Steven Poacher

STEVEN POACHER: Some putrid Ulster fare

By Steven Poacher

LAST weekend we had the two Ulster Senior Championship semi- finals and both games took a very similar pattern. There were low blocks, concession of kick-outs and long, slow bouts of laborious play. There were also some fantastic passages of play and some brilliant scores but in general it was putrid.

Down decided the only way they were going to have a chance was to suffocate the game early, control the narrative and play it on their terms.

Ball in play stats were lowered, long slow bouts of possession started with the very first play, pushing John O’Hare the goalkeeper further up the field giving them a safety net of a quarter-back out the back to provide an out ball.

Armagh, who were rightly concerned about Down’s blistering pace, showed a lot of respect by sitting a little deeper than they did against Fermanagh.

Down also decided not to contest a single kick-out the whole game, instead favouring a hard scrambling retreat deep inside their own half, obviously concerned about the lack of size they possess across the middle third and the lack of trust in their defenders to cope with Armagh’s forward line on a one-to-one basis.

There were very few one-on-one opportunities for Armagh’s inside line because of this, and scores were hard to manufacture for the Orchard men. There was always a double-up defender providing cover.

The ploy of retreating off every kick-out is obviously beneficial during certain moments in a game, maybe after a quick counter-attack or after a bout of play that has seen three or four turnovers from both teams and a yo-yo passage of play that has stretched the game, but you can’t win football matches at the highest level now by conceding every kick out.

Given the quality of coaching now, particularly on the offensive end of the game, with structured attacks and set plays the order of the day, teams handing an opposition about 25 free possessions during a game now is just kamikaze football.

I know there are a lot of people waxing lyrical over Down’s performance and set-up but to be honest, I felt it was horrible to watch and they were extremely fortunate to still be in the game at half time.

Armagh were 0-3 to 0-1 up and comfortable and kicked three or four poor wides whereas Down had scored one point in nearly 34 minutes of senior championship football and having switched off over a contentious refereeing decision, Down got in behind for a goal.

Liam Devenney also contributed to Down staying in the game, an overly generous performance which unquestionably allowed Down to stay in touch and led to a seriously pent-up and frustrated Armagh.

The long, slow laborious bouts of possession were obviously important in keeping Down in the game, I remember adopting a similar strategy in 2017 when facing Dublin in the Leinster Championship and Monaghan in the last 12 of the championship that same year, but that was a Division Four team against a Division One team.

This was Division Two against Division One and to be brutally honest, you won’t win anything in the modern game playing like that, more or less conceding if you have the ball the opposition can’t hurt you.

Tyrone and Donegal was another bore fest, an enormous amount of hype has surrounded McGuinness’ return but not much has really changed, it’s still a low block with a little bit more penetration and hard running in their counter-attacks.

Again, I feel at the business end of the season, they won’t count in Croke Park. In fact, Tyrone can consider themselves hard done by.

Niall Morgan produced a masterful performance from dead balls and open play and is easily the best-sweeper keeper in the country with a bit to spare.

It’s unfortunate how the game ended with Niall dropping that deflected shot – as a man who sets such high standards for himself, it will eat him up.

The Ulster final is in two weeks but don’t expect a shootout. It’s going to be more attritional Ulster football.

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