Sunday 21 July 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: Tyrone must bring back hostility of old to rattle Dubs

Red Hands have plenty of quality and their running game is impressive, but Gavin's workhorses will be ready for ambush

Tyrone’s Niall Sludden celebrates with team-mate Connor McAliskey after scoring his team’s opening goal against Roscommon last weekend. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Tyrone’s Niall Sludden celebrates with team-mate Connor McAliskey after scoring his team’s opening goal against Roscommon last weekend. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

We always hated league games in Omagh because the only certainty coming your way up there was a belly-full of bite and needle.

You were guaranteed some kind of row, it's just how they were programmed to be as hosts. Give these boys a rattle. Get in their faces. Let them know whose town this is. Now, personally, I never really associated that attitude with Mickey Harte. To me, the intensity of that Tyrone team was player-driven.

It was something that came from the Riceys and Conor Gormleys and Philip Jordans. Tough, hard men who made Omagh a horrible place to go.

So the temptation was always there for visitors to over-heat, to lose composure. Which is precisely what we saw 12 years ago when Dublin got sucked into the infamous 'Battle of Omagh'.

Tyrone’s runners will pose a threat to Dublin, for whom Stephen Cluxton will be crcuial as always. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Tyrone’s runners will pose a threat to Dublin, for whom Stephen Cluxton will be crcuial as always. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

The place almost felt like a challenge to your toughness. Coming out of there with a win offered validation. It meant you wouldn't be intimidated. But that was then and this is now.

The whole tenor of Omagh began to change when that great team broke up. I mean, my last game in Healy Park was in the 2013 league and they stood right off us in the first half. I scored two points that day, was named man of the match and came away thinking it was a place that had lost its edge.

Tyrone even seem to have mixed feelings about the venue now and it's fair to say their recent record there doesn't suggest it's any kind of fortress. But if ever they needed to make a field their own, tonight is the night.

The Dubs are coming to town again and it's clear that same fear is no longer there for visiting teams. Why? Because Tyrone now just don't have those characters, people like Ricey to do something wild that might change the whole energy around a game. Something that would get the whole team, the whole ground, angry.

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That wildness is gone and, accordingly, Tyrone's shadow is diminished.

Now one thing I'm pretty sure of is that tonight won't be a repeat of the farce we got in Croke Park last August. And that WAS a farce. The Dubs made a complete mockery of Tyrone's system. If nothing else, Harte's players will surely be determined tonight to make that non-performance look an aberration.

And this is just the kind of game in which a team can make a massive statement.

I still stand over my conviction that there isn't an All-Ireland in this Tyrone team. But you'd have to say there's something glorious about Harte's stubbornness too. About his style of sticking to his guns, digging his heels in.

It's clear that there are some people baying for change in Tyrone and they're hardly going to go away anytime soon. But a big performance tonight could, at least, subdue the negativity for now. It certainly won't kill it. Nothing short of a fourth All-Ireland for the county will do that.

But let me say this: I think Tyrone have up to 11 footballers today who would walk on to nearly any other inter-county team. They have the best scoring defenders in the country.

I can't wait to see what Dublin's plan is for Tyrone's runners. My suspicion is that we're about to get a lesson in how to slow those runners down. And if that happens, if Dublin stifle the Tyrone runners, what will be Mickey's Plan B? Does he have one?

Two qualities really define this Dublin team for me. The first is work-rate. The second is the number of leaders they have around the field (something Kerry could really do with in Clones). Dublin simply have more 'go-to' guys than any other team.

People gave them grief for, effectively, playing keep-ball in the last 15 minutes against Donegal last Saturday. To me, they were giving out about the wrong team. It was Donegal's responsibility to chase the game, but they just weren't willing to commit enough bodies forward. It was clear they were too afraid of the counter-punch.

But this weekend is exactly why the 'Super 8s' model makes sense: Kerry having to go and fight for their lives in Clones, Kildare getting a shot at Galway in Newbridge, Donegal having to get a result in Roscommon, and the Dubs going to Omagh to find out for us all whether or not Tyrone have become a different animal.

So have they?

Let's be honest, Roscommon were shocking. I knew beforehand that there were serious question-marks over their full-back line, given we'd seen in Portlaoise that Armagh nearly got a score every time they attacked them.

Like I can see what Eamonn Fitzmaurice means when he talks about punditry being too black and white - I fall into that trap myself. I would have been one of those raving about the quality of that game when, maybe, I should have been paying more attention to the quality (or lack of) defending on show.

The key last Saturday was Roscommon's struggle with the Tyrone runners. Fellas follow whoever is on the ball, but it's always the support runner who does the damage. The second, third and fourth runner.

