Quantum leap forward produces change in old order
Every great team has its time, and during that time it's as if the clock stands still for them and they are immune to the passing seasons.
It is a window of time in which they dwell without a past or a future; there is just the here and now of their prime. And during that golden period they reap the harvest that gives them an eternal place in the record books.
Then suddenly, often without warning, the clock starts ticking again. It started ticking for this Tyrone team, perhaps as soon as they won their third All-Ireland in 2008. Cork steamrolled them in the 2009 All-Ireland semi-final. Dublin dropped them in the 2010 quarter-final.
Last weekend therefore the writing was on the wall. But they still cast a long shadow and few people were writing them off before Saturday's clash with Dublin. They were still dangerous. And this is part of the job description for great teams too: how they go down the mountain that they'd conquered only a few years earlier. And if they are genuinely great, they will go down with pride and resentment and resistance. Tyrone tried might and main to halt the slide and scrape their way back up the slope.
Eight days ago, however, unable to hang on any longer, they were sent hurtling to the bottom. The big wheel turned, the spokes shunted forward, and you could almost hear the echo as it slammed shut on an era.
Just like that, Tyrone vanished from the queue and a team that had been standing in line behind them for several years suddenly finds itself near the front of that same queue. Dublin's win last Saturday looked and felt like a coming-of-age performance. They appear to be where Tyrone were in the summer of 2003: ravenous, full of running, and convinced that this is their time.
"The energy and pace and the power of Dublin blew us away," said Seán Cavanagh afterwards. The man who owned the 2008 final was philosophical in defeat. He perhaps saw in Dublin what he saw in himself and his team-mates in '03 and '05 and '08. And he knew there was no answer when opponents are in that state of fervour, as he knew that teams had no answer when Tyrone were in that blessed state. It just cannot be denied.
But while Dublin won at the same stage 12 months ago, the difference this year was in the standard of their ball play. Their skill levels took a quantum leap on Saturday. The precision in the passing and finishing (bar the goal chances) added to the manic work rate a layer of finesse that is essential for any team hoping to seal an All-Ireland.
The work ethic we knew about. But there was an economy and accuracy about their use of the ball that wasn't apparent heretofore. While as usual they burned up vast amounts of energy in the requisite defensive duties, the scores flowed with a bit more simplicity than we're used to seeing from Dublin.
This twin-track dimension was revealed as early as the second minute when Cavanagh, coming out with the ball, was hustled hard on his half-back line by two Dublin players and stripped of the ball. It fell to Paul Flynn who promptly picked out Bernard Brogan with a sumptuous foot pass that curled and dipped, over the head of the last defender, right into Brogan's hands. With that one pass, Brogan was through on goal.
It seems that Dublin shed an old skin eight days ago, presuming they don't revert to type. They were direct and early with the ball into their forwards. In the seventh minute, Michael Darragh Macauley received a ball around the centre half-back position. He had a world of time and space in which to make a decision -- which often leads to indecision. Previous Dublin midfielders would have taken this as a cue to go solo running. Instead Macauley was decisive: he nailed a long, first-time ball to Barry Cahill who offloaded to Diarmuid Connolly for his first point of the night. This was proper football.
In the 12th, Kevin Nolan hit a 35-metre pass into Connolly that set him up for a simple turn and shot. Connolly and Brogan, in the inside line, were getting a dream service. Connolly finished with four points off his left foot, three off his right.
In defence, Dublin's pace and concentration and collective covering made it a gruelling night for Tyrone's forwards. They were blocked and buffeted and forced into repeated turnovers. The defensive effort completed an all-round performance that was arguably Dublin's most comprehensive since the summer of '95.
Of course there are caveats. But the only one pertaining to the performance concerns the quality of the opposition. Tyrone were weaker than everyone expected them to be. The major caveats are instead about the future: specifically, if Dublin can summon up a similar display again this season. It is asking a lot to produce this intensity of effort and quality of football two or three times in a row.
Donegal, for starters, have been forewarned. And they will bring to Croke Park precisely what Tyrone could not: medal-hungry players who are highly motivated and surfing a big wave of confidence and form.
It will not be pretty; it might well be gruesome; it will certainly be fascinating.
Sunday Indo Sport