Super 8 Focus: Tyrone still in the conversation
MANAGERS often have unfounded gripes with the way their teams are viewed by those in the punditry game, but there seemed an element of fairness to the way Mickey Harte feels the conversation has turned on his side.
As he put it after their win over Cork at the weekend, “people don’t seem to think very much of us at the minute.”
This time last year, they were the next best thing to Dublin. And when you add on all the pieces they’ve tacked on since and subtract Sean Cavanagh, are they not in fact a better team now than they were then?
Harte has always picked his teams on the basis of what he sees on the training pitch at Garvaghey, rather than anything they might produce in club football.
Their success in Ulster over the past few years has been predicated on a greater strength-in-depth than the rest. Donegal and Monaghan have made great strides in that regard this year.
Whether they’ve caught up or not depends on how you view Tyrone’s constant rotation. Having won back-to-back Ulster titles in ’16 and ’17, and lost a classic quarter-final this year to Monaghan before making their way right back to the Super 8s with only the one real wobble against Meath, you’d have to consider it a strength rather than a weakness.
The likes of Kieran McGeary, his brother Hugh Pat, Conall McCann, Padraig McNulty and Rory Brennan have all made pushes over the past couple of seasons yet found themselves frustrated on the fringes of the team this year.
Between the five of them, they’ve gathered up just 302 minutes of championship football across the Red Hands’ five games to this point. Mickey Harte has instead turned to Michael McKernan and Frank Burns in defence, with Conor Meyler nailing down a spot at half-forward and Richie Donnelly taking over on the edge of the square during the qualifiers.
Burns and McKernan have particularly impressed of that clique, but the biggest impact of any not-so-well-established face has been the one made by Cathal McShane.
The Leckpatrick man has found a home for himself, with the pace and energy to cover the ground and now a steady head in front of goal that he displayed when kicking that season-saving equaliser against Meath.
They were almost gone before they were back on the road. After they’d spurned enough chances in the first half to win three games, they found it a real struggle to quell Meath’s momentum and it was the cool heads of Kieran McGeary and Cathal McShane that helped fashion a dramatic equaliser, grasping extra-time and ultimately a one-point win.
That, like so many, was a day of missed goal chances. They were at it again early on against Cork, and they must know by now that the better sides simply will not give them the same respite when they miss.
Their entire attacking dynamic could change with the return of one man, however. It seems like Lee Brennan’s performance against Dublin in the league was in a different lifetime already. He hit 0-6 that night in his first big start, and continued to score until he suffered a hamstring injury leading into the Monaghan game.
He tried it that day and pushed it too hard, suffering a recurrence that has left him sidelined ever since. He hasn’t even been fit to tog out and, as they head for Croke Park this weekend, that will be a worry.
Brennan had not only been a regular source of scores, but his movement and ability to make the ball stick were a vital cog in Tyrone expanding their attacking play in the early part of the season.
They worked all year off him and Connor McAliskey as a two-man full-forward line. The latter had a big start to the championship, hitting 1-14 in the games against Monaghan and Meath, but he’s gone worrying off the boil since and has been replaced in their last three outings.
Richie Donnelly has been adopted as a target man, something they’ve clearly been missing for a number of years, but having played most of his earlier football around the middle, he’s not as natural a scorer as Brennan or McAliskey.
As a unit, though, they haven’t had any problems scoring in the middle part of the year. In their last eight games, their lowest tally was 0-18 against Cavan, and they’re averaging just shy of 2-17 per game.
But once bitten, twice shy and all that. They were doing that in Ulster repeatedly over the last two years, but when it’s come down to it on the big occasion, this team hasn’t carried the attacking edge it needs to get across the line.
That’s particularly true in Croke Park, where the gap between defence and attack is just that bit bigger. Despite going with two inside for most of this year, they still don’t retain much of a half-forward presence when they’re defending, and so their counter-attacks can appear that bit more laborious on Jones’ Road.
All of it is an admission that they aren’t defensively sound enough to go man-for-man, but they are edging closer. Padraig Hampsey has developed into a brilliant all-rounder, capable of dominating most forwards, while McKernan has done well in the full-back line, where they needed some freshness.
If he and Ronan McNamee played as their two man-markers and Colm Cavanagh as the spare man, there’s the potential to trust them a bit more.
There are only a couple of sides in the country that can deal with their hard running on the break, but the fact remains that those couple of sides have proven themselves to have a stronger attacking structure when it’s come down to it.
Getting Dublin up to Omagh will help and you can expect that game to be a hell of a lot closer than last year’s semi-final, but while Tyrone are still very much part of the conversation on Sam Maguire’s destination, they still look a bit short of deciding it for themselves.
Probable XV v Roscommon
2018 top scorers (Championship scores in brackets)
Connor McAliskey 2-38 (2-26)
Lee Brennan 2-33 (0-26f)
Niall Sludden 2-16 (1-9)
Cathal McShane 1-16 (0-8)
Mattie Donnelly 0-15 (0-6)
Most minutes played
Mattie Donnelly 857
Padraig Hampsey 811
Niall Sludden 760
Peter Harte 753
Cathal McShane 742
Super 8 fixtures
July 14, Croke Park, 5pm: Tyrone v Roscommon
July 21/22: Tyrone v Dublin
August 4/5: Donegal v Tyrone