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Can anyone stop Ballintubber’s title march?

The Invincibles?

We asked two people who helped beat Ballintubber in recent years how it’s done

Edwin McGreal

BALLINTUBBER GAA club’s connections with Tyrone aren’t just emotional.
There are ties with the late Cormac McAnallen in the area and, when Tyrone played their first game after the tragic death of their then captain in 2004, against Mayo, it was fitting that a remembrance Mass was held in Ballintubber Abbey.
A look at the Mayo champions’ record in recent years shows other similarities, certainly in terms of Tyrone’s early successes. Both teams made championship breakthroughs following strong league form. Tyrone won NFL titles in 2002 and ‘03, Mickey Harte believing it to be important for his teams to get into a winning habit against more-established sides as a new arrival to the top table.
For Ballintubber, reference their league form of the last three seasons. They won every game en route to winning Division 1B in ‘09 while only Knockmore (2010) and Shrule/Glencorrib (2011) have beaten them in their two years in Division 1A.
It’s not just a question of attitude either. Ballintubber have a clearly-defined game plan and sticking faithfully to it means they have become very difficult to beat - in both league and championship.
Here there are similarities with Tyrone too.
While Michael Nestor operated mainly as a sweeper last year, Ballintubber have largely dispensed with that ploy under Anthony McGarry. However, their ability to be hard to break down remains as they all switch to defensive mode when possession is lost.
Like Tyrone, Ballintubber work ferociously from corner-forward backwards when the opposition have the ball and, like Mickey Harte’s men, the West Mayo side are very difficult to beat if they take any sort of reasonable lead.
Nigel Reape was manager of Knockmore when they beat James Horan’s Ballintubber in the 2009 Mayo SFC quarter-final, the last team to beat the Abbeysiders in the championship.
“We got off to a great start that day, we were 0-6 to 0-1 in front,” Reape told The Mayo News. “Before we played them, they didn’t play the way they do now. I’d say James Horan might have sat down after that game and said, ‘There’s no way we’re going to allow a team to go five or six points in front of us again’.“We beat them in the league again last year but it was clear to see how defensive they had become,” added the former Knockmore boss.
“It’s dangerous to go behind against them because they defend so well. Ballintubber have a much greater work-rate than any team in the county.
“The remarkable thing is how well their forwards tackle. Cillian O’Connor is one of the most intensive tacklers in Mayo, so is Alan Dillon, and that work gives the rest of the team time to set up well defensively.”

SHRULE/GLENCORRIB  are the only team to beat Anthony McGarry’s side this year, but they have also been knocked out of the last two championships by the ‘Tubber.
Mayo forward Mark Ronaldson has seen them up close and is taken by their attitude.
“The thing that really struck me is that they’re a real team,” he remarked. “They work very hard for each other and there does appear to be a very good bond there too. Everyone knows their role, they’ve a great commitment to the game-plan, and there are no egos there.
“They’re not enjoyable to play against now like they once were. They’re very tough and they work hard and tackle hard.
“We played them in the league last year in Clogher and they kept us to six points, even though we’d be known for being high scorers. They can do that, choke you out of a game.”
The Shrule/Glencorrib attacker also praises the strength of Ballintubber’s diamond this year, and believes the greater confidence that they have as champions makes them a more formidable opponent than twelve months ago. But, interestingly, not an unbeatable one.
“I think it’s important to get at them, to take a lead so they have to come out a bit and can’t stick to the game plan,” he offered. “We were behind against them but when they put a sweeper back, we were able to put [David] ‘Roundy’ Geraghty from full-back up on him and that mixed things up.
“In that league game we kept it short, rather than kicking into a crowded defence. It’s important to get a grip around the middle too, which we did. It’s vital to get a good start and make them come out a bit. If they get ahead then they can often dictate how the game is played.”
But, as Ronaldson readily admitted, knowing what to do and pulling it off are two very different things as so many teams have found to their cost.