Sunday 17 December 2017

Colm Keys: Dubs slam window of hope shut for rivals

Tyrone had chance to land a blow for everyone - but Gavin's men were the ones to take confidence

Paul Mannion under pressure from Pádraig Hampsey - just like Dublin were for long periods of the game, but Tyrone could not deliver a knock-out blow Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Paul Mannion under pressure from Pádraig Hampsey - just like Dublin were for long periods of the game, but Tyrone could not deliver a knock-out blow Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Dean Rock is developing quite a habit of thwarting Tyrone in clutch Croke Park games.

Almost four years ago it was his point, Dublin's 17th, that wrestled the lead back in the 2013 Allianz Division One League final against Mickey Harte's team who had been in the ascendancy throughout that second-half.

Dublin eventually won by 0-18 to 0-17, landing the first of Jim Gavin's 11-trophy haul as manager.

But the symmetry between Rock's nerveless free off the ground in difficult conditions on Saturday night to deliver parity and his equalising goal almost two years earlier is even stronger.

On both nights Dublin never led until Rock's intervention.

His 2015 goal helped to avoid a third defeat in four games for Dublin and kick-start an unbeaten streak that now stretches to 31 games in League and Championship and Rock has featured in every game of the sequence.

Of course, Longford can point to that O'Byrne Cup win in January of last year and wonder why that continues to be selectively excluded. Just as UCD might query the omission of their win last month.

But the distinction between 'pre-season' and 'season' must be observed.

You only had to watch Mick Fitzsimons and Eoghan O'Gara hunt down Sean Cavanagh in the 67th minute on Saturday night to appreciate that difference.

This matters to Dublin. Maybe not the scale of the streak but the principle of it, the principle of just not losing, of just not yielding or bowing to anyone.

Clearly, they're not listening to the advice that they'd be better off without the sustained pursuit of a fifth successive League title to benefit them in the longer term.

Saturday night's examination was as searching as the corresponding examination almost two years ago.

Belief

The belief that Tyrone are just as equipped as anyone else, maybe even more equipped, to deal with this Dublin team manifested again.

But for Mark Bradley's dismissal, who bought the Jonny Cooper shoulder and reacted just like Mayo's Seamus O'Shea in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay, the result might have panned out differently.

In four League meetings now since Gavin took charge there have been two draws and a win for each. The score difference over those four games is zero.

Contrast Harte's record against Gavin teams with the three Mayo managements on his watch - eight defeats and two draws and Kerry's Eamonn Fitzmaurice - seven defeats and one win - and the percentages are stacked in the longest-serving manager's favour.

Their commitment to persist with a defensive/counter-attacking game, to keep things compact, is greater than Mayo's or Kerry's and while Dublin are not immune to storming such ramparts, Tyrone's capacity to really bed in asks more searching questions.

Like Mayo, they don't take a step back and while not as physical as the All-Ireland finalists, that kind of attitude helps.

But once again Dublin have thought and worked their way out of a tight spot, maybe the tightest spot they have found themselves in.

For the fourth time in the now 31-match unbeaten run they found themselves behind at half-time, only to recover.

But this time the escape act required a more urgent response than anything that has gone before.

Maybe it's wrong to draw comparison with an August All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry and a routine League match in February but it's Dublin themselves who aren't making distinctions between the status of games any more.

Last August, as the clock ticked into the 59th minute, they were three points down. On Saturday night they were five down around the same mark when Niall Sludden kicked Tyrone into a 1-7 to 0-5 lead.

If there was ever a time to let go, to draw breath, sub-consciously, this might have been it.

But over the last two years they have resisted that, as a team and as individuals, consistently.

When they passed the 20-match mark last March they found themselves eight points down to a rampant Cork side in Croke Park but still found a will and way to pull through comfortably with a four-point win. It was, demonstrably, the most evidence that this sequence is very much part of their thinking.

After Saturday night the prospect of extending the unbeaten run has increased.

Tyrone had everything in place to win but were caught. Again. For a game that they were surely sizing up since the draws were made known last September that will be difficult to absorb.

Maybe they'll take solace from a draw but the element of doubt about whether this Dublin team can be brought down will resonate too. Tyrone aren't in the business of coughing up five-point leads in 15 minutes of football when they have come with preservation in mind.

For all their resources, financial and human, for all the technical ability their players possess, it is sheer resilience which is pulling them through when they need it most.

Their search and recovery missions are as good as anything they do now. Four draws and four one-point wins during the 31-match sequence underpin that.

Battle

Dublin thrive in a battle and they have learned to adapt to the defensive walls erected in front of them.

It makes for an interesting few weeks as they prepare to sail into shark-infested waters.

First up is Ballybofey where Donegal are themselves defending a long unbeaten streak dating back to 2010 and where Dublin haven't been since 2013 when controversy over a biting allegation flared up.

Then Mayo, buoyed by a win over Kerry on Saturday night, visit Croke Park aiming to reverse the trend of the last four years.

If the unbeaten run is still in place Dublin will travel to Tralee on the day after St Patrick's Day where they will seek to eclipse the 34 matches (19 league, 15 championship) that the Kerry team of the early 1930s went unbeaten before Cavan beat them in the 1933 All-Ireland semi-final.

That milestone may be more than 80 years ago now but they guard their heritage with the care of museum curators in Kerry and, if it comes to pass, that promises to be quite an occasion.

Win that and it's hard to see them pass up on another League title in April or see them troubled before the start of August.

In time the legacy of this remarkable unbeaten run may shine brighter than even the vast collection of silverware they have accumulated.

Irish Independent

Promoted Links

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Promoted Links

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport