Sunday 25 August 2019

Dermot Crowe: 'Can Tyrone grab the Dublin bull by the horns?'

Former Tyrone player Roger Keenan says: ‘They have put Colm Cavanagh back but they still haven’t reverted to where they were in 2017.’ Photo: Sportsfile
Former Tyrone player Roger Keenan says: ‘They have put Colm Cavanagh back but they still haven’t reverted to where they were in 2017.’ Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

In the absence of fireworks, the Super 8 will be folded up and put away this afternoon. In Cork there is a match of infinite pointlessness between the hosts and Roscommon. In Omagh, Dublin return to the venue where they had an interesting wrestle with the natives a year ago, but both counties are clear in the knowledge that they are already in next weekend's All-Ireland semi-finals.

Tyrone have reduced the intrigue further by naming a team showing 15 changes - a week out from the semi finals where they'll be walking the tightrope with no safety net and parading the full cast. Dublin have opted to dip into their panel too and recall Diarmuid Connolly to the squad a week away from what ought to be their first serious and honest test of the year.

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Con O'Callaghan. Photo: Sportsfile
Con O'Callaghan. Photo: Sportsfile

Two years ago Tyrone went into the All-Ireland semi-finals loaded with promise and momentum. They wiped out all in their wake on the way to retaining the Ulster title for the first time since 2010, then steamrolled Monaghan in the quarter-final. Dublin made short work of dampening the rising expectation that they might have a new rival.

"The one where Con O'Callaghan scored the goal in the first five minutes?" says Roger Keenan, a former Tyrone footballer, and minor and under 21 mentor, when the match is raised.

Tyrone have been slowly recovering from that crash, when they ended up beaten by 12 points and their defensive game-plan was pulled asunder - Dublin drawing them out to the sidelines and accelerating through gaps when the opportunities arose. When Tyrone went behind they didn't have the tactical flexibility to respond. They had reached an obvious watershed moment.

"From my point of view there are two sides to the whole story," says Keenan, a coach education manager with the Ulster Council. "The pundits blew Tyrone up that year to be absolutely brilliant and having a brilliant defensive strategy, with Colm Cavanagh playing back in the hole as a sweeper who pushed forward, but the reality is that Dublin are substantially ahead of everybody. I think that rather than looking at Dublin, it might be more useful looking at where are we in terms of the rest.

"I was involved with Tyrone at minor from 2005-2010 and I was with the under 21s from 2010 to 2014. Tyrone have produced as good a player in that time as any other county outside of Dublin. But we probably still lack that cutting edge up front, whether we like it or not. Over the last number of years four of the six Tyrone forwards started their careers as defenders."

And that is probably the Tyrone thinking in a nutshell. They aren't doing a whole pile wrong. Mickey Harte has brought the county to a third successive All-Ireland semi-final irrespective of what happens in Omagh today. Whatever happens from here, Tyrone have already broken new ground in qualifying for an All-Ireland semi-final for the third consecutive year. Yet, hovering over them, and every other contender, is Dublin on their relentless drive for five.

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In Omagh last year, mindful of their All-Ireland semi-final shortcomings the previous August, Tyrone had to demonstrate that they could offer Dublin a meaningful challenge. They held them to 1-14, Dublin's lowest championship total since drawing with Mayo in the 2016 All-Ireland final. Though Tyrone never looked like they would win, they left with a respectable losing margin of three points, finished strongly and absorbed as many lessons as they could. From there they went to Ballybofey where they hadn't won in the championship since 1973 and gained the result they needed to advance.

After beating Monaghan to reach the decider, Dublin in an All-Ireland final in Croke Park, rather than the more confined Healy Park, would be the ultimate litmus test for Tyrone.

The stunning opening where they went into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead was quickly smothered by Dublin's merciless retaliation. In the final 24 minutes of the half, Tyrone scored 0-1 to Dublin's 2-6. But they went back and started working again for the new season.

"Tyrone had a fantastic start, but we made a few mistakes and Dublin really punished us," says Paul Devlin, whose under 20s lost to Cork in the All-Ireland semi-final last weekend. But he is not without hope. His under 20s will offer Harte options to strengthen his squad, including Peter Canavan's son, Darragh. "I do feel that if there is one team that can turn them (Dublin) over it is Tyrone. I feel the lads have a serious belief in themselves. I do know Tyrone lads have put in a serious amount of work from this time last year."

Tyrone defeated Dublin in the League this year in Croke Park, and saw out their campaign a week after with a high-scoring win over Galway. The changing patterns in their play, pushing more players up and opting for more direct kicked passes, suggested a new departure and created renewed optimism. That was until they ran into Donegal in Breffni Park in the Ulster Championship and had their defence badly exposed.

"If you go back to 2017, I think they have progressed in that they have shifted from the one-dimensional strategy a wee bit," says Keenan. "It worked for them through the Ulster Championship (in '17) - they were blowing teams out of the water, but the reality was that when Dublin hit them for that (Con O'Callaghan) goal they did not have answers, and they didn't seem to have many other plans. I definitely think they have learned something from that.

"They got a shock from Donegal this year. They reverted to it (more defensive approach) a bit, but being realistic I don't care what the Spillanes of this world say, you can't go man-to-man for the whole game against certain opposition. They have put Colm Cavanagh back but they still haven't reverted to where they were in 2017 though. They are kicking the ball more, they are able to bring on Richie Donnelly from time to time and he is able to deliver the kind of ball into the forward line that is wanted.

