No great expectations
I HAD to laugh: no sooner was the draw made than Mickey Harte appeared in the media talking up Dublin.
Who are you kidding, Mickey? Certainly not the bookies, who have sensibly made Tyrone clear odds-on favourites to complete their third crucial championship victory over Dublin in six years. It's impossible to look beyond such an outcome.
Harte is a sharp operator. He knows only too well that every season requires a different tweak. He also knows he has to deflect from the fact that Tyrone are overwhelming favourites to win tomorrow. Last year Tyrone looked spent when Cork overpowered them in the semi-final but this time around he has rested all his key men and Tyrone look to be improving with every game. Enda McGinley's return and Stephen O'Neill's recovery strengthen Harte's already powerful hand.
There is no point in fannying around about Tyrone's prospects -- a fourth All-Ireland is now tantalisingly close. They absolutely believe that by 5.30 tomorrow evening they will be one step nearer to that prize.
As onlookers, we are always trying to determine the long-term prospects of the top teams. Sometimes it's impossible. While Harte resisted the temptation to rush back his experienced players during the league, I mistakenly interpreted their form as that of a team in decline. Relegation to Division 2 and the perceived tensions between Sean Cavanagh and Harte seemed to confirm this.
This analysis, we know now, was misleading. As Tyrone tried all week to play up the significance of Dublin's victory at Healy Park in April, I would be more inclined to look at the Red Hands' late one-point victory over Kerry in March as the defining result of the spring. Beating Dublin in the league, even with relegation at stake, did not really matter to Tyrone. Beating Kerry, on the other hand, certainly did.
Despite what those associated with Tyrone and Kerry say, they do not fear Dublin. Besides having an unshakeable belief in their own ability, Tyrone feel that by silencing the crowd, denying Dublin chances and sowing the seeds of doubt in their forwards, they will almost certainly progress.
While I'm not a fan of defensive systems, Tyrone's ability to move at pace from defence to attack is frightening for opponents. To be honest, it's probably inaccurate to refer to it as a defensive system. It's a system where serious work-rate is the core responsibility of every player. Class and technique are expected but not at the expense of selfless work.
They are also extremely patient in their build-up, making sure they work the score efficiently. Rarely do you see a Tyrone player trying an aimless shot from distance. Having said that, Brian Dooher, O'Neill and Cavanagh are all capable of nailing a wonder score when necessary.
And that's what's really appealing about Tyrone's approach. They're not restricted by their system, they are empowered by it. The corner-back will run the field and stick it over the bar if he has to while someone covers for him; their forwards will rarely shoot outside the 'zone' but if they have to, they will. Tyrone players react to circumstances by taking responsibility and working for each other. You don't see them sulking or taking hissy fits.
So where does this leave Dublin tomorrow? Well, I know that I wasn't alone suffering a sinking feeling when Coman Goggins drew us out of the hat. In fact I thought Coman himself looked a whiter shade of pale after the event!
Let me be straight. No one expects Dublin to win. They are back playing honest football: workmanlike, with little flash and plenty of effort. They're trying to make it hard for the opposition by competing doggedly, as per the plan for the season. After their wobble in Leinster, when it looked as we'd lost faith in the plan, this is to be welcomed.
They haven't ditched all their old bad habits. The Dublin forwards are working very hard when they don't have possession. However, they must also work hard for each other when they have the ball and remain patient.
Alan Brogan, for example, cannot keep searching for his own score at the expense of a simple pass to a better-placed colleague; nor is the killer pass always on. Sometimes it's just about slipping the easy ball off and working to draw the defensive cover.
While you want your players to have the confidence to shoot, Tyrone will be more than happy if Dublin become restless at the crowd's behest and start forcing their efforts.
A change of culture is never easy to implement and Dublin are discovering just how difficult a task it is. Their image of being all style and no substance seemed to be exploited annually at this point of the season.
But Dublin cannot be accused of being 'fancy Dans' this year, not by a long shot. Without the frills and the hype, Dublin go in with nothing to lose. All they need to do is stick to their approach, make it as hard as possible for Tyrone and fight to the line, fight for the blue jersey that they are privileged to have on their backs.
If they acquit themselves honestly, then Pat Gilroy, given how he has set his stall out this season, can have no qualms. We did not expect to win an All-Ireland, only to lay the foundations for a new approach.
Tomorrow's climb looks too steep for an inexperienced Dublin team to surmount. Their opponents possess too much class and experience. When Tyrone players stand for the anthem tomorrow evening, the weight of their All-Ireland medals will anchor their belief.
For sure, this will be a learning experience for Gilroy's men like no other to date and hopefully they will emerge the better for it.
What I would like to see is what I saw all around me when I was fortunate to participate in occasions like this. When I played for Dublin, there were men who believed they were warriors, that every championship match was a battle. It shaped their approach, their commitment. It didn't guarantee against making mistakes; nor did it guarantee victory. What it did ensure was that those men left absolutely nothing behind them; they emptied the tank every time.
I knew when I committed myself to something on the field there was another man to back me up. Dublin's new system, whatever the pros and cons of the approach, is really based on players working for each other, for a bigger cause, not for themselves.
This is the first time in recent memory that there is no hype in the capital. The supporters may return tomorrow but they do so to back an honest team very much in transition and facing a daunting challenge.
As Dublin are now stripped of the weight of expectation, this is Tyrone's game to lose.