We had the first full house of the season, three counties from the north descending on Dublin with the hope we would get two competitive quarter-finals.
As I walked through Fairview on my way up to Croke Park a couple of tourists walked past, two of them wearing Liverpool jerseys. It was only then I remembered there was A soccer friendly on in the Aviva where Liverpool were facing Athletic Bilbao. I laughed to myself thinking they were walking the wrong direction, why head to the far side of the city to see a friendly? Turns out they likely saw a contest with similar levels of competitiveness than what was served up across the afternoon on Jones Road.
While I expected both Tyrone and Dublin to win, it was the total ease at which both progressed that was surprising. There wasn’t any stage in either game where there was any doubt about the result. Neither Armagh nor Monaghan even had a purple patch which saw them get on top for a period of time or run off some scores in succession. It meant Tyrone and Dublin were never forced to react or up a gear at any stage to make the game safe.
On days like this, the hardest question is often what did we learn? From a Dublin perspective the first port of call was the make-up of the starting team. When the team was released on Friday evening the general consensus was that it was a dummy selection — Cian O’Sullivan at 3, Jonny Cooper at 5 and most interestingly Jack McCaffrey at 12 all looked somewhat suspicious.
The fact McCaffrey was named in the forwards leaving only five natural forwards starting lent itself to the thought process that there would be late changes (not that dummy teams or late changes are anything new these days)
However, the 15 named did start the game. There were some obvious positional changes — Cooper back to full-back, O’Sullivan to centre-back with Eric Lowndes who was named at No. 7 taking up the wing forward role as McCaffrey returned to his familiar left half-back slot.
This is something we haven’t seen before from Dublin, an extra defender named as a forward. In the past, we’ve seen the opposite where Jim Gavin has removed a wing-back and allowed Ciaran Kilkenny the freedom to attack, particularly against teams who drop their own forwards back into defence. So why pick Lowndes at wing-forward when there is an abundance of attacking talent on the bench?
It appeared to me it was to do a job on Monaghan’s attacking wing-back Karl O’Connell. That was the immediate reason for doing it but as good a player as O’Connell is I think it was more a move with an eye as to what could be coming down the line.
Watching Tyrone in the opening game, they effectively play one full-time forward in Mark Bradley and then have a number of runners who continuously get up and down the pitch. Was Lowndes’s role on O’Connell a trial for how Dublin would look to mark a Peter Harte or Mattie Donnelly?
The early tell-tale sign that this wasn’t going to be much of a contest was watching the Monaghan reaction — or lack of it to the first few Dublin kick outs. They had obviously decided to allow Stephen Cluxton an option short every time and at no stage did they attempt to change this approach. You cannot give Dublin a free possession from every kickout and expect to stay in the game for too long.
On a mainly unmemorable evening, the performance of Cluxton on the day he broke the championship appearances record is worth noting. While never challenged on his kickouts, he was still his usual efficient self with his restarts as well as adding in some excellent one on one saves.
Similar to the Leinster final when he made a superb save from Daniel Flynn, he again showed the quality of his positioning and reflexes to deny Jack McCarron and Conor McManus from close range to ensure another clean sheet.
The return of Paul Flynn and Michael Darragh Macauley will also be a big positive for Gavin as he knows the game-time they got into their legs on Saturday will stand to them as the pace of the Tyrone match in three weeks’ time will be significantly higher. So while we didn’t get what we hoped this weekend, what is on the horizon in three weeks’ time should be worth the wait. Let’s hope so.