Thursday 22 March 2018

Master tacticians to show their hand as Dublin and Tyrone go to battle

This one is for real... Harte and Gavin face first SFC showdown, having presided over five close league games

Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin Photo: Sportsfile
Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

With Dublin's quarter-final against Monaghan coming up immediately afterwards, Jim Gavin would not have seen Tyrone humiliate Armagh in real time three weeks ago but you can take it that the TV footage was diced, spliced and presented to him by the following day.

As Gavin and his acolytes watched it, the challenges facing them for today's game stacked up. For a start, they would have noticed how rarely Armagh were allowed work the ball into the high-probability scoring area around the 'D'.

Four or five times? Even then, one of them came when a shot rebounded off a post. The scarcity of action in the opposition's red zone reduced Armagh's scoring flow to a trickle, as reflected in their final return of 0-8, of which 0-3 came from frees.

So how do Dublin counter that? Granted, they possess a far superior attacking set-up to Armagh but Tyrone have frustrated good forward lines over recent seasons, only to be let down by a lack of scoring power.

Only Dublin had a better defensive record than them in this year's Allianz League and, intriguingly, the pair are tied on an impressively low average giveaway of 12.25 points per game in the championship.


So, as Gavin worked through his plans, how will he have figured on getting snipers into shooting positions around the 'D' without being surrounded by a phalanx of white and red?

And is there another way? Should he play Diarmuid Connolly, who has been absent through suspension since early June?

Bringing him on as a sub might appear to be the structured way of reintroducing him to the fast lane but can Gavin afford to wait?

Connolly is capable of picking off points from wider angles and less space than most. He's that bit different - exactly what's required against Tyrone's precision-based resistance.

Gavin would also have noticed the smothering job Cathal McCarron did on Jamie Clarke, the powerful ball-carrying of Peter Harte (pictured), Mattie Donnelly, Niall Sludden and Tiernan McCann and the superb covering role, executed so intelligently by Colm Cavanagh.

Westmeath, Kildare and Monaghan came nowhere close to imposing that sort of pressure on Dublin. Curiously enough, Carlow did - for the first half anyway - which was a tribute to the tactical nous of manager Turlough O'Brien.

They troubled Dublin but were gradually worn down by the sheer depth of power and creativity confronting them.

Tyrone are much better technically equipped than Carlow to take on such a big challenge and, unlike so many of Dublin's opponents, have no psychological hang-ups either.

When Gavin took over in Dublin at the start of the 2013 season, he would have expected to come across Tyrone sooner rather than later. And he did too, twice in that season's league, with each side winning by a point.

Crucially though, Dublin's win was in the final, giving Gavin the best possible start to his managerial career.

"Tyrone are in the same cycle as we are. I think, they will have a big say in where Sam Maguire goes this year," said Gavin afterwards.

It didn't quite work out for Tyrone. Donegal dumped them out of the Ulster championship early on and while they reached the All-Ireland semi-final via the qualifiers, Mayo beat them by six points.

Dublin and Tyrone didn't meet in the championship over the next three seasons either, leaving tomorrow's clash as the first between the counties since 2011.

That was an important game in Dublin's development under Pat Gilroy as they beat Tyrone for a second successive season, helping considerably in the process of building towards an All-Ireland success, which came later that year.

Having won the 2005 and 2008 All-Irelands, wins over Tyrone were savoured as major triumphs by every county around 2010-11, although obviously not in the same category as a victory over Dublin would be now.

It leaves Gavin in the role of title-holder, preparing for a showdown with a former champion, who knows every trick in the trade.

While this will be the first time they have met on a championship sideline, their five league games have been very close.

Dublin won two by a point, Tyrone won one by a point, while the other two were drawn, including this year.

Tyrone led Dublin by five points in Croke Park in the second round last February but were hauled back in the closing ten minutes, leaving Gavin very pleased with the draw.

Having come up from Division 2, Tyrone had to put in more work than Dublin before the start of the league and it showed at various stages.

Indeed, if Tyrone didn't have Mark Bradley red-carded, it's likely that they would have claimed a sizeable scalp, not just in league terms but also earning the distinction of ending Dublin's unbeaten run which was heading for two years.

"It was the earlier part of the season for us as we were just back from the team break so the positive for me was that with 60 (minutes) on the clock, at five or six points down, we still stuck with it.

"Of the cycle that we are in, this game will be played in the 33rd week of the year, as opposed to the fourth or fifth week. So, in that context, it was a satisfying result for us," said Gavin last week.

His message to Tyrone was clear: we were only warming up when you drew with us - wait until you experience our August power.

Despite that, Gavin and his squad know the dangers lurking in tomorrow's test. Donegal, under Jim McGuinness, out-manoeuvred them in the 2014 semi-final and with the vastly-experienced Harte plotting this time, the risks are high.

This is the best squad Tyrone have had for quite some time, allowing Harte to get back to what he did so brilliantly in the earlier years of his stewardship when he was dealing with the most talented group the county ever produced.

It will be fascinating to see how Tyrone's defensive lockdown functions against the slick movement by the Dublin attack.

It will be consistently demanding on both fronts, with the Dublin attack confronted by a ferocity not experienced for a long time, while the Tyrone defence face a precision and mobility they have not previously encountered.

Of course, there's more to the Tyrone team than a sound security system. They have amassed high scores in all four championship games this year, although that has to be measured against the lack of quality among the opposition.


The 1-21 against Donegal - the only Division 1 opposition they met - was flagged as a genuine indicator of Tyrone's increased enterprise but even that looked suspect a few weeks later when Galway put 4-17 on the hapless Tír Chonaill men.

Now, the big question for Tyrone is whether they can keep their strike-rate up against a high-class defence. They failed last year, scoring only 0-12 against Mayo in the quarter-final, which they lost by a point.

In fairness, they would probably have won if Seán Cavanagh wasn't dismissed on the hour mark. A year on, he's still a major contributor, the only on-field link with the All-Ireland-winning teams of 2003, '05 and '08.

Off-field, Harte is still there, having adapted to the changing times and now trying to build a new era for Tyrone.

Dublin and Gavin are right to be wary of him and his latest Red Hand model.

Irish Independent

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