By Brendan O’Brien, Healy Park, Omagh
All-Ireland champions Dublin made the long journey back to the capital with another Super 8 win - and a place in an All-Ireland semi-final - in the bag tonight.
Jim Gavin’s side demonstrated that the road beyond Croke Park holds no fears for them but they were pushed every step of the way over 77 minutes of intense championship football by the hosts.
Reports from earlier in the week of the pitch being narrowed by half-a-dozen metres appeared to be slightly overdone but Tyrone still did their best to squeeze the visitors into a vice grips by pushing up on the Dublin kickouts and harrying and chasing without cease.
For a time anyway – and it paid dividends while it lasted.
There was a sense of the inevitable just three minutes in last summer when these two met in an All-Ireland semi-final, Con O’Callaghan’s early goal puncturing the balloon that represented the hopes of a Red Hand assault.
No such hammer crushed Ulster hopes this time with the first-half a cagey enough affair that made up in intensity and intrigue what it lacked in outright spectacle in front of a Healy Park crowd of 16,205 souls.
Tyrone could have won all three of Stephen Cluxton’s initial kick-outs but ended up scavenging none and they could rue a number of other buts and maybes, including Connor McAliskey’s free which clattered back high off a post.
Dublin had their own share of near misses. Seven times they failed to find the target with their shooting boots in the opening 35 and the game was finely balanced through the first quarter and a bit with both having landed three points apiece.
Three consecutive points from the All-Ireland champions followed in quick enough succession after that and there was a sense there and then that the game as a contest was entering dangerous territory.
That Tyrone needed to surf the choppy waves to the break.
It was evident in the manner in which Dublin were now claiming their kickouts without an opponent or two hounding them for ownership rights, and the gaps that appeared here and there as the game stretched ever so slightly beyond its initial skin.
Mickey Harte’s men managed that. Two of the next three scores claimed kept the deficit at just two points at the interval, although Tyrone did suffer the loss of full-back Ronan McNamee to injury shortly before the pause.
An even bigger blow arrived five minutes into the second-half with James McCarthy sauntering through the centre of the Tyrone defence, aiming a shot at goalkeeper Niall Morgan and then reacting the quickest to flick the loose rebound into the net.
It was a score that left Dublin five points in front.
A tip of the hat to Tyrone, then. There was no fade away, no acceptance of their supposed station. Even when, having responded to the concession of the goal with a pair of points, Dublin kicked on again with a hat-trick of their own.
With the clock approaching red, only that McCarthy goal separated them. Healy Park bucked and roared as Tyrone pressed and 13 sky blue jerseys retreated behind their own ‘45’ in front of Cluxton and the away goal where the away fans had concentrated.
A Tyrone goal was unlikely. They had managed just two of the briefest sniffs of a green flag, if that, up to then but the very possibility of an upset, of something to tell the grandchildren, lent the closing stages a feverish quality.
Kieran McGeary kicked a point to bring the gap to two, but a wayward free from Ronan O’Neill stalled the story of the summer with just over two minutes of injury-time to go before Paul Flynn claimed the last say of the evening.
Scorers for Tyrone: P Harte (0-3, 2 frees); C McShane and K McGeary (both 0-2); C McAliskey (0-2, 1 free); M McKernan, T McCann, F Burns, M Bradley and H Loughran (all 0-1).
Scorers for Dublin: D Rock (0-6, 4 frees); J McCarthy (1-0); C Kilkenny (0-2); J McCaffrey, B Howard, P McMahon, J Small, P Flynn and K McManamon (all 0-1).
Tyrone: N Morgan; HP McGeary, R McNamee, M McKernan; T McCann, M Donnelly, F Burns; C Cavanagh, P Hampsey; N Sludden, P Harte, C Meyler; C McShane, R Donnelly, C McAliskey. Subs: R Brennan for McNamee (35 + 3); M Bradley for McAliskey (53); K McGeary for Burns (53); D McClure for Cavanagh (60); H Loughran for Meyler (65); R O’Neill for Sludden (72).
Dublin: S Cluxton; J Cooper, P McMahon, E Murchan; J Small, C O’Sullivan, J McCaffrey; B Fenton, J McCarthy; N Scully, C O’Callaghan, B Howard; D Rock, C Kilkenny, P Mannion. Subs: C Costello for Mannion (46); K McManamon for Scully (51); M Fitzsimons for McMahon (57); P Flynn for Howard (60); D Daly for Small (65); MD Macauley for McCarthy (68).
Referee: D Coldrick (Meath).