All may not be quite as it seems

Allianz FL Division 1 final
Dublin v Tyrone
It seems strangely appropriate that Tyrone should contest tomorrow’s league final with Dublin.

ARM WRESTLE: Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly gets away from Tyrone's Justin McMahon and Sean Cavanagh  during the Allianz NFL Division 1 clash in March. Picture: Pat Murphy/Sportsfile

In these days when it appears de rigueur for some managers to downplay the significance of the league, Mickey Harte has never once tried to shy away from his love affair with the bridesmaid of Gaelic Football.

It’s hard to believe it is 10 years since Tyrone actually won the league title but even in their worst days in 2010, when they lost five games on their way to relegation, they always appeared to be serious about the competition. Indeed it was only in the two seasons in Division 2, 2011 and 2012, that we began to understand how winning league matches in spring was index linked to how Tyrone performed in summer.

Now they are back winning matches in Division 1, the consensus is that Tyrone are set for a good summer.

Despite being a firm believer in the correlation between league and championship success, I remain unconvinced of Tyrone’s credentials this year. Perhaps a solid performance against Dublin tomorrow would persuade me of their potential but I believe this Tyrone outfit to be still somewhat off the required standard to challenge in September. One of the principal factors in Tyrone’s early season form has, I believe, been down to their advanced levels of fitness compared to that of some of the other teams they faced this spring. Only when those teams catch up to Tyrone’s impressive levels of intensity can the true value of Tyrone’s league campaign be known.

For now, all we have to go on are the one or two performances that Tyrone gave in matches we imagine they would have targeted as benchmarks from the outset. One such match would have been their game against Donegal in Omagh in early March and another, the Dublin game in Croke Park on St Patrick’s weekend.

Both games resulted in victory for Tyrone and became the springboard for what was a successful league campaign. But both victories come with caveats that need further examination. Tyrone dug out a win over Donegal in a game that saw Michael Murphy sent off and Rory Kavanagh miss a penalty.

The asterisk beside their one-point win over Dublin points to a Dublin team shorn of key performers like Stephen Cluxton, Rory O’Carroll and Bernard Brogan and to a series of cynical fouls by a Tyrone team desperately clinging on to their lead in the last five minutes. Tyrone left the playing area in Croke Park that night to a chorus of boos from the home fans and might inadvertently have done more to change the face of the game by convincing the authorities of the need to overhaul the way the game is being refereed. Time will tell.

One recurring theme in Tyrone’s league run this year has been the good form of Stephen O’Neill and Mark Donnelly in attack. Only Cork managed to stifle the threat of these two players all season and the meagre eight points Tyrone scored that day reflects that.

Seán Cavanagh for all his experience and craft is still only finding his feet after such a long lay-off and if Pádraig O Neill’s three early scores for Kildare in the semi-final a fortnight ago are any indication, Cavanagh needs to find a role that demands less responsibility from their midfielders. Certainly, the days of him roaming with impunity, picking upon loose play, reading breaks and coming off the shoulder of colleagues are long gone and he must recognise he no longer has the freedom to play anywhere that suits his whims.

Kildare’s two goals in the semi-final pointed to a vulnerability in the Tyrone rearguard that was unimaginable a few years back. For the first goal John Doyle initiated a move that continued with Paul Cribbin and ended up with Paddy Brophy finishing to the net. The second goal on the hour mark owed as much to uncertainty at the back as it did to Eoghan O’Flaherty’s guile or Cribbin’s athleticism. If this uncertainty and hesitancy is evident tomorrow, Dublin will profit and it would be worrying for Mickey Harte if such vulnerability was still evident ahead of the big test against Donegal in a month’s time.

There were indications in the first 10 minutes of their league semi-final against Mayo that Dublin can still be ‘got at’ the old fashioned way- by putting pressure on Stephen Cluxton’s kickout. Unfortunately from Mayo’s point of view and indeed from the game’s point of view, the contest was over after the next five minutes during which Dublin scored 2-1 and Cluxton restored his instinctive ability to find his man from Dublin kickouts.

I’ve been banging on about Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion since the start of the league and while there is no doubt that they both possess some of the most exciting talent to emerge in some time, I have yet to see them have to dig out a performance. This is principally because we rarely see McCaffrey on the back-foot (although I suspect he’s quite adept at that too) and we don’t really see Mannion having to win dirty ball (although I think he might just be able to look after himself). We haven’t seen this side to their game because they don’t have to show it due to having a constant stream of possession form Cluxton’s restarts.

In a seven minute period early in the second half against Mayo, Cluxton found Paul Flynn’s hands on three separate occasions from kickouts and even when Paul Flynn went off, his replacement, Bryan Cullen’s first act was to win another Cluxton laser guided delivery. In order to discover how Dublin might function on the back-foot, we’re going to have to see how a team might mess with their heads by getting to Cluxton early and often and sustaining that level of concentration for over 70 minutes.

The quality of the player that Dublin have available to spring from the bench in the last 20 minutes is where they have it over most teams at the moment. Last weekend’s challenge game against Galway only served to further highlight the depth of the talent pool with Rory O’Carroll, James McCarthy and Kevin Nolan, outstanding players all, re-emerging after a spring dogged by injury and illness. It’s only a matter of time before they welcome Ciarán Kilkenny back to the fold and after that, Alan Brogan might be in a position to add something to the mix.

Of course Jim Gavin can only use a maximum of 20 players against Tyrone tomorrow or indeed on any given match-day but the range and variety of options available to him are compelling.

I said at the outset it was hard to believe it was a decade since Tyrone’s last league title but it’s even harder to believe that Dublin’s last win came two decades ago. I doubt either of the squads on show tomorrow care much for history lessons but a bit of silverware to reward campaigns of commitment to the Allianz League 2013 wouldn’t do either any harm. Dublin should have enough to finish off the spring in style.

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