Tyrone seek revenge against Dublin and their many critics

After their heavy defeat to Dublin last year, the Ulster men look renewed and potent

Tyrone players leave the field dejected after their All-Ireland SFC semi-final defeat to Dublin last year. Photo: James Crombie/\Inpho

Tyrone players leave the field dejected after their All-Ireland SFC semi-final defeat to Dublin last year. Photo: James Crombie/\Inpho

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The same thought must have occurred to many people at different times during last weekend’s series of drab football matches: something is missing here. And not just from the individual matches either but rather from what has always been the turning point of the season. That absence was, of course, Mayo: the sense they brought of a force field becoming stronger and a household team gearing up for another full-blooded and wildly unpredictable charge for glory. Without Mayo’s huge reserves of energy and eccentricity, the quarter-final games seemed to play themselves out in a way that lessened the intrigue of what is likely to happen over the next month.

Dublin, even in a match when they were comparatively blunted and careless in their finishing, looked to be operating at a different comfort level than the others, particularly after Kerry’s implosion on the big stage on Sunday afternoon.

One of the problems with what the Americans like to call a sporting dynasty is that it becomes boring for everyone else. The Dublin football team is occupying the same space that Kilkenny hurlers filled in the summer of 2009. The public wants to know if anyone can beat them even as they look unbeatable. Mayo’s refusal to even remotely acknowledge that elevated the last three All-Ireland championships and gave the country spine-tingling finales. That was the question drifting through the series of games last weekends. Who, in Mayo’s absence, is strong enough to occupy that space?

Me, evidently, said Tyrone.

It may only be possible to rank the importance of tonight’s game in the Mickey Harte era retrospectively. But merely on paper, an All-Ireland quarter-final match-up with Dublin and Tyrone in Healy Park looks special. The thrill is diluted by the fact that when the night cools and the dust settles, nothing will have changed. Both crowds are still “in”. Even if Dublin do lose tonight, they will do so in the knowledge that three successive wins in Croke Park will see them retain their All-Ireland title. But for Tyrone, the stakes are different. It feels like an important moment. Everyone remembers how it went when the teams last met in the championship: a 2-17 to 0-11 lecture by Dublin and maybe the longest Sunday afternoon Tyrone football people experienced in decades. It was over almost as soon as it begun.

The defeat was so overwhelming that it was quickly forgotten just how heavily endorsed Tyrone had been going into that match. Back-to-back Ulster champions, they went into that game having posted 1-21 (to 1-12) against Donegal; 2-17 (to 1-15) against Down; and 3-17 (to 0-8) against Armagh. They were rampant and the week before that match felt like the culmination of the third wave: a brand new Tyrone team capable of following in the footsteps of the 2003, 2005 and 2008 All-Ireland winning sides. If those sides were streaked with casual genius – Canavan, McGuigan, O’Neill, Dooher, Cavanagh – the latest incarnation was different: engineered and calibrated and so overwhelmingly a unit that you often didn’t notice who played where or did what. It was just Tyrone: a well-barbered unit of pace, economy, ball skills and know-how. And then they were smashed apart.

Knee-jerk conclusions

“I think people were too quick to write them off after the heavy defeat,” says Turlough O’Brien, whose Carlow side were among those knocked out of the championship by Tyrone this summer.

“They were two-in-a-row Ulster champions and obviously lost to Monaghan this year. But they didn’t become a bad team overnight. I think they just came apart that day; it was one of those days that the game went away from them very early. They are a very strong team. They are well organised and know their roles and play those extremely well as individuals. And I do feel they have modified a little this year.”

The knee-jerk conclusion from last summer’s game was that it marked the official end of the defensive system of play. Poignantly, it also marked the end of Seán Cavanagh’s 16-year career, and afterwards he threw the garlands Dublin’s way with an elegiac tribute.

Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin shake hands at the end of last year’s semi-final. Photo: Inpho
Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin shake hands at the end of last year’s semi-final. Photo: Inpho

“They have the full package in that they obviously have the homework done, the stats,” he said that day. “They have such a huge support mechanism and you can see that every one of their players is extremely well drilled in what they need to be doing and they have the skills and power and the energy to execute everything. It is sad that Tyrone couldn’t reach the heights that I felt and hoped we would be able to reach, but you have to sometimes hold their hands up and go: Dublin are an incredible team. And I told most of their players out on the pitch they are that. Good luck to Mayo, but if Dublin play like that I don’t think any team in Ireland will touch them.”

