AND now we know. When the rain had cleared and the fog of pre-match uncertainty had lifted, all that remained were two inarguable statements of fact. One, Dublin have reemerged from their four-week hiatus as genuine All-Ireland contenders. Two, Tyrone can no longer claim membership of such elite company.
The 0-22 to 0-15 scoreline tells you plenty, but it doesn't reveal everything about the most complete Dublin display of the Pat Gilroy era. At the same juncture last summer, Gilroy's gutsy back door avengers beat Tyrone by five points but there was nothing between the sides until Eoghan O'Gara's late game-breaking goal.
On Saturday night, the margin had stretched by a ‘mere' two points but not even the most blinkered Tyrone man will try and claim this was anything other than a rout. If Dublin had converted their goal chances with similar aplomb to all those points, it could have been 15. The performance of the labouring losers had ‘end of an era' written all over it; contrast this with the boundless energy, one-for-all commitment, full-blooded defence and scintillating forward play of the buoyant men in blue.
It would be wrong to dress this up as the ‘start' of another era, partly because Dublin have been gradually building towards this moment and partly because it was only, when all the eulogies are said and done, an All-Ireland quarter-final. Dublin have successfully traversed this lasteight road before only to crash out at the penultimate checkpoint under Tommy Lyons (2002), Paul Caffrey (2006 and 2007) and Gilroy (last summer).
Now Donegal await on August 28, and they are liable to ask an entirely different and more pesky set of questions. Where an ageing Tyrone have lost the capacity to swarm all over the opposition, Donegal will bring their defensive duvet to Croke Park and seek to suffocate Dublin's in-form forwards within it. For starters, it's hard to see Diarmuid Connolly being afforded the same latitude in three weeks' time – partly because Tír Chonaill full-back Neil McGee is having a stellar season, but also because the space in front of Connolly will be clogged up by a host of yellow jerseys. Donegal don't just play a sweeper; they play sweepers.
For all that, you cannot ignore the blinding potential of this Dublin forward unit when the attitude is right and confidence is sky-high. Donegal will make life dastardly difficult for Connolly and the Brogans, but can they actually stop them in this mood? More pertinently, can Donegal eke out enough scores at the far end against an equally tenacious and visibly improving Dublin defence, one bolstered here by the seamless return from his recurring injury nightmare of the jet-heeled Cian O'Sullivan? Those are questions for another day. For the moment, Dublin can allow themselves a brief period of revelling in this standout performance. Saturday night wasn't all about the headline stories but they are worth retelling all the same. Connolly led the way with his seven sublime points from play: it's on days like this, coming after the twin frustrations of Kildare and Wexford, that you realise why his name is forever preceded by words such as “enigmatic” and “mercurial”. “He doesn't always produce that quality, but unfortunately he decided to do that against us,” said Tyrone boss Mickey Harte.
“He has a class, a lot of ability, and when he's on song he's a very dangerous forward. If he can reproduce that kind of performance along with Paul Flynn, the Brogans and the rest of the forwards that excelled against us, then Dublin will take a lot of stopping.” Harte's roll-call of Dublin heroes was spot on. Flynn set the half-forward template both in terms of winning hard ball and using it to deadly accurate effect. Alan Brogan maintained his All Star form of June/July. His brother Bernard may have wondered if his Leinster final blip was about to become a frustrating habit when denied an early goal by the diving Pascal McConnell; by the end, though, the 2010 Footballer of the Year was in full majestic flow, taking Joe McMahon for four points from play while picking out unmarked team-mates with glorious crossfield passes.
Barry Cahill also deserves a name-check for his latest reincarnation as a forward – Friday morning's dummy team ruse fooled no one. Which brings us to less obvious cameos of Dublin excellence. Seán Cavanagh entered this game as the putative match-winner for Tyrone, and then he ran into Denis Bastick. “I don't think anyone ever thinks that Denis does anything in a game,” mused Gilroy, “but he took on probably one of the best footballers in Ireland today and silenced him. It takes huge commitment and discipline to do that. It often goes unnoticed but it certainly does not go unnoticed by us.”
Dublin's near-total control could be gleaned from other microcosms of dominance. From the first half, you had a sequence of Sky Blue blocks during the same – ultimately fruitless – Tyrone attack. Or O'Sullivan, making his first Dublin appearance all year, accelerating from behind Mark Donnelly to win possession. TUSSLE Then after half-time, with Brian Dooher just on the field, Kevin Nolan winning his first tussle with the Tyrone skipper. What happened next? Dublin hit three points in rapid succession; their 0-11 to 0-6 interval cushion had stretched to eight and even a county with such lamentable history for spectacular blow-ups couldn't lose this one.
Besides, perhaps this Dublin team has finally steeled itself against such implosions: there wasn't even one nervous second-half glance into the wing-mirror. Afterwards, Harte insisted that he will serve out the remaining year of his current agreement with Tyrone. He also rejected the notion that his team will “disappear all in one go”, but even this most resolute opponent of GAA ageism tacitly accepted that several three-time All-Ireland winners may not be seen again.
For them, could it be that Saturday's hammer blow will eventually be softened by – whisper it – the consolation of losing to the eventual champions?