few years ago and I believe that if we get the right team on the field from the start then we will advance. Every championship campaign is about incremental improvements as you advance through the campaign. I do believe we will be a better team this weekend than we were three weeks ago and if we adapt a policy of unbending will for hard work we will make life very awkward for Tyrone. When analysing any opposition it is important to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Anyone watching Tyrone will realise that Brian Dooher is the heartbeat of the Tyrone team. It is critical that he is nullified. In 2004 when we played them in the quarter-final our game plan was to have Peadar Gardiner attack at every opportunity and put Dooher on his heels defending. He isn’t nearly as effective going backwards! In 2004 their other star was undoubtedly Sean Kavanagh. The word on the ground is that he is fit to play tomorrow. The question is where will he line out? There is a possibility that he will start at full forward. It is so important that we have a capable defender on him too. David Heaney or James Nallen are two players who have the experience to do a good man marking job here.
Getting the starting fifteen right
At the time of writing , rumour has it that we may be starting without Ronan McGarrity at midfield. He hasn’t trained regularly in the lead in to this game and may not have the required fitness to last a game of this magnitude. As Croke Park is not a place to be taking chances, I expect Seamus O'Shea or James Gill will start at midfield. Up front I would anticipate a full forward line of Conor Mortimer, Alan Dillon and Aidan Kilcoyne. Should that be the full forward line selected, there is sufficient pace and skill to trouble any full back line. Andy Moran will surely be moved onto the half forward line where he played so much better in the second half of the Connacht final. I expect he will be joined there by Pat Harte and Billy Joe Padden. Our season can be resurrected this weekend with a good victory over Tyrone. I see no reason why that cannot happen.