Tyrone must summon bulletproof togetherness and bravery

Croke Park will surely be filled with a very different type of atmosphere next Sunday afternoon than the peaceful holiness brought by Pope Francis last weekend.

Tyrone must summon bulletproof togetherness and bravery

Harmony and tranquillity can have no place if there is to be a genuine contest for Sam Maguire worth talking about.

This summer of Gaelic football is longing for a cracking final to give the sport a shot in the arm and allow all of us supporters the opportunity to feel proud of our game again.

But let’s be honest, there is not any traditional sense of expectation that a great final is going to take place.

This won’t be a classic like Dublin and Mayo last year. It’s not going to be a shootout. And it may not have you on the edge of your seat for much of the afternoon (if at all).

I watched a fascinating piece on Saturday afternoon on offtheball.com with former Tyrone footballers Brian McGuigan, Mark Harte and Kevin Hughes in studio previewing their documentary; Tír Eoghain: The Unbreakable Bond, which was broadcast on TG4 on Sunday night. The story focuses on their journey as minors in 1997 and ’98, and briefly through to the successes they enjoyed at senior level during the Noughties.

They spoke about how they were catapulted into a situation which forced them to mature much quicker than most 17 and 18-year-olds must, because of the series of tragic personal losses they endured as a group.

Their minor teammate Paul McGirr passed away after an accidental collision on the field of play while scoring a goal against Armagh. The players only got the call to let them know he had died as they were at home getting ready to go out celebrating after the game.

Former midfielder Kevin Hughes tragically lost his older brother in a car accident only a few short months later. And further still down the line they lost Cormac McAnallen in his sleep and Mickey Harte’s daughter Michaela in such awful circumstances while abroad on honeymoon in 2011.

Cormac McAnallen
Cormac McAnallen

There are very few GAA communities who haven’t been touched by the tragic loss of young life, but that Tyrone group appeared to be more profoundly affected than most. It was their response to those incredibly difficult times that was inspiring to as many outside their county as to those within it.

During that Off The Ball Saturday panel, Mark Harte was speaking about his father; “the type of personality he has, he doesn’t let things go that easy”. He was recounting the pursuit of the Tommy Markham cup with the Tyrone minors in 1998 having been beaten by Laois in ’97, but that character trait hasn’t left Harte Sr just yet. Just ask RTÉ.

That special Tyrone team, bonded by such incredible shared loss, is long gone now, with only Colm Cavanagh surviving since their last All-Ireland victory in 2008. But you get the strong sense, even though those players have moved on, those experiences and the sense of purpose that emerged from them profoundly changed the direction and belief within Tyrone football for ever more.

Mickey Harte and his management team have had three weeks to devise a strategy to try and bring down a Dublin team that looks the far more likely winners next weekend. Coming up with a plan is the easy part. Executing it when faced with the might of the Dubs in the flesh is an entirely different proposition.

Last year’s All-Ireland semi-final meeting between the same two teams saw the Dubs cruise to a 12-point victory in a contest that was wrapped up long before the final whistle. If Tyrone come with the same conservatism, they should expect the same drubbing.

I appreciate it gets repetitive, but kickouts are still the bedrock of Gaelic football.

If Tyrone just turn on their heels when they kick the ball dead and start running back into their defensive formation they are really hurting their chances of success. They might keep it closer for longer but winning will be impossible if Stephen Cluxton is in the high 90% for kickout completion.

It’s easy to put down on paper, but the Tyrone forwards, midfielders, and half-backs will have to at least try to put pressure on the Dublin restarts — if not every kickout, at least in bursts. Zone, man to man, mix it up. Try something to pilfer one or two to take some pressure off your defence and provide a few more bullets for your attackers.

Tyrone no longer have the inside snipers like Owen Mulligan, Steven O’Neill, or Peter Canavan who could get five possessions all day and finish with 1-4. They could be economical and deadly.

They need to give the likes of Niall Sludden and Conor McAliskey as many scoring opportunities as possible, and that must start with a focus on the restarts — both from Stephen Cluxton and Niall Morgan.

Rest assured, Dublin will put plenty of heat on the Tyrone kickouts and will test the accuracy of Morgan and the ball-winning ability of his receivers out the field.

Another strange quandary for Tyrone next Sunday will be how they protect a guy who has been one their best performers all season — Colm Cavanagh.

Cavanagh’s experience will be crucial as Tyrone look to stop Dublin’s dominance
Cavanagh’s experience will be crucial as Tyrone look to stop Dublin’s dominance

By ‘protect’, I mean he’s probably one of the few Tyrone players without the pace to cope with the athleticism of Dublin. Brian Fenton or James McCarthy would expose him one on one in a flash, but if he sits back protecting his square, as he has done so effectively all year, Dublin are too cute to kick ball down his throat and make a hero out of him.

They will find the free man and make sure he is pulling the strings and gets more possessions than anybody else on the field.

Dublin have seen it all before. They won’t panic if Tyrone pull everybody back inside their own 45 and try to smother them with numbers and hit them on the counter-attack. They’ll just keep the ball. Knock it around from one side to the other and wait for an opening or an opportunity to draw a foul.

They won’t mind winning it 10-7 if that’s what the rules of engagement require.

It won’t be pretty. Most probably a Dublin midfielder or defender will win Man of the Match on Sunday night, because if Tyrone do collapse back into a big zone defence, it will be the Johnny Coopers and Phillys who will be handling most of the ball.

The prize: Dublin are looking for a 28th title, while Tyrone have won three titles - all between 2003 and ’08
The prize: Dublin are looking for a 28th title, while Tyrone have won three titles - all between 2003 and ’08

In a one-off game in any sport, any result is possible. The chance exists that Tyrone could stifle Dublin and get enough scores on the break to shock the GAA world next weekend. They will need to summon every ounce of the bulletproof belief and togetherness of the last great Tyrone squad who overcame such personal tragedy off the field on their way to the top table of Gaelic football for the best part of a decade on it.

The possibility also exists, however, that Dublin could do what they did last year to their zone and tear them asunder.

I hope, for the good of Gaelic football, that we get a great game. Everyone knows Dublin hold all the aces and plenty more on the bench. They are much further down the line that Tyrone in terms of their game intelligence and barring a significant injury or early sending-off, this is a game that Dublin should not lose to seal an utterly remarkable four in a row.

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