Lacking star dust

It felt like Cavanagh was not conceding not just the game but the entire era. As it happened, Dublin won the final by a point in injury time. But the nature of their exit saw the hardening of a view that Tyrone – and by extension Mickey Harte – had to alter their tactics. It became a rolling topic of debate during the national league and into the Ulster championship, with Cavanagh himself, now working as an analyst with RTÉ, offering the opinion that the system had inhibited individual attacking talents such as Kyle Coney and Darren McCurry. The criticism drew a sharp response from Gavin Devlin, now on Harte’s coaching staff, and Philip Jordan, who argued that the county simply doesn’t have an attacking talent to compare to Monaghan’s Conor McManus.

“You need that bit of star dust to win big games and Tyrone don’t have it at the moment.”

Speaking to Colm Parkinson shortly after the final whistle against Monaghan, Mickey Harte reflected on his tactical approach. A swift 1-1 for Monaghan just before half time had forced Tyrone to chase the game – and made for a gripping second half.

“It depends on how the game is panning out,” Harte said of their approach.

“If you are in front by five or six, you would probably continue to play with a more defensive strategy. But if you are chasing the game you’ve got to come out and go for it, and I think, to our boys’ credit, they did that in the second half and got them back to 16-all, which was a good achievement considering where we were at half time, with the breeze and losing a few men. But it was a bit sad that we lost so much in the last eight minutes of the game. You have to do what you have to do. You set up a style of play; you want to be successful for it. You have to have this ability to adapt and adjust. It is all variable. You can’t script this game.”

Overscripted play

Scripting the game is precisely the accusation presented by those critical of the Tyrone way. Since then, Tyrone went off the reservation only to emerge from the qualifiers looking renewed and potent. They were favourites to beat Roscommon last weekend but nobody predicted such a resounding victory for the Ulster men.

The accusation that Tyrone don’t score enough under the current system suddenly looked watery against a total of 4-24. It was a complaint that never really stacked up anyhow: in 2008, Tyrone’s last All-Ireland season, the team averaged 19 points per game. Last summer their scoring average was 0-17. This year, it is 24 points per game – bolstered by those lopsided wins over Cork and Roscommon and the injury-time thriller with Meath. Still, in a year when Tyrone’s supposedly nonexistent attack has been a recurrent theme, they are scoring more than ever. One change over the qualifiers has been the emergence of Richard Donnelly as a versatile scoring full forward with the height and athleticism to win high ball.

“He adds a new dimension to their attack,” says O’Brien.

“I don’t believe Dublin are as good as they were. They are vulnerable in the air. Tyrone have struggled with a small forward line for the past number of years. And I am sure they will try and exploit that high ball. That is one difference from last year, in that they have that option. But then, I think Dublin have always been vulnerable to that high ball, but it hasn’t been exploited by anybody yet.” O’Brien is among the (significant) minority who believe that Tyrone can orchestrate Dublin’s first championship defeat in four summers this evening.

“I do. I think they have the ball players. They are very comfortable. They have a very good system. I think they are growing in confidence now. I am sure they left Croke Park devastated last year after that performance. And what better motivation than to have Dublin back in Healy Park to atone for what happened. So I would give them a great chance, yeah. I think it is 50-50. Niall Sludden has come on since last year too and is beautiful to watch. He is like the football equivalent of Richie Hogan in his balance and he is a class act. Frank Burns is so good going forward and they have such attacking-minded wing backs in McCann and Harte. I think it’s going to be a great game and it could be – it could be – the day Dublin slip up.”

Deepest Ulster

All the pressure is on the home team. The country has demanded Dublin play championship games outside the city: well, here they are, in sky-blue, in HD, in deepest Ulster. And it is hard to know what more Tyrone could have done to respond to the disappointment of last summer. If they can’t make an impression here and now, well, where to then?

Winning Ulster was never the summit for Tyrone. But the illusion of magisterial nonchalance with which their All-Ireland teams seemed to just turn it on whenever the mood took them made the winning of those championships appear much easier than they were. If there is to be a fourth under Harte, nobody will ever doubt how much they have poured into this. If there is to be a fourth, it would be the greatest achievement of all of them and it will probably require a revelation in Omagh this evening.

All eyes glued.

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