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How do you beat the Dubs? 'Go man-to-man for as long as you can,' says Tyrone defender

But Red Hand youngster Michael McKernan admits they’re “probably the best team to play Gaelic football.”

HOW DO YOU take down Dublin?

That’s the question on the minds of every All-Ireland contender heading into the 2019 campaign. The five-in-a-row, and immortality, is within Dublin’s grasp. Just like Offaly did to Kerry in 1982, it’s up to someone to find a way to stop them.

Brian Howard with Michael McKernan Michael McKernan clashes with Brian Howard during the All-Ireland final. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Their biggest challenge will come from the usual suspects. As All-Ireland finalists last September, Tyrone can rightfully consider themselves as the prime candidates to dethrone Jim Gavin’s side.

While they ran Dublin close in the Super 8s, the close scoreline could be put down to tightened pitch at Healy Park which suited Tyrone’s defensive, counter-attacking style.

Still, when they went man-on-man in the closing stages of that game and almost stole a draw, it showed that even Dublin could be hurt at the back if they were put under pressure.

On the wide open plains of Croke Park in the final, Mickey Harte went with a far more expansive system that pressed Dublin high up the field.

They performed far better than in the semi-final the previous year, when the Red Hand dropped 14 men behind the ball and Dublin sent them packing with a 12-point defeat.

Defender Michael McKernan believes the only way to take down Gavin’s all-conquering team is to push up and go mano a mano.

“You can’t sit back on them because every one of them can play football,” he says. “You can’t sit back because they’ll just pick through you. They’ll hold it until you come out. 

Electric Ireland HE GAA Launch Michael McKernan of University of Ulster and Tyrone in attendance at the launch of Electric Ireland’s Sigerson, Fitzgibbon and Higher Education Championships announcement at Clanna Gael GAA Club in Dublin. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

“So it’s probably best to push up and go man-to-man for as long as you can. In the first 15 minutes the likes of Mark Bradley was very good, Connor McAliskey, all them boys inside. We were getting ball in fast. 

“I suppose the main thing is keeping it for 70 minutes. That’s very hard to do. Something we can probably improve on is our decision-making in matches. 

“Maybe in the final we went a few points in the lead and maybe started taking stupid shots. Whereas if we kept chipping away at the points it might have been a different outcome. 

“But you can’t take anything away from them, they’re unbelievable. And they probably are the best team to play Gaelic football. Fair play to them for what they’ve done.

“They’re very calm, they’ve been there and done it. They’ve experienced it. Hopefully last year’s experience will help us. You seen Mayo brought them to a replay and were only a kick of a ball away from beating them so I don’t think they’re as far as everyone says but it’s definitely a tough ask.” 

Kernan enjoyed a brilliant debut campaign in the Tyrone rearguard. All-Star and Young Footballer of the Year nominations arrived in the winter and it’s reasonable to assume the Coalisland defender, who turns 21 this year, will only get better over the coming seasons.

He describes the experience of playing in his first senior final, and Tyrone’s first in a decade, as an “unbelievable” experience.

“I hadn’t played in Croke Park until this year. And then my third or fourth time playing in it was an All-Ireland final. It’s kind of surreal looking back on it. 

“It was a very good experience because I think maybe only Collie Cavanagh and Cathal McCarron who played in the 2008 final, no-one else had played in one. 

“Even for this year coming it gives us a lot of experience. If we get to that position again we’ll know how it feels and how not to be overwhelmed.” 

Michael McKernan celebrates after the game Michael McKernan celebrates after the semi-final win over Monaghan. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

Darragh Canavan’s ascension into the senior ranks has garnered plenty of attention, but McKernan points to other additions as a sign Tyrone will be even stronger in 2019.

“There’s a few new boys in. There’s Kyle Coney, Darren McCurry and Conan Grugan, they’re back in. Then there’s Liam Rafferty, Ryan Gray, Brian Kennedy – all them boys are in.

“So it’s definitely good because you have that competition pushing the boys that were there on. Hopefully it’ll be better this year than it was last year.”

He hasn’t got around to marking Canavan yet in county training as he’s focused on the upcoming Sigerson Cup campaign with Ulster University, but McKernan knows what’s coming. 

Coalisland defeated Errigal Ciaran in the Tyrone SFC quarter-final en-route to lifting the county title, and McKernan was impressed with what he saw from Peter Canavan’s son.

“He came on against us when we played them in the championship quarter-final. He came on for 15 minutes and I’d say if he was on any longer it could have been a different story – he’s just that good.

“I haven’t really had to mark him yet, but I’d say I’ll have to soon enough.” 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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