Mickey Harte may rail against what he believes to be lazy assumptions about his team and how it plays, but the fact remains that, of the four sides still in the race for Sam, Tyrone boast the stingiest defence and the least potent attack on the basis of the summer’s stats.
The Ulster representatives have conceded an average of less than a dozen points per game so far in the championship with the 1-12 Donegal managed against them in Ballybofey back in May still standing as the greatest leakage suffered yet.
It’s an impressive stat and all the more so given they haven’t conceded a goal since Martin McElhinney found the net on the stroke of half-time in that Ulster preliminary round encounter.
Add in injury-time in games since and that amounts to over 400 minutes without conceding a goal.
Kerry, of course, claimed seven in one half of football against Kildare in their All-Ireland quarter-final and, though it is impossible to see Tyrone being so open or naïve, there is an awareness Harte’s side must tighten the screws even more tomorrow.
“It’s good to have that record, I suppose,” says defender Ronan McNabb. “But they’re going to be very dangerous and we’ll have to go in with the same application that we did for the other games before it. I suppose we’ll go in with a plan to make sure no goals go in.
“But, realistically, every one of those Kerry forwards is capable of scoring goals so that’s something we have to be extra vigilant about.
“I suppose it does give us an air of confidence no goals have been conceded, but, as I say, we’d like to build on that.”
Much has and will be made of the head-to-head between Tyrone’s rearguard and Kerry’s star-studded forward line, even if the panel shows Dublin and Mayo have posted more consistently high numbers going forward than the reigning All-Ireland champions this last few months.
Talk of the Tyrone swarm under the Hogan Stand in 2003 has been rife all week and so too memories of the All- Ireland final meetings of 2005 and 2008 when Kerry again found the northern side too tough a nut to crack in Croke Park at the summer’s end.
An established member of the current half-back line, McNabb is understandably proud of the defence’s successes in recent times, but he echoes his manager in side-stepping discussions about the practise of packed lines and the pinching of space.
“It’s the same as if you were a traditional 15 against 15,” he said on being asked about life as a defender in such crowded surrounds. “Look, you have a role, and you just have to try to carry out that role as best as possible.
“Obviously it might mean dropping back a wee bit more or supporting the attack a wee bit more, but it’s no different than playing traditionally. You go out to give it your best performance and fulfil the role you’ve been given. It’s enjoyable at the minute.”
McNabb, who captained Tyrone to All-Ireland minor success in 2008, is among the new breed Harte has looked to in recent seasons what with the majority of that great noughties side following an increasingly well-worn path into retirement.
Yet this is still a side built on a core of experience with Sean and Colm Cavanagh providing the buttresses in midfield and attack and, until his hip injury against Monaghan the last day occasioned his substitution, Joe McMahon at centre-back.
His loss was balanced out in part by his replacement by brother Justin, but Tyrone can ill-afford the absence from the defence of a man with Joe McMahon’s class and nous and the impression is that he faces a race to be fit for even a role off the bench.
McMahon is, in many ways, the poster boy of Tyrone’s total football philosophy given he was contributing goals as wing-forward against Dublin in the last eight in 2008 before being called back into the full-back line to great effect for the final against Kerry.
Tyrone could do with springing a similar surprise this weekend, up front this time, given the paucity of green flags raised. The last of their three scored this summer came back on July 11 and that was a Peter Harte penalty claimed against Meath in round two of the qualifiers.
“I don’t get hung up on any of these things, you know,” says Mickey Harte. “Some people decide you are not getting enough goals, they can latch onto that if they want. If you get enough points, you don’t need goals. If you don’t concede many goals, you certainly don’t need as many goals.
“You don’t refuse goals. If they present themselves, yes by all means. Play the game the way we want it, create our scoring chances and I think our players will know if there is a goal staring them in the teeth they will not refuse it.”
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