TYRONE bagged the points, but Dublin took enough out of Croke Park on Saturday night to reinforce the view that the reshape under Jim Gavin remains on a progressive curve.
Weakened by the absence of some front-liners, including Bernard Brogan, Dublin just came up short against a Tyrone squad that coalesced hard work, calmness under pressure and good structure into a winning combination which enabled them to overturn a four-point deficit after 16 minutes to win the remainder of the game by 0-16 to 0-11.
With the exception of the finishing by both sides, it was a high-tempo, high-standard game which leaves both sides primed to qualify for the league semi-finals. Tyrone were looking for a quick recovery after the sluggish performance against Cork six days earlier and they duly dug it out.
Mickey Harte later referenced Brogan's absence as a significant plus for Tyrone, although it must be said that replacement Kevin McManamon gave a fine performance, kicking two excellent points and also setting up some other scores, including Dublin's 16th minute goal, which was finished by Philip Ryan.
It presented Tyrone with a real challenge, but their response was typically defiant and they were ahead by half-time (0-10 to 1-6) thanks to well-crafted efforts.
Stephen O' Neill was very much their target man in attack and he revelled in the responsibility, scoring three first-half points from play. Indeed, Tyrone should have been much further ahead at the interval, having kicked no fewer than 10 wides.
"That was disappointing but they weren't all misses as such. Dublin were putting serious heat on our players, forcing them to kick from places where the chances of scoring were reducing all the time. It's not as if they were badly wayward," said Harte.
Dubs' boss Gavin had reason to bemoan some missed opportunities too, including from frees and '45s' on a night when their dead-ball kicking (Diarmuid Connolly and Shane Supple) was not good. Tyrone appeared to have made a match-winning break when they opened up a three-point lead (0-14 to 1-8) after 50 minutes, but Dublin responded with four unanswered points in a highly productive six-minute spell.
Suddenly, the initiative was with Dublin. However, once again Tyrone re-programmed their ambitions and responded with four points of their own to leave them three clear after 64 minutes. Dublin pared two back on the run-in, but Tyrone held on for a crucial win.
"Dublin have been playing so well all year and I suppose they felt that with having eight points from four games they could experiment to some degree. That's what they did – they held Bernard Brogan back and we certainly weren't disappointed at that. You could imagine what damage he would have done out there. Mind you, Kevin McManamon wasn't a bad replacement. He took a lot of watching, " said Harte.
"He had to seize the opportunity when Brogan wasn't there and get the right result. The lads worked very hard for it. It's not as if it was a seriously weakened Dublin team, just a bit changed from what we've seen so far."
Gavin revealed that a leg strain had ruled out Brogan, while Dublin lost Ciaran Kilkenny to injury after just six minutes. Harte said Tyrone needed the win more than Dublin, but Gavin didn't believe that was a factor.
"Not at all. Players are battling for places. Each player is under scrutiny to perform all the time," he said.
Despite the defeat, Dublin can take quite a lot of positives from the game, although there were also areas of concern, not least around midfield where the Cavanagh brothers were allowed too much room. Things improved for Dublin when Michael Darragh Macauley came on for the second half, but Tyrone still managed to win plenty of possession.
Significantly, all of Tyrone's subs made an impact, with Plunkett Kane (two) and Paddy McNeice (one) contributing three vital points in the final quarter.
Gavin will be disappointed with Dublin's performance in that period, especially after working so hard to take the lead in the 57th minute.
"To be a point ahead after a long battle and not to kick on was disappointing, but we will have learned a lot from that game. "We created some very good goal chances in the first half – we didn't take them, mind you – but it was still a positive. Also, in the second half the lads worked very hard when Tyrone put a big wall in front of them. They worked well around it which was pleasing, but, look, the better team won. We didn't take enough of our chances in the first half," said Gavin.
Despite the defeat, Dublin are virtually certain to reach the semi-finals. Together with Kildare and Tyrone they are on eight points but have a much superior scoring difference to the four other teams (Cork and Donegal are also in the hunt), who are still in contention for a last-four place.
It has been a very positive start to the Gavin era, as the team is playing an attractive brand of football. The mix of short and long is well balanced and, so far at least, has caused lots of problems for the opposition.
That was the case again on Saturday when they scored 1-14, which would be enough to win most games. However, on this occasion the defensive bolts weren't quite secure enough to counteract O'Neill, Peter Harte and Mark Donnelly, while Sean Cavanagh's zest for work coming through from midfield remains as sharp as when he first came onto the scene a decade ago.
Tyrone are very much a work in progress, but there's enough about them to suggest that the pieces are fitting neatly together. And with qualification for the league semi-finals now highly probable, they're heading for bonus territory and at least one more visit to Croke Park before settling into the championship.
Man of the match: S Cavanagh (Tyrone)
SCORERS – Tyrone: S O'Neill (1f), S Cavanagh (2f) 0-4 each, P Kane, Mark Donnelly, P Harte (1f) 0-2 each, N Morgan (f), M Penrose, P McNiece, C Cavanagh 0-1 each. Dublin: D Connolly 0-6 (5f), P Ryan 1-0, K McManamon, P Andrews, P Flynn 0-2 each, MD Macauley, C Dyas 0-1 each.
TYRONE – N Morgan 7; A McCrory 6, C Gormley 7, C McCarron 8; Joe McMahon 7, Justin McMahon 7, R McNamee 7; C Cavanagh 7, S Cavanagh 9; Matthew Donnelly 6, P Harte 7, C McGinley 6; M Penrose 7, S O'Neill 8, Mark Donnelly 7. Subs: P McNiece 7 for Matthew Donnelly (h-t), P Kane 8 for McGinley (55), R McKenna 7 for Joe McMahon (62), C McAliskey 7 for Penrose (62), A Cassidy 7 for C Cavanagh (63 blood), D McBride for Justin McMahon (68).
DUBLIN – S Supple 7; K O'Brien 6, G Brennan 6, D Nelson 6; J McCaffrey 7, C O'Sullivan 7; D Daly 8; D O'Mahony 6, D Bastick 6; P Flynn 8, D Connolly 7, C Kilkenny; P Ryan 7, P Andrews 7, K McManamon 8. Subs: C Dias 6 for Kilkenny (6), MD Macauley 7 for O'Mahony (h-t), B Cullen 6 for Dias (45), P Mannion 6 for Ryan (52), N Devereux 6 for Nelson (61).
REF – M Duffy (Sligo)