What we saw from those runners was just how brilliantly conditioned this Tyrone team are. Someone said to me over the weekend that Niall Sludden was 'The Richie Hogan of football' and I took a fit of laughing when I heard that.

They're actually like two peas in a pod. Not only does Sludden look like Hogan, but they're both incredibly creative. They can both manufacture a score out of nothing.

Tyrone's preference is always to run with the ball rather than kick long. They prefer to pick holes rather than launch a big bomb. This is a team that simply doesn't trust the long delivery.

In many ways, they don't need it. Look at the way their defenders arrive on the shoulder of the ball carrier, the likes of Ronan McNamee, Tiernan McCann, Michael McKernan and Peter Harte.

That support running is incredible. Honestly, I thoroughly enjoyed watching them against Roscommon because of it, because of that sense of men absolutely hungry to get on the ball.

But this, remember, was against a flyweight. Tonight they're going up a heap of weight divisions.

And if Dublin stop their runners, I think they know that Tyrone still won't kick long even though Lee Brennan is back from injury and Connor McAliskey is flying. They'll try to work it around the arc like the Dubs did to them last August. And, hand on heart, that - to me - is where this game is won for Dublin.

Because I don't believe Tyrone have the players to play that game.

They'll make life difficult for Jim Gavin's men, I don't doubt that. The central defensive performances of Colm Cavanagh and Frank Burns have been really impressive, putting fires out wherever one might spark. But one thing they'll find tonight is that Dublin won't be afraid to launch balls in over their heads.

Every Dublin forward has the strength to be a ball-winner. I mean, arguably, their two most creative forwards, Con O'Callaghan and Paul Mannion, haven't really been firing. But they take so much focus off the likes of Niall Scully, that he's almost become a ghost.

I remember him getting similar goals against Mayo and Kerry in the league to the two he got on Saturday.

Overall, Dublin were sloppy against Donegal, yet they always looked to me like they had the game under control. They will push right up on Tyrone this evening but, in doing that, they've got to be careful too. Niall Morgan's kick-outs are excellent and, if he gets a ball in behind the Dublin numbers, it could be dangerous.

Then again, he'll have the absolute master of that art at the far end of the field. For all the Dubs' sloppiness, Stephen Cluxton gave an absolute exhibition - he landed 23 out of 25 kick-outs into Dublin hands. That's a strike-rate nobody else comes close to matching.

The man's consistency is ridiculous.

The key men for Dublin last Saturday were Cluxton, Mick Fitzsimons, James McCarthy, Brian Howard, Brian Fenton and Scully. Other than those six? I'd be surprised if Gavin wasn't in a few ears this week, laying down some home truths.

But, hand on heart, this game is going to tell us more about Tyrone than Dublin. Because what happened them last August seemed a complete meltdown. They froze.

A lot has been made of the fact they've scored a total of 7-44 in their last two games. But what have they beaten? Cork were a disgrace and Roscommon have now conceded 12 goals in their last three visits to Croke Park.

So they still have it all to prove for me.

If the Dubs counter their running this evening, what do Tyrone do? Remember Monaghan beat them in the Ulster Championship and they did so picking holes in a defence that some would have us believe is watertight.

Personally, I think Dublin will welcome the intensity of Omagh. I think Gavin, particularly, will welcome it. And we've seen the quality of players coming through from what is, clearly, the most intensive training environment in the country.

Howard was terrific on Saturday, as was Eoin Murchan. Already these kids look to the manor born and that's because, every week, they're in against some of the best footballers that we've seen.

Now I suspect Sean Cavanagh might have been playing mind games last weekend when he talked about Dublin being a defensive team.

I mean if McKernan is, say, marking Dean Rock this evening and he chooses to make a run up the field, Rock has to follow. It's just not an option to leave him off. Just imagine the reddening Rock would get in the dressing-room if he just lets McKernan go?

But that's all Dublin are doing in terms of defensive numbers - following their men. Cian O'Sullivan will play sweeper so long as he's not pushed up on. And he won't be this evening.

So, yes, you can get that still frame showing 13 blue jerseys behind the ball. But look what happens when they force a turnover. Look at the pace and imagination of their transitioning.

The point I'd make is that Dublin don't have bodies back just for the sake of it. Ultra-defensive teams do. So I think Sean was being a little disingenuous there.

If Dublin get away from Tyrone this evening, they could kill the atmosphere and the game could actually end up being a damp squib.

I hope that doesn't happen because I reckon this is exactly the kind of occasion the 'Super 8s' were brought in to create - a small ground with a huge fixture.

I suspect it's going to be close. But Dublin will win.

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