Kicking Out: Jury still out on the scale of Ulster improvements
WITH the throw-in an hour away last August, I began imparting to a few fellow journalists with absolutely certainty how Tyrone would beat Dublin.
It didn't seem like an empty vessel at the time.
Loosely, it was this: The Dubs push higher up the pitch than most. Tyrone thrive on turnovers and getting quickly into the space behind the opposition's midfield. They'd open Dublin up down the middle with their runners, and their own centre would hold strong with the weight of numbers.
Except none of it transpired. Dublin kept the ball out of the Venus flytrap. You could have counted the first half Tyrone turnovers on one hand. That gave them very limited opportunity to play on the counter.
And when they did, Dublin were physically superior. They stopped the runners before they got started. Tyrone had to fight for every square inch they gained. By the time their runners, the Mattie Donnellys and Niall Sluddens and Peter Hartes, got the length of the Dublin 45, they were five, six, seven seconds behind schedule and the legs were tired from having to gain their first 80 metres of ground.
Twelve months on, the excitement has grown back to the same peak. By this time next week, there'll be a ticket chase on in either Tyrone or Monaghan. It'll either be a first All-Ireland final in ten years, or a first ever.
Ulster football took a hammering last winter, and rightly so. It was stuck in a different time zone to the rest of the country, and the end result was that none of them stood a chance in Croke Park.
Here were are now with an All-Ireland finalist guaranteed – but how much closer to actually winning Sam Maguire are either of them?
There can be no doubting that they've both made fairly significant adaptations to the way they play, and that has led them to this point.
Tyrone played last year with Mark Bradley as the lone frontman, and that not only undermined their hopes of kicking the ball in Croke Park, but also their hopes of pressing the opposition's kickout.
They set out with the intention to press Stephen Cluxton as often as they could last year, but the opening ten minutes told the tale. On the first four restarts, twice they got up, twice they didn't.
When Bradley kicked a wide after eight minutes, he was on his own trying to shut down four blue shirts when the ball was reset for the kickout.
His shot had come as the result of a 50-yard inch-perfect kick pass from Peter Harte. That came off twice in the whole of the first half, with Dublin's policy of marking from in front making it a comfortable joust.
Having Connor McAliskey and Richie Donnelly now as a full-time inside pairing has made life more difficult for the opposition in both respects.
In their one chance to road-test things in Croke Park, they managed to squeeze Roscommon tight so as to force them long even when they had four men in their full-back line on kickouts. Monaghan did likewise against Kildare.
The vulnerability it leaves you with was evident when Ryan Wylie stayed at corner-forward to press an early kickout having joined the attack, instead of heading for home. Someone else got caught sleeping in the middle, the kickout went long and off it, Daniel Flynn scored a goal.
That was a rare example though. They've had far more reward this year on opposition kickouts than last year, and at times in that Kildare game they pushed four into the full-forward line to stop the ball getting out handy.
At times Malachy O'Rourke's side has gone a step further than Tyrone again, playing with a very orthodox three-man full-forward line. Not always, but when they've had the chance, they've kept their shape and used the kick pass to great effect.
It was something they very rarely did last year, as evidenced by their defeat to Dublin, when they kept two inside but lumped all sorts of hopeless long ball on top of them, offering McManus and McCarron no chance to impact the game the way they might have.
There's a greater refinement about their attacking play, with the kicking just one part of it. Their running game has developed again over the last two years, and with Ryan McAnespie given greater licence, Niall Kearns proving a scoring addition, while Dermot Malone and Fintan Kelly actually spend more time in the half-forward line now rather than just occupying a loose space in defence.
The emphasis has definitely changed, and that positive move has brought positive results.
Yet we can't say with any certainty that either of them is on a plain with Dublin.
Tyrone's moral victory of a few weeks ago was in very different circumstances to those they'd face on the first Sunday of September.
The pitch narrowing took on a life of its own, but it did have a major impact on that game.
Whether either them or Monaghan are any better able to cope with the width Dublin bring to their attack at Croker is something they can only answer when they make it to a decider.
Tyrone have strengthened individually in defence with the fresh introductions of Michael McKernan and Frank Burns this year, while Kieran Duffy has done well for Monaghan and Vinny Corey has looked refreshed.
Knowing each other so well, neither of them will do much changing for the semi-final, but whoever wins is left in a quandary.
The Mayo template that's given Dublin closest to their fill has been built on pressurising the kickout as often as possible, and their defenders being individually strong enough to cope if they do happen to lose out and get caught one-on-one.
If you watch back the quarter-final and semi-final last year, and even the final itself, it was where Dublin made a lot of their hay. When spaces appear and they get a chance to attack an isolated defender, they exploit them and take a rich dividend from it.
That goes back to the same physicality argument. Tyrone's pace and power was evident against Donegal, and that has been harnessed over four years by Peter Donnelly.
But it will only be if it's tested in Croke Park again by Dublin that we'll know if their improvements in that regard have been minor or major.
In footballing terms, the subtle tweaks Tyrone and Monaghan both made have done wonders for them both, and one of them will be marching behind the Artane band because of it.
But the fact that they're going in against each other for that place means we can't be sure if either has actually made enough improvement to win Sam Maguire.
And perhaps the biggest psychological challenge for this weekend's winner will be ridding themselves of that same doubt.
Unless of course Galway do them all a favour and throw the thing wide to the world…