Tyrone the favourites but Tipp favoured to win
Eirgrid All-Ireland U21 Football Championship Final: Tyrone v Tipperary (today, Parnell Park, 6pm, live on TG4)
By Paddy Heaney
The All-Ireland U21 semi-final between Tyrone and Roscommon was a strange game.
Take the crowd as the first example. Tyrone men follow their county. That used to be one of the old certainties. But that rule of thumb didn't apply in Markievicz Park where the Red Hand fans were heavily outnumbered by their Roscommon counterparts. A conservative estimate would put the ratio at around 5:1.
There was a reason why so many Tyrone supporters shied away from the game. The stark truth is they didn't think they were going to win. And that was another slightly curious feature about the game.
Tyrone were the outsiders. Since when did Tyrone teams starting being underdogs against Roscommon? Given Tyrone's respectable tradition at U21 level, they might have been expected to beat the Connacht champions. But the bookmakers took a different opinion and they installed the O'Neill County as 9/4 outsiders.
After his team won by 0-17 to 0-12, Tyrone manager Feargal Logan couldn't suppress his anger. Paddy Power bore the brunt of his indigence.
Logan will not be complaining after tomorrow's final. Burnt by their previous experience, the bookmakers have made Tyrone favourites for today's All-Ireland final in Parnell Park.
Given that Tipperary beat Cork and Dublin en route to the decider, the Premier County might have cause to believe that their track record is not being respected. However, Tipp boss Tommy Toomey said he fully understood why Tyrone were the favourites. Toomey pointed to the competition's roll of honour. Tyrone have lifted the All-Ireland U21 title on four occasions, while Tipperary have never won it.
“Tipperary would be marked as underdogs in football no matter who we're playing. Even if we've beaten Cork, Dublin and Kerry, we'll go into an All-Ireland final as underdogs because we've never done it.
That, to me, would be fair enough,” said Toomey.
While tradition favours Tyrone, the form-book would suggest that Tipperary are marginally in front.
Tipperary won the All-Ireland minor title in 2011. From that side that triumphed in Croke Park, Colin O'Riordan, Evan Comerford, Steven O'Brien, Ian Fahey, Bill Maher and Jason Lonergan started against Dublin two weeks ago. It's worth noting that Tipperary also won the Munster minor title in 2012.
Tyrone also have decent pedigree, but none of their players has a Celtic Cross. Defenders Ruairí Mullan, Pádraig Hampsey, Michael Cassidy, Rory Brennan and Kieran McGeary, and forwards Danny McNulty, Ruairí McGlone and Mark Bradley were in the minor team which won the Ulster title in 2012. Goalkeeper Seán Fox, midfielders Frank Burns and Cathal McShane and sharpshooter Lee Brennan featured in the team which lost to Mayo in the 2013 All-Ireland minor final.
Tyrone have raw ability. It remains to be seen if they can bridge the gap which separates contenders from All-Ireland champions.
In terms of organisation, Tyrone are exceptionally well drilled. Their victory over Donegal in the Ulster final bore testament to the excellent work that has been done on the training field.
At minor, U21 and senior level, Donegal teams play with astonishing similarity. The kick-out strategy, the defensive system and the angles of running are all remarkably similar. The blueprint has been developed and mass copied because it is extremely effective. A team with a handful of gifted players wouldn't beat Donegal. Beating Donegal requires a choreographed, collective effort. Tyrone's narrow one-point victory in the Ulster final proved that Tyrone are a proper team.
The worry remains, however, that Tyrone have been peaked too soon. In the All-Ireland semi-final against Roscommon they were fantastic. Although they play an extremely defensive game, Tyrone aren't like most teams who get 14 men behind the ball.
Feargal Logan's team play at a furious pace. A huge emphasis is placed on moving the ball quickly. By moving the ball at speed, Tyrone stretch their opponents and wear them down. Against Roscommon, they would switch wings with a crossfield kick-pass or they would puncture holes with a lightning exchange of fist-passes.
While there was great variety to Tyrone's attack, two constant themes developed over the course of the hour. When Tyrone were at their best, Cathal McShane and Leo Brennan were usually playing a leading role. McShane is the playmaker who makes them tick. Brennan is the predator who can score effortlessly from either foot.
Having seen the damage that McShane and Brennan can create, Tipperary have received advance warning of the challenge which awaits them in Parnell Park.
The concern for Tyrone must be that Tipperary are well-equipped to neutralise their midfield engine room of Cathal McShane and Frank Burns.
Tipp captain Colin O'Riordan was only 15-years-old when he played in the 2011 All-Ireland final. He is an outstanding footballer. Stephen O'Brien was on the DCU side that won this year's Sigerson Cup.
If Tyrone proved their mettle against Donegal, then Tipperary underlined their credentials when they played Cork in the Munster final.
“Against Cork, we went behind and we were really tested,” said Toomey. “Two goals, one before half-time and one just after put Cork in the box seat. But the lads held their composure and kicked scores. They kicked points and didn't try to overstretch themselves in going for goals. That game gave us a bit of confidence that no matter what we were behind, we'd keep kicking points.
“Will we get those opportunities in the Tyrone game on Saturday? Who knows. But if Tyrone get ahead, they're very hard to break down. This game, in my opinion, will take on a different look. We need to make sure that we play for the full hour. If we do, we're going to be in the shake up.”
Roscommon were slow out of the blocks against Tyrone. By the time they woke up, the Ulster champions had developed a lead which they never surrendered. Roscommon also played a pressing game which created the space for Brennan to kick five points from play.
Tipperary are more likely to replicate Tyrone's blanket defence will make it harder for Brennan to find space. The quality of Tipperary's midfield partnership means it will be very difficult for McShane to replicate his heroics from the semi-final. A tight game beckons.
Tipp have won an All-Ireland title so they'll not feel any inferior to Tyrone. Considering the recent history of this competition, the outsiders seem like the safer bet.