THE bones of this captivating modern drama will have been all but picked clean by the time David Coldrick throws the ball in at Croke Park for the second of this season’s All-Ireland quarter-finals this afternoon.
It has been a mini-series laced with the good (Owen Mulligan’s wonder goal five years ago), the bad (Dublin’s disaster in ‘08) and, occasionally, even the ugly (the Battle of Omagh in ‘06).
Contrary to popular wisdom, the balance sheet is remarkably even since Mickey Harte assumed command up north in the winter of 2002, with Dublin managing to win four and draw one of their 10 meetings since.
Some assets are worth more than others, however, and those two August drubbings have enriched Tyrone’s portfolio far more than any victories in February or April have Dublin’s.
It was those summer losses to Tyrone, added to similarly painful defeats to Mayo and Kerry, that prompted Pat Gilroy to tear up Paul Caffrey’s blueprint and redesign the Dubs from scratch this season.
The dumbed down version of events would have it that Dublin have turned their backs on a Harlem Globetrotters tradition in favour of some version of Gaelic football ‘catenaccio’ but things are rarely that simple.
Caffrey’s Dubs may have ebbed and flowed on a tide of momentum for the most part but Gilroy’s predecessor wasn’t always adverse to a more utilitarian approach if circumstances demanded it.
Tyrone presented such circumstances more than once. Back in 2005, Dublin travelled to Healy Park in Omagh in mid-February on a day when any plans were blown away with a monstrous wind and Caffrey used Senan Connell as an auxiliary defender in the first-half.
Connell did well that day but a home goal on the brink of half-time gave Tyrone an eight-point buffer facing into the elements on the turnaround, and they held out with two points to spare.
Two years later, Derek Murray was the man appointed to the role of seventh defender on a night when the wind played a less significant part and on which the Croke Park lights were switched on for the first time.
Dublin lost narrowly yet again but those two defeats sandwiched a game that takes on far more significance given the more robust and defensive attitude the Leinster side will adapt today.
Enshrined within hours as the ‘Battle of Omagh’, it was an afternoon marred by 14 yellow cards, four reds and three mass brawls that, at one point, spilled over into the main stand in Healy Park.
The fallout was nuclear and dominated the GAA agenda for weeks but one of the more interesting viewpoints on what had transpired came from Joe Brolly, who spoke about it at the time on Newstalk.
“What really led to the needle was Dublin were getting the better of the exchanges,” said Brolly. “Dublin have learned a lot from what happened to them last year. Paul Caffrey has clearly now sown the seeds of this defensive, counter-attacking system that Tyrone and Armagh have developed over the years. Dublin were dropping their half-forward line into defence and Tyrone had no space. Eventually they got frustrated.”
Here was Gilroy’s blueprint writ large and to huge effect – Dublin won the match by three points – two years before the St Vincent’s man was handed the task of breaking the glass ceiling that would frustrate Caffrey.
Unfortunately for Dublin, they soon forgot the lessons taught to them by Tyrone in that 2005 championship replay and they paid a high price for it later that summer when Mayo caught them on the finishing line in the last four.
What followed was another winter of deep introspection, and when Dublin turned their minds towards another crack at the championship in 2007, Caffrey handed Collie Moran a special assignment.
“I would have played number 10 for most of the 2007 season,” said the former Dublin captain. “We played five or six games in the championship that year and it would have been a tactic for me to drop back as a seventh defender at various stages of different games. It wasn’t a permanent thing. If the other team was getting a run on us I would drop back. It was a reaction to 2006 when we were well up on Mayo and they came back and beat us in the semi-final.”
The end result was depressingly similar. Kerry deservedly got the better of them in the All-Ireland semi-final but only after a bruising encounter and one which ended with just two points separating the sides.
Gilroy wouldn’t agree right now but the consensus is that a similar end product would do just nicely for Dublin at the end of what has been a heavily experimental season.
Moran all but agrees but the lack of expectation and unconventional styles of some of the new faces will allow him travel to Croke Park today with a modicum of hope for his countymen. “There’s the sense that Mickey Harte maybe had Pillar’s teams sussed but there is something unconventional about lads like Michael Dara MacAuley and Eoghan O’Gara. They are all-action and a bit off-the-cuff.”
Again, not so different from seasons gone by.
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