Mickey Harte’s man-to-man ploy key to keeping Dubs in check says PJ Cunningham
Dublin and Tyrone have had a thorny history going back over 34 years since they first met in the All-Ireland series.
That All-Ireland semi-final of 1984, which Dublin won, isn’t remembered for the quality of football but more for the audacious decision by the Red Hand squad to warm up in front of The Hill, usurping the Dubs normal pre-match routine.
Since then, whether it was in Toronto in an exhibition or in Omagh for a first round league match in 2006, it is true to say there has been no love lost between the counties.
And let’s not put a tooth in it – there will be a ‘mood’ in both camps as they take to the Croke Park pitch on Sunday to contest the 2018 All-Ireland final.
Under Mickey Harte, Tyrone won three finals in the noughties but haven’t come near since.
Last year, they were annihilated by the Dublin at the semi-final stage when Harte’s ultra-defensive policy was torn to shreds by a rampaging Dublin forward line within the opening quarter of an hour of play.
While the cagey defensive set-up persisted well into this summer, including the Super 8 clash with the reigning champions, something changed during that game that may be seen in retrospect as a “Eureka’ moment in Harte’s mind.
Although not running away with that match in Healy Park, the visitors were comfortably in control of proceedings until Harte decided that he would set his team up man-to-man on the Dubs.
That meant that with Cian O’Sullivan playing a similar role to Colm Kavanagh in screening his fullback line, the other 13 outfield players on either team went back to some old-fashioned man-marking chores.
And guess what happened – a game of football broke out. Tyrone, shorn of their ultra cautious shackles, started to press forward and cause the Dubs defence all sorts of problems.
They got the deficit back to a point in the closing minutes only for Dublin to surge ahead again and win by three points: 1-14 to 0-14.
In the All-Ireland semi-final against Monaghan – a side who had beaten Tyrone in Ulster this year by springing the Tyrone packed-defence trap – Harte went man to man except for his sweeper from the off at Croke Park.
It was as if he was accepting that dwelling mainly on a defensive system only got you so far, but no further against the top teams.
Without actually setting the world alight, they got past the Farney county in the semi-final and they are now seeking to cause the biggest shock in All-Ireland final day history since Seamus Darby scored the late goal to deprive Kerry of their five-in-a-row back in 1982.
Dublin, of course, are ‘only’ going for four-in-a-row on Sunday but the fall out of either victory or defeat will have serious consequences for both squads.
Jim Gavin has had unprecedented success and if the hiccup against Donegal in 2014 hadn’t occurred, he could be going for a six-in-a-row this weekend. That is quite mind-boggling to contemplate.
And yet, there are signs around this Dublin team that maintaining their winning streak is slowly beginning to take its toll.
Their backs look less assured and cohesive than two years ago and any forward line shorn of Diarmuid Connolly and Bernard Brogan’s threat, has to feel it is slightly less likely to deliver at crucial moments.
That is not to say that Gavin doesn’t possess the best-equipped 30 players to bring the Sam Maguire to Liffeyside for another year.
He does but just as Mick O’Dwyer and his Kerry players found 36 years ago, there will come a time when you go to the well and you end up with an empty bucket in your hands.
The bookies don’t think this scene will play out this weekend as they have installed the holders at 1/7 with Tyrone at a very tasty 11/2.
As former Finance Minister Charles McCreevy – a man who liked a wager – often said: “Anything over 6/4 in a two-horse race is an attractive bet.”
There is little doubt that Sunday’s pairing will also see the two fittest teams in the competition go head-to-head.
In Omagh last month – when Tyrone were criticised for narrowing the pitch by a few metres either side – it was evident that both sides finished strongly.
There is no hiding place in the wide open spaces of Croke Park and Gavin will set Dublin players up so that they use every inch to their advantage.
Last year, Tyrone were unhinged because Dublin went around their hard-core defensive phalanx and ended up kicking points from all angles and distances.
Gavin will also be aware that when Galway forced Dublin onto the back-foot in the first half, only a mixture of poor returns from placed balls – they missed a penalty and three frees – stopped the Westerners from establishing at least a three to four-point half-time lead.
Tyrone are much more economical with their score taking and if they get the chance to go for the jugular, they invariably take it.
They have talent all around their team but then so has Dublin. For Tyrone to win, they probably will need to do a ‘Donegal’ on their opponents by hitting them with a few early sucker punches – goals.
If they do that, they have the game management skills to keep ahead. The big question that then would have to be answered is – have Dublin acquired the nous since that last championship defeat to Donegal in 2014 to plug away and not panic, as they did then?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to that question, then next week we will all start to talk about something we thought had gone for another generation – a team going for five-in-a-row in 12 months time.
At the end of the day, they may have to go again which is why the draw bet at 14/1 is arguably worth a small punt.