Tyrone got off to the perfect start. They brought huge energy and set upon any pondering Dub with a ravenous work-rate and forced them into 19 turnovers, which surely must be their highest total of the summer. When Dean Rock missed two very kickable frees inside the opening 10 minutes, they looked unusually unsettled, like a team who hadn’t been there before.
Tyrone won two of Cluxton’s kickouts in the space of about 60 seconds between the eighth and ninth minute and scored from both. Before you knew it, they had forged ahead into a 0-5 to 0-1 lead over the reigning champions.
It was shaping up as the ideal scenario for the neutral. We even allowed ourselves a moment to think we might just get a proper game here.
Tyrone’s game plan was working a treat until the inevitable punch in the mouth came. Dublin had started the game man to man against Niall Morgan’s kickouts, and he was pinging ball to players who started centrally in a cluster, before breaking out towards either side line. It was working perfectly early on.
When the Dubs switched to a zone in the 19th minute and protected against those runs to the side line, it changed the game. Ciarán Kilkenny won possession from a misplaced restart down the middle, he shifted it
to Con O’Callaghan and it ultimately led to the Paul Mannion penalty goal.
Dublin won three kickouts in a row in the next three minutes with their zone and rattled off 1-2.
Soon after, a super piece of skill by Con O’Callaghan to weave a sliver of thinking space inside the Tyrone defence, and a perfectly timed off load to Niall Scully produced the second of a two-punch combination.
That second goal originated from a moment that would surely drive Mickey Harte and every coach and manager in the country completely bonkers. Tyrone number 25 Conor Meyler pursued Johnny Cooper towards the Hogan Stand side hunting a break. It was the type of scenario they would have practised a few thousand times, a situation screaming out for disciplined tackling technique.
It was a three on one as Cooper went to pick up the ball surrounded by white jerseys and hemmed in by the side line. There was no escape for the Dublin defender until Meyler bailed him out by blatantly pushing him in the back and then allowing him to take the free quickly. Ten to 15 seconds later it was in the back of the Tyrone net.
That score was typical Dublin unselfishness and cool-headed decision-making, when everything around O’Callaghan moved in a blur.
The wave of inevitability swept through Croke Park like a tsunami originating from Hill 16.
It’s not an easy thing to always do what you’re supposed to do, and live up to everybody’s expectations more often than not, but it’s what this Dublin side under Jim Gavin always seem to do. They handle that huge weight of expectation and come up with the answers to whatever questions are thrown at them.
However, like they’ve done so many times in this recent run, the unflappable Dubs thought on their feet and came up with the solutions.
After 17 minutes of being on the rack, for the first time since throw-in, Dublin flooded bodies back inside their 65 to slow down the frenetic pace of the game. They weren’t in control of the tempo up to that point, but wrestled it back in the next few minutes.
As hard as Tyrone tried, like every other team in the past four seasons, they just didn’t have enough. There’s no shame in that, but whenever they look back at it, there were a number of self-inflicted blows that didn’t help their cause.
The kickouts were a problem for Tyrone throughout the game. While some were uncontested, even when the challengers tried, they couldn’t sustain any real pressure on Cluxton’s restarts. Dublin went 29 of 31 over the entire game and a flawless 16 of 16 in the second half. That’s not just down to the confidence and ability of Cluxton to find his men, a 94% success rate also highlights the willingness and athleticism of the receivers out the field to keep making hard runs to get open.
I felt sure we would see something different from Harte when Tyrone had the opportunity to set something up on a Cluxton kick-out, and to be fair they did offer up a zone defence for a spell in the first half.
However, there were other opportunities during the game where Tyrone had a free in, where they could have used the break in play to set up the type of big zone like we saw from Kerry, with three banks of four bodies spread across the field to force him into kicking the ball into a contest.
In the second half, the majority of their kickout defence didn’t ask any hard questions.
I’ll never understand the logic of giving the opposition a stream of uncontested possession with which to build their attack, especially an attack as potent as Dublin’s.
If their first problem was a strategic one, the second one was all about their execution. By my calculations, Tyrone missed 17 scoring chances by either kicking wide or dropping it short into the keeper’s hands.
As those missed opportunities mounted for the Red Hand, their margin of error shrunk, and sucked the life out of their challenge. Some of those misses were shots taken under pressure, others were just poor decisions.
That lack of attacking edge has long been the knock on this Tyrone team, and that absence of marquee forwards manifested itself again in the accumulation of missed chances. Mark Bradley could do no more and for long spells was occupying two defenders with his movement and clever play, but one forward causing real problems was never going to be enough.
Dublin, by contrast, were the epitome of offensive efficiency in that second half and, while dropping two efforts short, they kicked no wides in the 42 minutes played.
Four All-Ireland titles in a row is a mind-boggling achievement, and one nobody in Gaelic football thought was possible a decade ago.
For all the influx of new players, most of them are coming in the Dublin attacking half of the field. This four in a row has been built on a foundation of stability and familiarity between their goalkeeper, defence, and midfield.
Since the start of this run in the 2015 final, Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan, Johnny Cooper, Jack McCaffrey, James McCarty and Brian Fenton have been virtual ever-presents. That’s seven of their back nine who are the recurring bedrock of what Jim Gavin has built.
If you want to know what makes them tick, start there.