"If you are asking me about the plusses for Tyrone this year, I would say that Cathal McShane has developed into a better player, a player not only who can win primary possession but who also can convert a lot more. Up to that, his decision making was a bit suspect. But then he's only a young lad and he's growing into the game. So he is definitely a plus, a go-to player.

"I think there are plusses also in that they are at times pushing Mattie Donnelly and Petey Harte a bit further up the field at crucial times and they are trying to keep one if not two I suppose go-to players in more advanced positions.

"But that's fine up until you meet the likes of Dublin. I think Dublin are better this year. They are a real Rolls-Royce of a team, so many good players, and they have created a thing in Dublin obviously where even if you're Diarmuid Connolly, it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter if you are a Brogan, people have nearly forgotten they exist."

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Comeback kid: Diarmuid Connolly is back in the Dublin squad and could make his first championship appearance for over two years against Tyrone in Omagh tomorrow. Photo: Sportsfile

Omagh is Joe McMahon's home town and his playing career, which ended two years ago, went from a time when Dublin were labouring under the strain of their own expectations, to where they became the phenomenon they are now. By the 2017 All-Ireland semi-final he had become a spectator.

"I know that season from early on Tyrone were being seen as a contender to match Dublin and put it up to Dublin," he says. "They coasted in some games. But realistically Tyrone weren't overly challenged. They were coming into that game cold. Because they were playing a particular way and winning a particular way. And when they came up against Dublin. I was at that game, I watched how Dublin just dismantled them so easily. How they stretched the defence, isolated players, went one-on-one.

"Ciaran Kilkenny was very much instrumental in all of that. Once Tyrone found themselves behind they didn't know how to counteract that. It was a shame in that it was a successful year from an Ulster point of view but a hugely disappointing end to the year."

In the wake of that match, the future of Mickey Harte was uncertain. Seán Cavanagh retired, having been substituted after 55 minutes, and later questioned Harte's management of forwards, claiming that he had ruined careers by being overly defensive. Harte stayed in place but the Ulster Championship loss to Monaghan the following year raised fresh doubts. Still, Tyrone managed to recover and reach their first All-Ireland final in ten years.

McMahon was involved as a player during the transition when the power shifted from Tyrone to Dublin. "I suppose the big turning-point was 2011 when they beat us in the (All-Ireland) quarter-final. I mean that day was a total contrast to 2008 (All-Ireland quarter-final) where Tyrone were coming in more so as underdogs and nobody was really giving them a chance. Tyrone were very stylish and very accomplished and very much in control that day and totally bossed Dublin. And Dublin then in 2011, that was where (Diarmuid) Connolly really came to life, kicking seven points from play. From then on that monkey was off Dublin's back. Tyrone had got the upper hand in previous years and once that happened that belief was there. The shackles were off."

Of Dublin's 22 points that day, 19 came from play. Dublin used it as a springboard to win the All-Ireland and usher in a period of dominance, the first of six All-Irelands in eight years. Today's game in Omagh might be the occasion Jim Gavin uses to relaunch Connolly's inter-county career, after being out of the game over a prolonged period between suspension and his own decision to take a break.

Joe McMahon saw value in last year's match in helping Tyrone develop a tougher hide. "You are looking to small margins, for an advantage anywhere, and playing in your home patch is a big part of that. Everything that Dublin brought was magical. It was huge for the town. Huge for the people of Tyrone. I think Tyrone - it was well documented what happened with the (narrowing of the) sidelines - being able to adjust the dimensions of the pitch, just to take Dublin out of their comfort zone.

"It is not every day you are getting the All-Ireland champions to your home patch. If you know that a team like the All-Ireland champions are coming into your own back yard as a player you are going to rise to the occasion. If you aren't going to rise to the occasion you should not be out there. Tyrone, towards the end, they could have brought the game closer. Dublin hadn't been pushed in a long time, aside from Mayo.

"I don't think there is as much hype (now) because both teams have qualified. It's a difficult one because there's no real prize as such."

No discussion about Tyrone can end without reference to how the team sets up. Tommy McGuigan finished playing for Tyrone in 2013 and, like many club players, is currently lying idle as there has been no domestic game activity in several weeks.

"I watched Tyrone in the first half against Cork," he says of their last round-robin match. "It was probably one of the worst 35 minutes of football I have seen Tyrone playing in a long, long time. It was so defensive, they retreated back into their shell. There was no ambition in them at all. Then in the second half they pushed Mattie Donnelly up which is where he should be the whole time.

"I know you can't be exposed at the back against Dublin but Tyrone definitely have to take the shackles off those boys and let them off at Dublin. Don't go into that defensive mode and still get beat, that I hate to see. Tyrone would probably need a bit of luck at the same time to beat them."

If both counties were to win next weekend they will meet in another All-Ireland final. Today Tyrone don't need to win but they won't want a kicking either. Their followers won't be getting carried away if they do pull off a surprise victory. They have seen Dublin from every angle and know that they may very well see them again before long.

"They are cautious," as McGuigan says of supporters' hopes for the team winning an All-Ireland in the near future. "And they are cautious because of Dublin."

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