When Tyrone and Dublin met in last year's Allianz League Division One final, there was little between the teams and an outrageous point from Dean Rock – under pressure and kicked with an extreme arc into the Hill 16 end – settled an entertaining final for the home team. It marked the conclusion to a highly promising league campaign for Mickey Harte's emergent team and they prepared for the 2013 championship in fine fettle.
Almost a year later, Dublin are visiting Omagh as league and All-Ireland champions while Tyrone’s place in the big picture is harder to evaluate.
Their appearance in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final was attributable to Mickey Harte’s enduring canniness on the sideline and a supernova season by Seán Cavanagh. They exited with questions remaining as to whether Harte can create a third distinctive team capable of delivering an All-Ireland title. What happens tomorrow in Omagh should offer a few hints as to the Red Hand’s potential this year.
If Tyrone revisit their meeting in that league final, then the seconds before Rocks' big score might prove interesting. The game was tied at 0-16 apiece as Dublin tried to create another score, with Shane Carthy placing a ball into the path of the ever-willing Kevin McManamon. The pass was accurate but fast and the Dublin forward couldn't control it. The ball bounced away from him and for a second the opportunity appeared to have dissolved as three white Tyrone shirts closed in on the breaking ball.
McManamon, though, wasn't for turning and diving on the ball, he gathered possession.
There was still considerable work to do: Seán Cavanagh, Martin Penrose and Joe McMahon were among the reinforcements arriving as McManamon rolled on the ground upending Martin Penrose in the process, somehow made it to his feet with Penrose hustling furiously and laid the ball off to Rock just as the Tyrone men swarmed him. Rock didn’t hesitate with his kick and that was that.
The fact that McManamon had played yet another pivotal role in a get-out-of-jail score for the Dubs was one thing: the fact that the Dubs had found a way to win another tight game in Croke Park was quite another.
They had come back from nowhere to beat Kerry in the 2011 All-Ireland final. Now, they edged out Tyrone in the league final and they would go on to show their toughness against Mayo in the All-Ireland final. Even last week in the slightly madcap reprise against Mayo, the Dubs illustrated their capacity for coming good at the right time.
It is a quality Mickey Harte will recognise all too well. Seán Cavanagh paid Dublin the highest compliment early this week when acknowledging that the prospect of hosting the All-Ireland champions energised Tyrone and he recalled that period when he was "on the other side a few times, as All-Ireland champions".
Those five All-Ireland seasons since last Tyrone were last champions have slipped by quickly. The McMahons and the Cavanaghs and Conor Gormley – the lone survivor from Tyrone's first senior success in 2003 – remain key figures in this year's team but there has been a new feel about Tyrone this winter, with Harte constructing a side based around the All-Ireland-winning minor teams of 2008 and 2010.
Last week's draw in Cork revolved around the star performance of Kyle Coney, whose career in red and white was mapped out while he was still a teenager. Coney is 24 now and has come through an obligatory spell in Australia and two years wiped out by long-term injury. The 0-8 from play against Cork signalled his potential to take a place among the elite forwards in the game.
"Kyle is very special, yeah," says Mickey Donnelly, the current Tyrone minor manager and a clubmate of Coney's with Ardboe. "He was ear- marked as a talent from a very young age. I can remember doing summer camps in Ardboe when he was six or seven years of age and Kyle Coney was even a name then.
"You could watch out for a child who could kick with both feet, was elegant and he was a bit taller than the others... he stood out. And his skills made him stand out all the more. It is not as if he became this massive talent at minor level. When that 2008 Tyrone team won the minor title, they hadn't been beaten the whole way through and that was largely because of Kyle. So he is special. But when Kyle gets injured, he does it right! He suffered terribly.
“I felt that there were times he was playing catch-up for the championship whereas, at the minute, he is in the team and is a go-to man. He thrives on confidence. When his confidence is lacking, he isn’t the player he should be. We are all hoping he can stay injury free.”
The minor to senior link has been the predominant theme of Tyrone under Mickey Harte.
The extraordinarily dense amalgamation of talent he coached with Fr Gerard McAleer in 1997 and 1998 translated to All-Ireland U-21 success in 2000 and 2001 and gave what had been a senior side struggling with conviction the surge of energy and belief required to finally come good.
The brilliant 2008 All-Ireland minor-winning side coached by Raymond Monroe has, in addition to Coney, produced Peter Harte, Ronan McNabb, Mattie Donnelly, Colm O'Neill, Paddy McNeice and Gavin Teague. The play-making of Shay McGuigan, the youngest of the McGuigan dynasty, was another highlight on scouting reports from Tyrone's performance in Cork. Along with goalkeeper Niall Morgan, McGuigan played on the Tyrone minor team of 2009.
