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The dilemma facing Jim Gavin and Mickey Harte this weekend

Dublin and Tyrone clash in a Super 8s dead-rubber in Omagh, a week out from the All-Ireland semi-finals.

JIM GAVIN AND Mickey Harte both face a major dilemma heading into Sunday’s Super 8s meeting in Omagh. 

Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin /7/2018 Mickey Harte and Jim Gavin after their 2018 Super 8s meeting. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Dublin and Tyrone have already sealed their progression from Group 2 and the winners of the group will have a day less to prepare for the All-Ireland semi-final next weekend. 

A win or draw will send Dublin through as the top side in the group, while Tyrone require victory to leapfrog the reigning champions. Next Saturday, the Group 2 winners play the second-placed Group 1 side in the semi-final while the runners-up play the Group 1 victors on Sunday. 

Other than avoiding a likely semi-final against Kerry, there’s no discernible advantage to topping the group. Whoever wins the game will actually rob themselves of an extra day of rest. That won’t matter much if, as expected, both managers put out heavily rotated sides in Healy Park.

With such a short turnaround before the last four games, both Gavin and Harte must weigh up the benefits of keeping their squad fresh versus the opportunity to enjoy a valuable win over their rivals.

“If I’m both them managers I’m saying to myself, ‘I want to win this group because it’s not going to get any easier after this,’” says recently retired Dublin forward Paul Flynn. 

“I remember last year we played Tyrone up there and in our own heads it was that we could potentially play these in a final as well. So you have that. Dublin wouldn’t want Tyrone to beat them.

“I remember back before we won All-Irelands, Kerry were dominating and Tyrone were dominating,” he continues. “We used to chalk down the wins against the Kerrys and Tyrones in the league as a big milestone to say, ‘We’ve done it now and we can do it and carry them with us into the championship.’

“From a Tyrone perspective, I’d say they valued that league win and they’ll be welcoming the opportunity to bring them up to Omagh.”

Jonny Cooper with Padraig Hennessy Paul Mannion takes on Padraig Hampsey during their league clash in March. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Tyrone and Dublin met in last year’s All-Ireland final and could well do so again later this month. A year ago when Dublin faced Roscommon in the final Super 8s game -also a dead-rubber – Gavin rested a number of key men.

Eoghan O’Gara scored 2-2 that day and didn’t play another minute in the championship. 

Of the 15 who marched behind the band in the final, just four also started against the Rossies – Stephen Cluxton, Philly McMahon, Cian O’Sullivan, Jack McCaffrey and John Small. O’Sullivan and McCaffrey were whipped off at half-time, while Small was replaced after 47 minutes. 

James McCarthy played the entire second-half, but otherwise Dublin kept their powder dry for the following weekend’s semi-final against Galway.

Gavin is likely to rotate his squad in a similar manner this weekend. Veterans Rory O’Carroll, Bernard Brogan, Kevin McManamon, Paddy Andrews and Diarmuid Connolly will be pushing for game-time, knowing it may be their final chance to impress the manager on the field.

He could opt to give Eoin Murchan, Jonny Cooper, McCarthy and Rock a run-out following their returns from injury, but ‘untouchables’ like McCaffrey, Brian Fenton, Ciaran Kilkenny, Brian Howard, Con O’Callaghan and Paul Mannion are unlikely to see any action. 

Harte faces a more difficult decision. He knows that if they’re to end an 11-year wait without the Sam Maguire, Dublin will probably be standing in their way in the decider. The best way to instil confidence that you’re capable of defeating Dublin is by actually going out and beating them.

It would also plant a seed of doubt in the Dublin minds that Tyrone have what it takes to end their Drive for Five bid. Tyrone already made vital progress in this regard with their Division 1 victory at Croke Park against the champions in March.

Tempers flare between both sides There's been no love lost between the teams in recent games. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

But the pitfalls are too big. The potential risk is greater than the reward. If Harte goes gung-ho to beat the Dublin second team and they fall short, he risks psychologically damaging his squad just days before the biggest game of their season. 

Injuries can happen at any time, but science tells us a player is far more likely to pick up an injury during a game than a training session. Add to that the fatigue factor from playing two weeks on the trot. 

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Harte need only look at Galway last season. Kevin Walsh’s side were already through when they put out a full team against Monaghan in the final Super 8s game. The Tribesmen looked like they were minding themselves for a semi-final the following week.

They fell to a bruising defeat, which sapped confidence and energy levels. When they did face Dublin the next weekend, they were lacking a spark. Fatigue looked to have caught up with them.

“I think there will be (shadow boxing),” says three-time All-Ireland winner Owen Mulligan. “They’ve a practice game against Dublin before the big day, so everything’s going for Tyrone at the minute.”

The Tyrone boss has been conscious of managing the minutes of his big stars this season. They endured a taxing journey through the backdoor, but even before that Harte was keen to mind his main men. He withdrew Mattie Donnelly and Peter Harte after 42 minutes of their Ulster quarter-final win over Antrim. 

He certainly won’t risk his nephew Peter Harte picking up another black card which would see him banned for the semi-final. Will he allow McMahon 70 minutes to get to grips with Cathal McShane on the edge of the square? Will he subject Donnelly to an afternoon in the close-company of Small or Cooper so soon before he has to play again?

Mattie Donnelly with Stephen Cluxton and referee David Coldrick at the coin toss Mattie Donnelly with Stephen Cluxton ahead of their Omagh encounter last summer. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Another interesting subplot is the style of play Harte employs. Tyrone’s league win over Dublin saw them use a more offensive kicking game with a two-man full-forward line.

“You have to adapt, horses for courses,” says Mulligan. “We saw a more attacking line-up in the league and the (early) couple of rounds of the championship but they were totally found out against Donegal, totally found out.”

They abandoned that philosophy following that Ulster semi-final defeat to Declan Bonner’s men, returning to the counter-attacking game for their run through the qualifiers. 

“You’re always guessing what teams are trying to do,” adds Flynn.

“What I would say is to win an Ulster, what you need to do is probably different than what you need to do to win an All-Ireland. And then to get through qualifier games is different to what it’s going to take to win a semi-final and final because you can maybe get caught on the hop by a team that you should beat by playing a more aggressive style.

“But the way they’re playing at the moment they’re playing really well. There is a balance between – I know people are saying they’re ultra-defensive – but they’re getting forward, they’re committing men.

“McShane is playing really well up top as a target man and I’d say they could probably click that switch for periods of games as well is that full kick-passing and expansive game too because they know they have it in the locker.”

Trailing Cork by five points at half-time two weeks ago, Tyrone returned to the more attacking model for the second period and blitzed the Munster side.

Most commentators suggested that Tyrone merely pushed Donnelly into the full-forward line alongside McShane, but the change was more complex than that. Rather than dropping 14 men behind the ball, the Red Hand pressed Cork high up the field and forced turnovers, which resulted in McShane, Harte and Donnelly finishing with 2-13 between them.

Tyrone have beaten Dublin once in 2019 using that style, but will they show their hand on Sunday or stick with the usual defensive system? As Donegal proved in 2014, you’ll only get one shot at beating the Dubs.

Gavin’s brilliant management team are experts at learning from defeat. They haven’t lost a game in championship football in five years and are unlikely to be defeated twice before the season is out. 

Your move, Mickey Harte.

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Kevin O'Brien

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