Dublin's visit north is an early test of character for Tyrone

Eoghan O’Gara’s goal capped a miserable day for Tyrone in last August’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park and Mickey Harte’s side will be hoping to get a lot closer than the 12-point winning margin that day when the counties meet at Healy Park tonight Picture by Hugh Russell
Neil Loughran

Allianz Football League Division One: Tyrone v Dublin (Saturday, Healy Park, 7pm)

IT was the game the GAA world – up here at least – had been waiting for, but what we got was the biggest damp squib of the summer.

Months of hopeful chatter, weeks of build-up before August 27 arrived and then all but over in the blink of an expectant eye. The Dubs were awesome, no doubt, but what Tyrone brought to the table was underwhelming in the extreme.

Perhaps most disappointingly, while the gap between the Red Hands and the rest of Ulster had widened to the point of worry, it felt like nothing compared to the yawning chasm separating Dublin and Tyrone that day.

Most had expected Jim Gavin’s men to progress, but few predicted they would do so at their leisure.

Therefore the mood music coming into tonight’s Division One encounter has been sombre. Normally the infamous 2006 ‘Battle of Omagh’ – maybe even Mugsy’s goal – would get a mention when the Dubs are coming to town.

But not this time. Six months on, painful memories still linger.

Last weekend’s poor showing against an injury-plagued Galway did little to lift spirits either, and suddenly the spectre of Dublin brings with it a sense of foreboding rather than the fevered excitement that surrounded this contest just over 12 months ago.

Then, Tyrone went down to Croke Park and were the better team for much of the game against the Dubs, holding a five-point lead 15 minutes from the end before that was whittled down to nothing.

Still, the image of Niall Sludden slaloming past static blue shirts and slotting over was enough to warm hearts on a bitterly cold night, and served only to add to the growing belief that the Red Hands were rightly placed among challengers-in-chief to the Dubs’ crown.

Reality bit hard in August, though. Questions about where Tyrone stood in relation to Dublin had been answered in the most emphatic of fashion, and have given way to queries surrounding where Mickey Harte’s men go from here.

Losing in Galway has already led to murmurings about relegation among some supporters and, while nothing will be decided tonight, Harte will be keen to lay down a marker for the year ahead.

One thing they need to avoid is the concession of an early goal. Just as Con O’Callaghan’s major five minutes in was a dagger through the heart, so too was Damien Comer’s goal inside 16 seconds last week.

When you set up to counter-attack the way Tyrone do, it can be a long way back if you fall behind to quality opposition so early. O’Callaghan won’t play tonight, or until Cuala’s All-Ireland Club SHC journey ends, but they still need to be on their guard.

Ronan McNamee, brushed aside by Comer for the Galway goal and eventually withdrawn 20 minutes in, is replaced at full-back by the returning Cathal McCarron.

Omagh’s Ciaran McLaughlin makes his debut at corner-back, with Michael McKernan dropping out.

At midfield, Declan McClure comes in alongside Mattie Donnelly in the place of Padraig McNulty, while Donnelly’s brother Richard is drafted into the half-forward line.

Their fellow Trillick man Lee Brennan is preferred to Ulster University colleague Mark Bradley in attack alongside Cathal McShane and Connor McAliskey. Darren McCurry, shown a straight red card against the Tribesmen, is suspended.

It is a strong-looking Tyrone team but, if the starting 15 from their League opener against Kildare is anything to go by, Gavin isn’t planning to tinker too much.

With only two weeks preparation they weathered an early storm before brushing the Lilywhites aside. There may not be 12 in it tonight, but Dublin are still likely to leave Healy Park with another two points on the board.

Tyrone: Niall Morgan; C McLaughlin, C McCarron, HP McGeary; T McCann, P Hampsey, P Harte; M Donnelly, D McClure; R Donnelly, N Sludden, K McGeary; L Brennan, C McShane,  C McAliskey

Dublin: TBA

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