Date: Sun 02nd Sep
What Tyrone must do to dethrone Dublin – Three key areas Harte’s men must focus on
There was some fascinating insight into what makes Tyrone and Mickey Harte tick in TG4’s excellent documentary on the county’s All-Ireland minor winning team of 1998, which ultimately led to their progression up to the senior ranks and their domination of the game in the noughties.
An overriding feature, of what was an engrossing hour of television, was the relentless drive and commitment of Harte to overcome obstacles and instil a belief in his dressing rooms that has been the foundation of his many successes to date. On Sunday, Jim Gavin’s Dublin present Harte with his greatest on-field challenge as a manager to date.
Harte has always developed his teams with a vision and belief that they can win All-Ireland titles. To further that ambition again this Sunday, he will know he has to bring something different to Croke Park than what we have seen from his current panel to date. For me this centres around three key areas.
Full-forward line threat
Dublin typically play with a higher defensive line than other inter-county teams, preferring to apply pressure around the middle third, for kick-outs and in general play, in an effort to turn over possession and launch counter attacks from further up the field.
This in turn often creates something that is a rarity in the modern game – space in their own half of the field. This is one of the few chinks in this Dublin team’s armour but often goes unchallenged, as few teams have either the courage or ability to exploit it.
Mayo have been one of the few teams to really test Dublin in this regard over the past few years. If you watch back the highlights from last year’s final, you will see that, for practically all of Mayo’s scores, they had a full-forward line presence at the time of execution.
Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor (below) not only provided a focal point for Mayo’s attack, they crucially kept the Dublin defenders occupied at all times. This allowed more freedom for the on-running Mayo support to find space and create scoring opportunities for themselves and others.
Too often the likes of Johnny Cooper, Philly McMahon and Michael Fitzsimons are left with few offensive threats to occupy them close to their goal, and can simply deal with isolated attackers with little else to distract them.
For such an astute manager as Harte, you can be sure he has studied how Mayo challenged this Dublin team like few else have, and is cognisant of this major facet of their play.
After last year’s malfunction in Tyrone’s semi-final hammering by the Dubs, when the diminutive Mark Bradley was left isolated up front, I expect Harte to retain a constant full-forward line presence. Failure to do so will only likely lead to a painfully predictable outcome.
Man-marking Ciaran Kilkenny
Kilkenny has steadily developed into one of Gavin’s most influential players. With a strength and composure that makes him almost impossible to dispossess, the only way to curb his influence is to take a leaf out of Stephen Rochford’s playbook again, and assign someone a la Lee Keegan to prevent him touching leather in the first place.
That’s easier said than done of course. Kilkenny is indefatigable and only someone with Keegan’s levels of endurance and commitment would be equipped to shackle the Castleknock man for 70-plus minutes. Against Galway in their semi-final, Kevin Walsh didn’t assign anyone to meticulously tag Kilkenny as he meandered and probed around the middle third.
Unsurprisingly then, Kilkenny’s impact in the opening half was considerable, weighing in with two points and a direct hand in a number of other scores.
There is nothing surer then that Harte will assign this unenviable task to one of his lung-bursting starlets.
Pádraig Hampsey is the most likely candidate, and has proven himself to be a reliable man-marker already this year against Michael Murphy and Conor McManus.
Methodical more than mesmeric in style, Kilkenny’s influence relies on a high volume of possessions, and the Tyrone boss will surely be targeting the front runner to be Footballer of the Year for special attention throughout.
Middle third intensity
Gavin’s success as a coach and manager throughout his tenure has centred around three key objectives; continuously improving his players, the seamless introduction of new faces and an ability to sustain a level of performance from his side few can come close to matching.
Dublin’s utterly dominant middle third are a perfect embodiment of all these three. Such has been the consistent dominance of Brian Fenton, James McCarthy, Jack McCaffrey, Brian Howard and Kilkenny they are all odds-on to win All Stars, and currently occupy five of the top six betting places for footballer of the year.
By any yardstick that is a frightening measure of performance for a group of players that effectively occupy the same area of the pitch.
If there is one area Mickey Harte simply must strive to achieve parity, it is in the middle third plains of Croke Park, which these five players currently roam with ruthless effect.
As Tyrone’s most experienced and physically imposing player, Colm Cavanagh will have to contest with Fenton (below) et al for the entire afternoon.
If he too often retreats to his preferred sweeper role, it will simply give oxygen to Dublin’s middle third to monopolise possession and probe their way around Tyrone’s packed defence.
TG4’s documentary also provided another opportunity to relive those now infamous clips of Tyrone’s 2003 All-Ireland semi-final victory, when they overturned the odds to defeat a heavily-fancied Kerry side.
From the word go, Tyrone players swarmed the Kerry middle third with a level of intensity and ferocity that both shocked and disgusted many at the time.
Pat Spillane coined the phrase ‘Puke Football’ on the back of it.
Yet if we were to witness similar scenes in the opening exchanges of Sunday’s clash, we would all undoubtedly feel a twang of nostalgic excitement for the throwback to what now seems an immeasurably better time for football. The irony of it all.
Can you imagine the noise levels in the stadium if Fenton, McCarthy, Kilkenny and co are chased and hit by successive Red Hand shirts in the opening minutes, forcing turnovers that lead to break away Tyrone scores, thus knocking Gavin’s untouchables back on their heels and out of their comfort zone?
The passive alternative would have a depressing predictability about it.
If Harte and his players do choose to step up and face down Dublin’s dominant middle third, it would set the tone for what could be a captivating afternoon.