Mullahoran played superbly in many aspects but they have plenty to work on before the final, too.
Amid all the excitement and drama last Saturday night in the Athletic Grounds, with Mullahoran prevailing in a surreal free-kick competition to advance to the Ulster intermediate final, spare a thought for the Banagher players and management.
Can there be a worse way to lose a game? I’m not sure. The teams couldn’t be separated after full-time. They couldn’t be separated after extra-time. And after extra extra-time they were still, incredibly, level.
That final score from Banagher saw them keep the ball for an eternity before working an opening to level the sides.
Everyone in the stadium was on their feet as 10 players, five from each club, huddled together in separate groups out on the field. One after the other, they strode up to take their frees.
Players from both sides had been cramping up during the additional periods of play so fatigue, mental and physical, was going to be a factor.
It was hard to work out who was feeling it the most though, the supporters or the players. Mullahoran held their nerve and squeaked through, five frees to four. Afterwards we mused if there was a better way to decide a game. Keep playing periods of extra time, maybe?
Or reduce the number of players on the field by two for each team, for every five minutes that’s played? Make teams play additional time without their goalkeepers. Flip a coin, even? Nothing was off the table.
Not even the dreaded replay, that fixture wrecker of years gone by. With a final in two weeks to come, a replay would probably have been the nail in the coffin for the eventual winners’ title aspirations.
So from that perspective, Mullahoran manager Seanie Smith and his team will be delighted to have advanced in the manner that they did. They have two full weeks to get themselves sorted and focussed on the task that awaits them.
And they have plenty to work on. For while it’s true to say both sides had their moments last week, Mullahoran had numerical advantage after the first half dismissal of Banagher’s Ciaran Lynch for a black card offence, after the same player had previously picked up a yellow for dangerous play, and they failed to make the most of this advantage.
Outside of a 10-minute period that started about five minutes into the second half, they didn’t really exploit the fact that they were a man up.
In particular they didn’t take advantage of this spare man when they had possession. When you have an extra body, there is no need for anyone to take the ball into contact. You should always be able to slip a pass to a team-mate.
Of course this means that you don’t really have a single designated spare man when you have possession.
It’s different when you don’t have the ball, there might be one guy you try to free up to play as a sweeper, third midfielder or as an extra centre-back but when your team has the ball everyones mindset has to be that every player stays active in the play so that the spare man is always changing, and crucially, always close to the ball.
We didn’t see that from Mullahoran when they had the ball in that second half. Instead they were taking a safety first approach and it seemed like their spare man was always 40 metres back behind the play.
That was fine if they wanted to recycle the ball but he was never going to be a threat from an attacking point of view. They should have won this game inside the 60 minutes but truthfully it looked like Banagher were the team with the extra player for the final ten minutes.
They scored five of the last six points and impressed with their ball retention and ability to find space when coming in off the wings.
They moved the ball from one side of the field to the other and did so quicker than the mass of Mullahoran players who had funnelled back defending.
Mullahoran looked good when they were tackling high up the field, especially in the middle third, and won a number of turnovers in these positions but if they didn’t turn over the ball they funnelled men back and when they set up in their defensive positions they sometimes looked like their spacing was very narrow.
When you set up with men back behind the ball, teams generally tend to flood about 65pc of the area inside the 45m line.
If the ball is on one sideline the opposite sideline is considered a weak threat and there is no need to have defenders hanging out there. They tend to collapse in to offer support to the rest of the team.
In theory they should have time to get out and across to cover that side of the field before the ball if the opposition try and transfer it from one side of the field to the other.
Too often for my liking when Banagher looked to move the ball from one side to the other they were able to get it to their wide men in positions that were way more central than Mullahoran would have liked.
It was almost like Mullahoran’s mass defence could cover 50pc of the defensive zone and not 65pc. As for the kick-out battle, it nearly became the game within the game.
With a spare man Mullahoran should have been able to have a monopoly on their own kick-out in the second half.
If you think of the keeper having the option of a short, a medium, and a long kick out to choose from, it seemed like only players who were a medium or long distance away from him were willing to offer themselves on his restarts.
Sean Briody ended up going long with more kicks than he should’ve had. So there was spacing of the field in these areas but that meant they were vulnerable in the battle for breaking ball on their own kick out.
On the opposition kick-out they looked better when they forced them to go long, winning their fare share but given how they had a spare man, they could have forced Banagher to go long on more occasions by pushing an extra body into the forward line.
In extra time, madness descended as bodies tired noticeably. The reintroduction of both Paul and Philip Brady steadied the ship for the Cavan champions as the two veteran brothers played crucial roles over the final moments but fittingly it was youngster Cormac O’Reilly, who is having a fine campaign, who stepped up to take the final free in the shoot-out.
Cue the wild celebrations as two and a half hours of action finally came to a close.
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