By Kevin Egan
Before and after last Saturday’s game in O’Moore Park, Roscommon manager Kevin McStay emphasised regularly how important it was for this Roscommon team to get into the Super 8s series, purely for the team’s development. And there’s no doubt that he’s right. However, when thousands of supporters from places like Ballyfarnon, Ballyforan and Ballygawley make the trip up to Croke Park this Saturday, they won’t be doing it for the sake of watching their players mature and develop, they’ll be doing it in the hope that one of these two counties puts their hand up to stake a claim for the All-Ireland semi-final spot that’s going to be filled by one of Tyrone, Donegal or Roscommon.
With Dublin so far out in front that it’s hard to foresee anything other than three wins from three starts for Jim Gavin’s side, the importance of this game to both sides cannot be overstated. If Roscommon can spring a surprise, then they’ll have a home tie against a Patrick McBrearty-less Donegal side to effectively seal an All-Ireland semi-final berth. If Roscommon lose, then beating Donegal will become the bare minimum needed to keep their season alive. Yet even if they do that, a Donegal side with nothing to play for will end up taking on Tyrone in the final round of games, meaning that Roscommon would have to beat Dublin as well to go through.
Simply put, the winner of Saturday evening’s 5 p.m. showdown in Croke Park will be the side in pole position to join Dublin in the last four, and in order for Roscommon to fill that role, they’ll need to deal with a very different type of threat to that posed by Armagh.
Unlike the Orchard County, who play a quite traditional, old-fashioned game that relies on the natural ability of their forwards, Tyrone will present a very different challenge. They’ll be strong in the tackle and hugely fit, but this is a comparatively small Tyrone team, particularly close to goal.
The long, high ball will be used very sparingly as instead players like Mattie Donnelly, Peter Harte and particularly Niall Sludden, who has been in superb form this year, will pull the strings. Sludden has been a revelation this season and his crafty use of possession will be the key that Tyrone will use to pick Roscommon’s lock.
Conor McAliskey is the form forward but, overall, there is a good spread of scorers in this Tyrone group, including on the bench. They’ll move with dizzying energy and an unseen but well-thought out pattern, pulling and dragging the Roscommon defence all over the place. This approach is very much born out of necessity. Take away Niall Morgan’s free kicks, and Tyrone don’t possess much a long-distance scoring threat. What they have got is an array of players who will find space in heavy traffic and who will pick out a score from 25 metres out, regardless of the amount of pressure applied or the difficulty of the angle.
Curtailing this is all about handling the players that come forward from deep positions. Tiernan McCann, Peter Harte and Frank Burns are somewhat orthodox in the way they will bomb forward along the flanks, but then there is Mattie Donnelly, who steps up in the way of a Gaelic football equivalent to Franz Beckenbauer, that most mercurial of German defenders. Checking those runs from deep is a dangerous game in the modern black card era, and a couple of those players have picked up something of a reputation for happily drawing such cards if the opportunity arises, so honest running and collective discipline will be crucial.
At the other end of the field, Roscommon are arguably more well-suited to cracking Tyrone’s defence than most. Scores against Tyrone tend to come one of two ways — either from breakaway moves that happen at lightning speed, getting the ball into the hands of a shooter before the defence has time to regroup, or else shooting from range. If the attack slows down, or a reset back out beyond the 45-metre line is needed, then cracking on through the middle is almost impossible.
This is where the threat that Roscommon pose from range needs to be exploited. Once the attack slows up, players like Donie Smith and Ciaráin Murtagh need to get back out to the perimeter and try to get themselves into a position to take on a shot from distance. Monaghan enjoyed plenty of success this way through players like Jack McCarron and Conor McManus, and the percentage return from that approach is likely to be far higher than what we’d see from trying to thread the ball through the eye of a needle into an attacker.
Free-taking will be as crucial as always, and this is a game where Roscommon will have to score well – take away last year’s All Ireland semi-final game against Dublin, where Mickey Harte changed things up considerably in a bid to try and unsettle Dublin, and in their other eight championship games played in 2017 and 2018, their lowest tally was 0-18.
Tyrone football might not be easy on the eye, but it is effective. For Roscommon to get the win they crave this Saturday, they’ll have to strike early, strike often and strike decisively. But as Armagh can testify, that is well within their power.
Yet Mickey Harte’s men are on a roll, and it will be a seismic shock to the GAA’s natural order if Roscommon can pull a rabbit from the hat.