Dublin v Tyrone
All-Ireland SFC Semi-final
THE theory goes that it has been for this game which Mickey Harte has plotted and planned for the best part of the last two years. He was hoping for an opportunity to dethrone Dublin last summer, but Seán Cavanagh’s sending-off and Mayo’s resilience intervened.
That may not have been a bad thing as perhaps, Tyrone weren’t quite ready 12 months ago. They certainly hadn’t perfected their counter-attacking style to the levels that has blitzed all before them in the past few months.
It can be argued that this will be Jim Gavin’s greatest test as Dublin manager, even more so than the 2014 semi-final against Donegal. He failed that examination and was forced to change the way that his team played, as a result. But since re-inventing Cian O’Sullivan as a sweeper (or a deeplying centre-back if you prefer), Dublin have been unbeaten in the Championship. That record is on the line here.
Tyrone’s greatest strength is they demand that the opposition play the game on their terms. Armagh were sucked into it in the quarter-final, as were Down in the Ulster final. Both teams drifted away from a style that had served them well all year and ended up being annihilated.
Gavin has the personnel not to get dragged into Tyrone’s type of game. He could leave Dean Rock, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion up as inside-forwards for the entire game. But the thing is that Dublin have never faced the storm that Tyrone are going to bring to Croke Park and it is impossible to know how players are going to react – especially as the summer has been such a stroll in the sun for them.
O’Callaghan has emerged as a star this year but he has yet to face the intensity that Tyrone will bring. How will the young Cuala star stand up to that sort of pressure?
Dublin’s best hope will be to hit Tyrone early. If they find the net within the first few minutes, this will be a different sort of game as the Ulster champions will have to chase it.
But if Tyrone get an early goal, how will Dublin will respond?
The spectre of Diarmuid Connolly hangs over this fixture, too. Gavin has not thrown in his temperamental star from the start as if there is one team that you do not want to face in your first game back, it is Tyrone.
And the tackling of Harte’s side has to be admired. They rarely concede frees — particularly in the scoring zone. This is vital against Dublin, given Rock’s accuracy. Indeed, Tyrone would have beaten Dublin in Croke Park last February but for the Dubs getting some soft frees towards the end.
That game swung on Mark Bradley’s dismissal and the diminutive forward has a key role to play this afternoon. When the game opens up with 20 minutes to go, Harte may call on Ronan O’Neill and Lee Brennan, but Bradley may get some help this afternoon in the form of David Mulgrew, rewarded for his two goals against Armagh, with a starting place here. What Harte has done with this Tyrone team has to be admired. He doesn’t have the stellar talents of the noughties. There is no Owen Mulligan, no Stephen O’Neill, no Brian McGuigan. So, he’s improvised.
Niall Sludden may not have the play-making genius of McGuigan, but he is asked to fill the same role and make the team tick around him. With no strikeforward like Mulligan or O’Neill, Harte has ensured that each of his players can come forward and shoot. Their spread of scorers – 11 different ones in the Ulster final – is very impressive.
It is hard to back against Dublin, unbeaten in the Championship since the 2014 semi-final defeat. And they have the likes of Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Bernard Brogan to call upon for the final 25 minutes.
Likewise, Tyrone haven’t beaten a top team in the Championship – Dublin, Kerry or Mayo – since 2008. In that time, they have lost twice to each of them.
But there’s something about Tyrone this year. If Sludden and Peter Harte are able to pull the strings, Tyrone will edge their way, cautiously, into an All-Ireland final.
Harte is treated by some as a curiosity in this country
TESTING TIMES: NEW DIRECTION: Dublin defender Cian O’Sullivan Mickey Harte Croke Park, 4.0pm, RTÉ 2/Sky Sports Arena HD Ref: D Coldrick (Meath)