Tyrone prepare Healy Park defences to repel Dublin attack

Mickey Harte will have to make some tactical changes to stop another sacking of Omagh

"If Paddy Russell had been God almighty he couldn't have refereed the game," said Mickey Harte after the Battle of Omagh way back in 2006. This fixture, at this venue, comes with a health warning.

Russell found the Healy Park atmosphere “frightening”, even contemplating abandonment, as a spate of brawls led to four red cards, with potential crowd trouble forcing Dublin substitutes out of the main stand.

Ancient history that carries little relevance come Saturday night, but the last time the champions journeyed to Omagh, in early February, does resonate – certainly for Tyrone, who showed incremental improvements in their quest to measure up to Dublin.

On that night the beginnings of another mini-riot dissolved into nothing soon after John Small and Peter Harte tangled on the slippery surface. Niall Sludden bounced off Johnny Cooper as plenty of aggressive posturing concluded with Philly McMahon keeping a grip on Lee Brennan and Connor McAliskey until the officials figured out who deserved cautions.


"In fairness to Tyrone," chuckled Armagh's Aaron Kernan on commentary, "you can sense where they are coming from. They don't want to be bullied, they don't want to show like they are taking a step away. There is nothing much happening, they just want to say, 'We are not going to be walked over tonight.'"

Twelve years previously the shoe was on the other foot.

Radically changed

The landscape had radically changed, with 14-man Dublin gliding to a five-point victory in that year’s league encounter, yet Harte could spin it into a positive after the previous year’s All-Ireland semi-final.

“I do believe the critical score was the goal,” said the long-serving Tyrone manager immediately after their August humiliation.

This was an astonishing comment by Harte because Con O’Callaghan’s wonder strike was registered with only 4:33 on the clock.

“Until that time it could have been a face-off to half-time,” Harte continued. “If the goal had not been scored we might not have conceded so many points.”

The Paddy Andrews radar was switched on while Ciarán Kilkenny, O’Callaghan and Dean Rock also posted scores following patient possession football that numbed Croke Park into uncomfortable silence long before the half-time scoreboard showed Dublin leading 1-9 to 0-5.

A venomless contest followed with Diarmuid Connolly denied exposure until injury time. The exhibition feel to proceedings even prompted Harte to bring the curtain down on Seán Cavanagh's epic career with 15 minutes remaining.

“It’s the best Dublin team that I have ever faced in my championship career at senior level,” Harte conceded. “You have to give them that now. I wasn’t sure of that before today but I am now.”

The way Tyrone has played this past three or four years, we haven't really played with any structure in the forward unit

Brian McGuigan, such a pivotal force during Tyrone’s golden era (2003-2008), went a step further from his perch in the RTÉ studio. “Going into the match a lot of people said Dublin feared Tyrone and didn’t really want to play them, but I think any questions asked of this Dublin team they have answered. They are on the verge of becoming one of the best teams that ever played GAA.”

Defensive rigidity

What confused many observers was how slow Tyrone’s defensive rigidity took to thaw out (not Joe Brolly, who took the opportunity to claim Harte has never been “a tactical genius; it’s a one-dimensional game plan that’s very, very good against the lesser teams”).

Into winter Tyrone went, with Harte hushing internal voices claiming he had overstayed his time after 15 seasons, but Cavanagh’s entry into punditry reignited a now-constant criticism.

"The way Tyrone has played this past three or four years, we haven't really played with any structure in the forward unit . . . That's probably one of the reasons why some of our forwards that came through the system this past four, five or six years haven't really kicked on. Ronan O'Neill, Darren McCurry, Kyle Coney, Niall McKenna – there's been a flood of guys who probably have suffered because we haven't played with six attackers."

Tactical change is demanded to stop Dublin sacking Omagh once again. A few skirmishes are promised yet unlikely to influence the result.

“At least we were creating chances,” said Harte in February after 12 wides to Dublin’s two. “At least we were competitive.”

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent