NEVER mind the dark, foreboding thoughts of what Tyrone might visit upon Pat Gilroy’s new Boys in Blue.
Tomorrow’s quarter-final collision with Mickey Harte’s trophy-laden crew is actually the perfect fixture for this Dublin team.
So says Justin McNulty – a man who is equally au fait with football in the capital and the Red Hand county.
McNulty is best known as Joe Kernan’s full-back on the Armagh team that created All-Ireland history in 2002. Since then he has watched Armagh’s pre-eminent position up north usurped by Mickey Harte’s Tyrone, and he has forged strong links with Dublin GAA – initially as a club player with Na Fianna, and subsequently as the manager of St Brigid’s.
He led Brigid’s to an Evening Herald Dublin SFC county final appearance in 2007, where they succumbed to eventual All -Ireland champions St Vincent’s. Morerecently, McNulty’s sideline energies have been devoted to his native Armagh, serving as a selector under new boss Paddy O’Rourke this season.
And that latter role has brought him up close and personal with the Dubs, earlier this month.
Armagh lost by three points, but McNulty was won over by their opponents’ one-for-all approach and is convinced they are getting better with every passing week.
“I think their progression has been immense this year,” he told the Evening Herald. “They have been written off, especially after the Meath debacle, pilloried from a height from all quarters … they were just (seen as) no-hopers after that performance against Meath.”
Not any more, according to McNulty.
“They exhibited a massive workmanlike performance against us – their physicality, their intensity in the tackle, was phenomenal. Their defensive game-plan pretty much closed us down, and stopped us performing in the game,” he enthused.
“They seem to have a real understanding of how they’re all expected to play, and they all buy into that expectation as well, which I think is going to be a real challenge for Tyrone this weekend.”
Moreover, he suggests, it’s a challenge that the 1/2 favourites may not survive. “It’s a fantastic position for Dublin to be in – to be going in as the underdogs against Tyrone. It’s not a typical position for a Dublin team to be in at Croke Park, so it’s a no-lose situation in a way,” the Armagh selector maintains.
“Of course it’s a step-up. I’m not foolish enough to believe that Dublin are going to definitely win this one,” he expands.
“But I wouldn’t buy into the belief that Tyrone are definites, that Tyrone are sure things – certainly not.
“I think Dublin will definitely give them a match, and if they play the defensive system as well as they’ve been playing it for the last couple of games, then they’ll be hard to break down.”
Ah yes, Dublin’s much touted defensive system – the one that proved pretty effective (as opposed to pretty) during the National League but which then, it seemed, spluttered against Wexford before completely seizing up against Meath.
McNulty’s theory is that Dublin “probably abandoned” the gameplan in Leinster, certainly against Meath, and consequently their fullback line was left “hung out to dry”. But that hasn’t happened since.
“They’ve fine-tuned the system ever since, and they’re getting more confidence in the system they’re playing,” he reckons. “Tyrone do play a similar style of game, where they get numbers back, crowd their defence, never leave their full-back line hung out to dry, and then they go fast on the break.
“So it’s going to be an intriguing game of chess, let’s say. Mickey Harte is a master tactician, and he will play horses for courses. He will see that obviously (Eoghan) O’Gara will be a massive threat.
“Now he doesn’t necessarily have to change his man in there to pick up O’Gara – he has the perfect man for O’Gara in Justin McMahon. But O’Gara’s confidence will obviously be sky-high at the moment, and he’ll be a difficult opponent.”
Individual match-ups aside, the former Armagh defender spies two areas where Dublin could have a conceivable advantage. Firstly, their blossoming self-esteem. Secondly, their far tougher route to the last-eight.
Justin knows all about the importance of self-belief, given his involvement with Motiv8. The company was originally set up by Enda McNulty, his brother and fellow All-Ireland winner, offering expert guidance to people involved in sport and business.
“Obviously their confidence was at rock bottom after the defeat against Meath … they were still in the recovery mode against Tipperary,” he surmises. “And even against Armagh I’d say their confidence wasn’t that great. But they still played to a system which they all bought into, and their team ethic and work ethic was phenomenal.
“Now, as a result of the Armagh performance, their confidence grew in leaps and bounds – and now after last weekend (against Louth), of course they’re going to be much more confident again going in against Tyrone.”
The counter-argument is that Tyrone, under Harte, traditionally play with supreme confidence – both in themselves and the system. “Mickey Harte is very, very cool. Watch him on the sideline – he observes everything and nothing passes him by. He knows where things have to change immediately.
He has the team all playing to a system – and individually and collectively, as a unit, they buy into that system,” McNulty explains. But? “I think Monaghan came into the Ulster final a little bit caught up in their own hype – ‘this is our year, this is our year’ – and they didn’t really appreciate that they had to go on and win a battle. Apart from that, there wasn’t really that big of a challenge put up to Tyrone,” the Armagh selector suggests.
“That’s why Tyrone are, I think, a little bit vulnerable coming into this game – because they haven’t had the big battles, they haven’t had the tough challenges that Dublin have faced.”
Fair enough – but is all this enough to swing the McNulty verdict?
“I would actually call Dublin,” he boldly declares.
Even the early-summer selection flux, he surmises, has fostered competition as opposed to uncertainty. “When players are comfortable in their starting position, then they may not have the competitive edge as much as they maybe could,” he points out. “Whereas when a player knows that he must perform in every match and every training session, that breeds a massive level of intensity and competitiveness within the panel for positions on the starting team, and then that obviously leads to competitiveness in terms of their performance.
So Dublin are going to provide a massive challenge for Tyrone, and it’s one I think that Dublin will win.” He concludes: “I do really believe this is going to be a massive opportunity for Dublin.
“And, you know, if they can overcome Tyrone, they’ve been transformed from no-hopers to real genuine contenders here.”
Watch this space ...