Tyrone on revenge mission
TOMMY CONLON in Croke Park AS if they haven't had enough of them in recent seasons, Dublin were on the receiving end of another lesson in hardcore Championship football at Croke Park yesterday.
They enhanced their reputation, newly acquired this summer, for honesty and spirit while simultaneously having all their flaws exposed by a powerful and frequently brilliant Tyrone side.
The champions of 2003 ultimately cruised to a 2-18 to 1-14 victory in this Bank of Ireland All-Ireland quarter-final replay in front of 81,882 fans. They are one out of four teams to have survived the summer cull thus far, but time is running out on them all. Barring a draw, three will remain this evening. Tyrone have seven days to bury yesterday's performance, mend aching muscles and turn their faces once more this season to their mountain named Armagh.
With few people seriously questioning their superior talent going into yesterday's match, the only doubt about them centred around the issue of fatigue facing into this, their eighth match of the campaign. But Tyrone, like Armagh, are provoking questions about the standard thinking on this issue: that every team has a finite number of big performances in their tank before they succumb to fresher opponents.
With both Ulster teams there is a sense that the more hard games they play, the harder - physically and mentally - they become. That far from being drained by each encounter, it adds another layer of endurance to their system. Both teams will give us another insight into this, and many other issues, next Sunday when they enter the arena for the third in their series of heavyweight clashes this summer. But before they turn their thoughts to Armagh today, Tyrone presumably reflected last night on a good day's work against the Leinster champions.
They did it all without Peter Canavan, the great man finally named in the first 15 but withdrawn shortly before the throw-in after he failed, according to manager Micky Harte, to shake off the effects of a stomach bug.
They say the Tyrone forward line functions better with Canavan buzzing in the corner and they say Eoin Mulligan, in particular, works better with his old mentor alongside. Yesterday Mulligan performed with serene indifference to Canavan's absence, producing arguably the best performance of his career to finish with figures of 1-7, 1-5 from play, in a display that radiated confidence and class. Repeatedly beating his marker to the incoming ball, Dublin's full back line had no answer to Mulligan's strength, pace or finishing. The Cookstown man was, as they say, in the zone.
What's more, most of his scores from play came when they were needed, not in the last 15 minutes when the game as a contest was winding down. And of all his scores, it was his goal in the 50th minute, that brought the hammer down on Dublin's hopes.
Those hopes had been dwindling badly by the sixth minute of the second half when another Tyrone point left them eight in front, Dublin having managed a paltry six points by that stage.
Then Tyrone's recurring inability this summer to wipe out struggling opponents re-surfaced. They took a breather, while Dublin, throwing caution to the wind, opened their shoulders and started to play. In a six-minute spell they hit five without reply, Hill 16 and the other blue parts of the stadium greeting each point with mounting acclaim. By the time Conal Keaney stroked the fifth, waves of crashing noise were reverberating around the stadium as the Dublin hordes responded to this rolling come-back.
With the scores at 1-11 to 0-11 Dublin had reclaimed the momentum and put the match into the melting pot.
Then the wipeout. Seán Cavanagh fought hard to win possession, turned his man and fed Mulligan for a goal that was almost sinfully easy, given all the circumstances. Suddenly Tyrone had a six-point lead again and you could almost hear the air hissing out of the Dublin balloon. Mulligan rubbed it in with a prolonged and insolent glare at a silent Hill.
The game's first quarter suggested that it might emulate the classic standard set by the drawn encounter. Played at a blinding pace and swinging from end to end, points were flowing, the contest was open. But having put all their cards on the table the last day, Dublin had less margin for error, or bad luck, this time. They got both.
Tomás Quinn, brave with his frees all summer, was inexplicably missing shots which he had been routinely landing heretofore. Meanwhile, Tyrone's first goal came from the penalty spot, buried superbly by Stephen O'Neil after six minutes. Television replays suggest that the Dublin defender, Stephen O'Shaughnessy, had executed a clinical steal on Cavanagh as the Tyrone man rampaged into the square. But the contact brought both of them crashing to the floor as the referee, understandably, sensed that this had been a last-ditch desperation foul.
Beyond that, Dublin's downfall was entirely of their own making; they weren't strong enough, they weren't good enough. They have time now to contemplate their future. Tyrone have seven days.