Carlow to test Tyrone mettle
All-Ireland SFC Round Two Qualifier: Carlow v Tyrone (today, 5pm, Netwatch Dr Cullen Park)
IT was uncharacteristic of Tyrone to play Carlow in a challenge game pre-Christmas, but it may well have done them a good turn in the long run.
Peter Canavan revealed in his newspaper column yesterday that Turlough O'Brien's men had won a “very feisty affair” in pre-season, and The Irish News understands that while no red cards were shown, it was only because of a common-sense approach from the referee.
Instead, he instructed as many as five players be replaced over the course of a game that was punctuated by a handful of flare-ups.
Nothing could prepare them better for the bear-pit that Carlow coach Steven Poacher has promised they'll face in Dr Cullen Park.
And if anyone thinks it couldn't be all that, just ask Monaghan. With 65 minutes gone on a warm summer's eve last year, they were just a point up and in a serious battle before a rare gap appeared in the Carlow defence and allowed the Farneymen to work a palmed goal for Fintan Kelly.
The Barrowsiders have taken another step forward this year by winning promotion and claiming the famous scalp of Kildare before their dream of a rare Leinster final appearance was shot down by rivals Laois.
Put simply, Croke Park does not suit their style of play. The defensive end of it requires a more concentrated sea of bodies down the middle, something which they've managed to do.
If you need any indication of what Tyrone will face, watch Laois' first meaningful attack in that game. Two full minutes of playing the ball across the Carlow 45, waiting for the half yard of space and a runner to penetrate it. They couldn't find a chink of light. Carlow stitched every half-yard tight and eventually, Laois surrendered the ball.
Tyrone's running game will have to be on-point and the worry from Mickey Harte's perspective is that, when faced with a Meath side that hadn't been playing this style of football for anywhere near as long, they struggled to find the gaps.
Where they did have joy was in the space just behind the 45', as best illustrated by Kieran McGeary slipping into it to take a pass and set up Cathal McShane's superb equaliser at the end of normal time.
Carlow aren't as likely to leave that space unoccupied. They are masters at drawing a team into the middle and battering them into a turnover. If Tyrone have any sense, they'll try and punch their holes from out wide.
Their concessions of 0-12 (v Louth), 1-10 (v Kildare) and 0-12 (v Laois) make every game winnable. It's usually whether they do enough to win it.
And they didn't do enough against Laois. Their attack had that remarkable 100 per cent day against Kildare, where they scored from every shot, but when Paul Broderick's radar was off in the semi-final, they registered just 0-8.
They have the potential to restrict Tyrone but it's unlikely that they'll do it sufficiently well to win. They seldom pushed up on Laois' kickouts and, most worryingly, when they did they lost almost every 50-50 at midfield.
Niall Morgan, returned to goals in place of Mickey O'Neill once more, is likely to get a big number of short restarts off.
It's one thing to give a Division Four team that amount of primary possession, but another to give it to a Division One side.
If Tyrone, with Peter Harte back in the side and Declan McClure restored at midfield, can get off to a strong start, they can quieten the bear-pit and force Carlow to come out.
There remains the issue that the Red Hands, no matter how much ball they have, they will still struggle to pick a team off from distance. There's a reluctance to even try, as the Meath game illustrated.
Carlow will undoubtedly give this Tyrone team a headache. Their gameplan is easier implemented back on their own home patch and they'll have seen how Mickey Harte's side struggled to break Meath down.
But Carlow can't give Tyrone 75 per cent of the ball and expect to win. They'll make it exceptionally tough but Tyrone will keep the show on the road.
Tyrone: N Morgan; P Hampsey, R McNamee, C McCarron; M McKernan, F Burns, P Harte; C Cavanagh, D McClure; M Donnelly, N Sludden, C Meyler; C McShane, R Donnelly, C McAliskey
Subs: M O'Neill, R Brennan, M Cassidy, H Loughran, C McCann, A McCrory, HP McGeary, P McNulty, R O'Neill, R Sludden