And then there were four. I was away on hols when the Leinster final was played a few weeks back and so didn’t see what was by all accounts a poor Dublin display against Wexford but there was nothing wrong from their perspective with the way they dismantled a tired and ageing Tyrone team at Croke Park this evening. Dublin were never in danger of losing tonight and the only surprise was that their margin of victory was only seven points. It could easily have been double that.
Last year’s clash between the counties at the same stage in the championship was a tense and close contest. Thinking back to all those Tyrone wides twelve months ago, factoring in Dublin’s apparent dip in form of late and adding in a soupçon of the Northern lads’ good second half display against the Rossies made me plump for the Red Hands in my mini-league prediction ahead of this evening’s clash. It’s not the first prediction I’ve got wrong this summer (and it won’t, by the looks of it, be the last either) and it was obvious from early enough tonight which way this one was going to swing. After the opening exchanges, Dublin grabbed control around the middle and the quick ball – the best display of accurate foot-passing seen all year (Pet Spillane must have been purring on the box about it) – into their mobile full-forward line allowed the Dubs to take a decisive lead, one that they’d never relinquish.
Diarmuid Connolly, surely the epitome of a confidence player, had his best championship performance to date for the Dubs tonight. If Connolly gets an early one over, he can catch fire (equally, if he misses he can keep on missing). He did tonight and he ended up with seven points, all from play. Tyrone couldn’t handle the two Brogans either but of equal importance was their inability to get to grips with those supplying the ammo, especially Barry Cahill who spent the evening spraying good quality ball to the lads inside.
Tyrone’s hallmark down the years has been their solid workrate and their all-for-one-and-one-for-all approach to defending. Tonight, they simply gave defending a night off thus allowing the Dublin forwards all the time in the world to take aim and shoot. They haven’t been as loose at the back at Croke Park since the time Meath blew them away in the 1996 All-Ireland semi-final.
Mickey Harte’s odd team selection didn’t help. Owen Mulligan stayed on despite contributing little or nothing over the seventy minutes while Kyle Coney – one of the Red Hands’ real successes this summer – was left to kick his heels on the bench all night. Joe McMahon never got to grips with Connolly, his brother Justin was taken off at half-time, Kevin Hughes was static and ineffective in the middle, Conor Gormley was powerless to stop the blue tide washing over him while the Cavanagh brothers (especially Colm) did little to aid the cause either.
Brian Dooher, Stephen O’Neill and Enda McGinley all weighed in with points after coming on in the second half but Tyrone were already as good as beaten by then and it was only a series of missed goal chances at the other end (the Dubs missed at least four clear opportunities for majors in the second half) that enabled them to avoid a real trimming.
With this defeat, you’d have to think that a number of those great stalwarts who have helped to bring such success to Tyrone in recent years will now depart the scene. Mickey obviously wasn’t ruthless enough in changing things around this year (in particular after the defeat to Donegal) and he’ll now face (assuming it’s him that’ll be doing it, which isn’t at all certain) a major rebuilding exercise. In that sense, those of us in Croke Park tonight more than likely saw the curtain coming down on a golden era for Tyrone.
Last year, when the Dubs felled the Red Hands it completed a clean sweep of wins in the quarters for qualifier counties over the four provincial champions. Tonight’s win, which means that – for the first time since the backdoor was introduced in 2001 – the semis will be contested by the four provincial champions, had a kind of neat symmetry to it. I’m not sure what this turn of events means as regards which is the more preferable route to take in the championship; personally, I think the current structure sucks and will continue to do so until it’s overhauled properly but that’s one for another day.
For now, the Dublin bandwagon is on the roll again. No doubt the national media will, having had to shelve thoughts about another Kerry-Tyrone final, will now start to work themselves in a collective orgasm over the possibility of a Kerry-Dublin one. The Dubs will, however, face, a very different kind of challenge when they get into the den with Jimmy McGuinness’s ultra-defensive Donegal in three weeks time.
The Dubs will, I reckon, be very strong favourites to win that one but they only need to think back to the last time that they faced the Herrin Gutters in the championship to realise how dangerous it would be for them to take the Ulster champions for granted. And then, if they do manage to get over that hurdle, they’ll still have the final to negotiate against Kerry … or Mayo. This fascinating championship could still have a few more twists to it before it’s over.