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Dublin: 14 °C Sunday 16 June, 2019

Are Tyrone ready to slay the Dublin beast in Omagh?

Get ready for the Gaelic football summer to explode into life this evening.

MEETINGS BETWEEN DUBLIN and Tyrone in Omagh tend to throw up fiery encounters and everything about the build-up to this one indicates the faint-hearted should steer well clear of Healy Park tonight.

Connor McAliskey with Brian Fenton Source: Philip Magowan/INPHO

The infamous Battle of Omagh in 2006 saw four players sent-off in a bad-tempered clash that the referee Paddy Russell later described as “frightening”.

But even the February meeting between these sides at the venue earlier this year was a spicy affair with a number of aggressive skirmishes breaking out over the field, although chaos never threatened to go down like it had done 12 years earlier.

Despite the nature of Dublin’s easy 2-17 to 0-11 win over Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final, home advantage means that Mickey Harte’s side have a legitimate chance of becoming the first side to take down the Dubs since 2014.

They’ve even narrowed the width of the field at Healy Park in an attempt to curb the Dublin gameplan which sees both wing-forwards and corner-forwards hug the touchline to create space through the middle.

And former star Owen Mulligan upped the ante this week by calling on the Tyrone fans to make the venue ”hostile, intimidating and uncomfortable for the All-Ireland champions.”

He added: “Tyrone supporters can be the sixteenth man when the game is in the melting pot.”

But it’s an unfortunate by-product of the GAA’s season-ticket system that Tyrone fans will likely be outnumbered by the Dublin supporters. It emerged earlier this week that around 4,000 tickets have been distributed to Dublin clubs in addition to 2,500 season-ticket holders.

Tyrone supporters on the pitch after the game Tyrone supporters after their Ulster final win in 2017 Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

In comparison, Tyrone have 1,200 season-ticket holders and will likely have lower numbers at their 17,636-capacity home venue than the travelling support from the capital.

The 12-point pummeling Dublin handed out to Tyrone last August was supposedly the death-knell for defensive football, but Harte’s side have returned this time with a more refined system.

On paper, at least, they well placed for the challenge that awaits tonight. Tyrone have won five games on the bounce by an average margin of 9.6 points, but Harte will be well aware that Dublin are an entirely different prospect to anything they’ve faced in the 12 months since their last championship encounter.

A year ago Tyrone had Mark Bradley as a lone inside forward, but Harte has changed things up in 2018.

Tyrone’s new two-man full-forward line of Connor McAliskey and Richard Donnelly missed last season through injury. McAliskey tore cruciate ligaments in his knee in January, while a back injury ruled Donnelly out for more than a year.

Rochard Donnelly Richard Donnelly Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The pair hit 1-8 between them against Roscommon. Donnelly, the younger brother of established star Mattie, offers an aerial threat that could hurt the visitors.

They’ve got options off the bench too. One of the players of the league Lee Brennan has struggled with a hamstring this summer but may feature at some stage, while Ronan O’Neill is another very dangerous threat for when the game begins to open up.

It’s interesting how the commentary surrounding Tyrone has evolved over the summer. In May, legendary figure Sean Cavanagh caused a stir by declaring that marquee forwards in the county had been stifled by Harte’s defensive system.

Cavanagh, who captained Tyrone in 2017 and retired immediately after the semi-final defeat to Dublin in Croke Park, said Harte’s management style was “quite autocratic at times”.

A media war of words followed and Harte’s assistant Gavin Devlin had a pop back at his former team-mate.

Devlin said: “If he thought something wasn’t right, as captain, why didn’t he come and have a conversation with us rather than saying it in an RTÉ studio?”

Mickey Harte Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Mulligan waded into the debate shortly afterwards, scolding both men for having Tyrone’s “dirty laundry washed all over the media”. He added that “instead of slating his ex-manager, he (Cavanagh) should be thanking him.”

The backdrop of those tempestuous times was Tyrone’s Ulster quarter-final defeat to Monaghan and rather fortunate one-point win over Meath after extra-time. But in the weeks that followed, the wagon got back on track.

Fast forward to this weekend and Tyrone are one of the in-form teams in the country. If you were to pick potential challengers to Dublin’s throne Tyrone are right there in the mix with Galway and, if they can get their act together in Clones, Kerry.

Cavanagh seems to have come around to Tyrone’s style of play and even highlighted Dublin’s tendency to drop bodies behind the ball on last weekend’s Sunday Game.

“They had 15 men behind the ball in their own half,” he said during one video clip which showed their set-up.

“Their running system is similar to what Tyrone have been doing the last number of years and are still doing well.

Jason Sherlock and manager Jim Gavin Source: James Crombie/INPHO

“The point has to be made that Dublin have that in the armour and have been doing that for the last number of years. They’re able to get men behind the ball and break at pace. They’re as effective as anyone but they just haven’t got the criticism.”

Rather than playing defensively, the Dubs learned from the 2014 defeat to Donegal and now simply mirror the tactics of their opposition.

They’ll back themselves to win, whether it’s a free-flowing 15-on-15 match, or the sort of defensive, counter-attacking game we can expect at 7pm.

Watching Dublin these days can sometimes remind you of that great Kieran McGeeney quote: “If you wanna box, say you wanna box and we’ll box. If you wanna play football, say you wanna play football and we’ll play football.”

Dublin are more or less the same proposition as last August, apart from the well-documented absences of Bernard Brogan and Diarmuid Connolly. In a podcast last December, Connolly picked out Brian Howard as a potential future star and he’s been proven right in the past few games.

Stephen McMenamin and Brian Howard Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

The Raheny man, who clocked 35 possessions and fielded four kick-outs against Donegal, will be a key man in the middle third for Dublin as they look to track the Tyrone runners and hurt them at the other end of the field. Niall Scully only arrived on the scene in last season but is also in sensational form, while Brian Fenton is looking the complete player in midfield.

It’s reasonable to assume Ciaran Kilkenny, Paul Mannion, Con O’Callaghan and Jack McCaffrey won’t be as quiet again, but Dublin are not infallible.

Playing an All-Ireland quarter-final against an in-form Tyrone side in Omagh might be about as vulnerable as the champions have been in a while. They didn’t exactly set the world alight against Laois and Donegal, despite their big winning margins.

Tyrone embarrassed themselves in Croke Park last year and will be frothing at the mouth for another crack at Gavin’s men. To win, they’ll need everything to go right for themselves and Dublin to have an off-day.

Get ready for the Gaelic football summer to explode into life. Tyrone to take it by two.

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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