“I often think of them as a forgotten team because they were a terrific side who lost in the first round to the Armagh team that went on to win the All-Ireland,” adds Donnelly.
Donnelly has maintained Tyrone’s exceptional minor record, guiding his team to last year’s All-Ireland minor final where they fell short against Mayo, strong favourites for the title.
But despite the minor successes, there are fears within the county that Tyrone have lost their way a little when it comes to bringing young players through. The county did not feature on Wednesday night’s Ulster U-21 semi finals. They contested the 2011 and 2012 finals but lost both to Cavan.
In 2013, they lost 0-15 to 1-6 against Donegal and this year, they were beaten 1-11 to 0-6 by Cavan, who have dominated the grade for the past three years.
Fergal Logan, the former Tyrone midfielder who coached the side along with Brian Dooher, described this year's exit as "deeply disappointing" while Aidan McCarron, a member of Tyrone's 2001 All-Ireland winning side and now a Leitrim football selector, commented that the grade was no longer prioritised by players coming through who were, understandably, more focused on college scholarships. And he made the point that when Tyrone were in the midst of that flush of winning, the county couldn't fully appreciate how rare it was.
"I think it caused us to be victims of our own success. It seemed like this was going to happen every year and we were spoiled in many ways. Seventy per cent of those two teams went on to win senior All-Ireland titles. That was a freak: it doesn't happen very often."
The county’s failure to register at U-21 level is troubling not simply because Tyrone want to win more trophies but because of the repercussions at senior level.
“It is a massive concern for us,” Mickey Donnelly says.
“You look at the powerhouses now. Dublin have come off the back of U-21 finals. Donegal even when they won the All-Ireland in 2012 were beaten U-21 finalists the previous year. There is a very clear correlation between U-21 and senior success. I think there has to be more joined-up thinking.”
Donnelly bumped into his namesake Peter Donnelly at a social function recently.
Peter Donnelly played on the Tyrone team that won their fourth consecutive Ulster U-21 championship in 2003. Now, he is a full-time strength and conditioning coach for Cavan GAA.
“What Cavan have achieved is fantastic. Peter goes to Dublin and Drogheda and Sligo IT and makes sure that the thing is being pushed on with players following programmes. Instead of ten weeks preparation, Cavan pick up players when they leave minor. So their academy set-up is fantastic.
“So I do feel we are being left behind, because we are putting big pressure on our U-21 management to produce results year in and year out. I don’t think it is a simple question of lads losing hunger because they have won minor All-Irelands. But it is a worry because if we haven’t got a platform at U-21 level, sooner or later then all the players who had that success will be gone.”
All of this forms a backdrop to tomorrow’s match. Dublin and Tyrone games evoke powerful memories for Red Hand supporters, with the wins in the 2005 and 2008 championships igniting those teams to All-Ireland success.
The the unruly 2006 league game, quickly dubbed “the Battle of Omagh”, was defined by Dublin’s anxiety not to be out-psyched by Tyrone. The 3-14 to 1-08 win in the 2008 quarter-final confirmed Tyrone’s superiority when they met in a match of real consequence.
But since then, Dublin have bossed their meetings from the All-Ireland quarter-finals of 2010 and 2011 to that league final of a year ago. Harte hasn't so much changed his Tyrone team since then as quietly reconstructed it. From the miraculous comeback against Kildare to the collapse against Kerry to last week's courageous result against Cork, the Tyrone men have been a mixed bag in the league this year.
As Coney remarked this week, the chastening experience against Kerry in Killarney helped them during the periods when they struggled against Cork. "We could have just lay down and rolled over and be beat en by ten points but the boys showed character. It was at the front of our minds to go out and make sure it didn't happen again."
The Tyrone faithful will come to Healy Park with guarded optimism.
A win will guarantee them a place in the semi-finals but it would also be useful on its own merits because the terms have changed since Tyrone held the whip hand in this fixture.
Dublin now have the bullet-proof look that Tyrone once had.
“I suppose you are hoping that Mickey can wave a magic wand,” Mickey Donnelly says of Tyrone’s All-Ireland prospects in this and future summers.
“Anyone who thinks that we are in the place we were in 2005 is in dreamland. Mickey is inventing a very different team now....certainly, it is a team playing a different type of football and maybe as a county we have had to evolve.”
The evolution goes on but holding ground against Dublin in Healy Park would be good enough for now.