Tipping Point: Tyrone need more than a song to beat Dublin
They may be top of the Ulster heap, but can Tyrone give Dublin the game of their lives?
Tyrone lose to Kerry in the 1986 All Ireland Final. Will things be any different against Dublin on Sunday? Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho
The first All-Ireland final I ever went to was Tyrone v Kerry in 1986. My dad’s name came out of the hat in a club raffle a few days beforehand and, just like that, we joined the caravan heading up the road to Croker. We even joined in with their infernal singing, which you had to do in a jagged mid-Ulster accent to make some of the rhymes stick.
“Come on Tyrone/You’re on your own/Sure you’re goin’ ta bring the Sam Maguire home/The best supporters in the land/Are behind ya ’til the end . . .”
I say “we” joined in with the singing. Thinking of it now, there’s no way the old man did. Ollie C wasn’t what you’d call a big Tyrone fan, being of the firm opinion that they were insufferable hoors long before they ever won anything, and that success could only make matters worse.
But there was an Ulster team in an All-Ireland final, so even he conceded that you had to get behind them. I think in time that became a sub-section in the Good Friday Agreement. Do what youse like with Articles 2 and 3, boys, but supporting an Ulster team in an All-Ireland final isn’t up for debate.
We were sitting in the old Nally Stand, directly under the makeshift crow’s nest that housed the impossibly glamorous RTÉ crew for the day. We had to shift over in our seats any time one of them wanted to go up or down the rickety ladder that led to the box. Of the many sights a goggle-eyed eight-year-old wouldn’t easily forget from that day, Michael Lyster’s shapely derriere disappearing up into the Hollywood lights at the top of the ladder has lingered for some reason. Let’s not get too deep into it, eh?
People will remember the game itself as one of those Road Runner-Wile E Coyote affairs wherein Tyrone went blazing off towards a glorious tomorrow before chancing a glance down at their feet and finding they’d left the cliff’s edge long behind them. Kevin McCabe chipped a penalty over the bar at the Canal End early in the second half before Pat Spillane and Mikey Sheehy scored a couple of killer goals down in front of us. Kerry won by 2-15 to 1-10. It felt a lot closer than that but really it was the usual business.
The GAA world changes and it doesn’t change. Ulster football walks around with its chest out these days and the era of coming to Croke Park with a song and a dream has long since passed. Since that day in 1986, five Ulster counties have won All-Irelands, four of them for the first time. Three of them have won more than one. The Troubles are a race memory and the structural and institutional handcuffs that held Ulster GAA back for decades are gone with them.
And yet, and yet. It is a plain fact of life that Ulster football is just not very good at the moment. That’s not an aesthetic judgement, more an observation of the depth of competition coming down from the North. The province has one good team and a whole heap of middling ones. And because the good team has earned its reputation by trampling all over the middling ones and nobody else, we don’t really know how good it is.
Dublin don’t care about playing packed defences anymore
Here’s what we presume to know about Tyrone. They’re athletic from endline to endline. They’re structurally sound in defence, with a well-drilled, nigh-on perfected sweeper system. They spread their scoring threat better than anybody: Seán Cavanagh is their leading scorer with a meagre 0-14 in a season where they have been running up record totals. They are the best counter-attacking team to come along since Donegal won their All-Ireland.
The question is, what does that buy you these days? Forget the dreary yakkedy-yak about how the game ought to be played. If it can win, that’s all that matters. It’s just that increasingly it appears that when all comes to all against the top teams, it doesn’t get the job done.
The evidence of the past few seasons is that the days of a fast-breaking massed-defence team overcoming the best of the best looks to be gone. It worked in 2012, when it was a thrilling, game-changing eureka of a tactical plan. But more and more, the only thing it seems to beat these days is teams playing a less refined version of it.
Tyrone’s record against good teams outside of Ulster has been deplorable over the past decade. The numbers are worth another airing: since they won the 2008 All-Ireland, they’ve played eight non-Ulster Division One teams in championship and lost seven times. They haven’t beaten Dublin, Kerry or Mayo since 2008, and have instead lost twice against all three.
Seven of the other eight Ulster teams have lost games in this championship by eight points or more. Armagh’s win over Kildare and Donegal’s over Meath have been the only victories by Ulster sides over teams ranked above Division Three. The same happened last year, when Derry’s win over Meath and Donegal’s over Cork were all she wrote. Kerry and Mayo haven’t lost to an Ulster team since 2012, Dublin since the day the earth moved in 2014.
The point is this. The notion that Tyrone are going to give Dublin the game of their lives on Sunday feels like it is built on a false premise, ie they’re miles better than everything in Ulster, therefore they must be a serious team. But Dublin don’t care about playing packed defences anymore. There’s no evidence that they even find it a hardship.
Maybe this column is going to look silly come this time next week, but to these eyes, it looks a lot more like the days when Ulster sent down the best of what we had and sang songs all the way there to make up for the fact that it wasn’t very much for the big guns to worry themselves about.