GAA Football

The Boot Room: Why Tyrone won't turn the tables on Dublin's kings of control

The pain game. No matter how hard he tried, Jimmy White could never get over the line in the final of the World snooker championships, with Stephen Hendry his nemesis on four of the six occasions he lost. Picture by PA
Neil Loughran

IT must have been coming up on midnight or maybe even slightly after. The three of us were sat in the living room, me, my mum, my dad, all glued to the TV.

Barely a word had been spoken in over an hour, only the occasional rustling of hungry hands in a bag of crisps breaking the silence. Even then that was met with a dirty look or a tut.

“There’s nothing left in the bag da, it doesn’t matter how hard you look…”

It was a Monday night in May 1994 and Jimmy White was finally – finally – going to win the World snooker championship. Five times he had made it to the final, five times he had walked away with the loser’s cheque.

I had to be up for school in the morning. My da was due at work in Dungannon at 4.30am. My mum wouldn’t watch most sport if you paid her, but she loved Jimmy White. Everybody loved Jimmy White.

Jimmy was rock n’roll. He smoked like a train, sipped on a pint and wore a permanently dishevelled look that suggested the night before had been a good one. Jimmy was even friends with Ronnie Wood from the Rolling Stones; that’s how rock n’roll he was.

With cue in hand he was capable of outrageous feats of genius – curving, bending, back-spinning banana shots that would blow your brains. That he was left-handed only added to his cool.

Jimmy was box office alright. Yet Jimmy could do nothing but take one long drag after another as he watched the Holy Grail slip through his fingers time and again.

Each final defeat was like a dagger through the heart – to him, and to us.

So when he was finally about to cross the finish line, nobody wanted to miss it. Jimmy had battled back from 16-14 and 17-16 down to hold a 37-24 lead in the final, deciding frame with the balls well placed. This was it. This. Was. It.

As he stood over an easy black into the bottom left corner, you never thought for a second he would miss. But everything about Jimmy defied logic; it was both his best asset and his greatest weakness.

The ball didn’t even rattle the jaws of the pocket – it missed by miles. The partisan crowd let out a dejected groan. In our living room, heads were in hands. Not just because Jimmy had missed, but because you knew there was no mission he was getting back to the table.

When Stephen Hendry got up off his seat, so did my da. Goodnight Vienna. See you in the morning. Inside 20 minutes Hendry was standing with the trophy again while Jimmy was standing sucking on a B&H. Again.

That was his last appearance to a world final.

Stephen Hendry is the first sportsman I recall taking an active dislike to for this reason. Many have joined the list in the years between, but this was the kind of irrational animus only a 13-year-old male is capable of.

Hendry was methodical, robotic almost. He did nothing in a hurry. You could tell he spent most of his waking hours in the basement of his castle in the Scottish highlands making century break after century break.

One of the other men to beat Jimmy in a World final, Steve Davis, was cut from the same baize.

And, like Davis, Hendry hadn’t a hint of rock n’roll about him. He sipped water instead of beer. He didn’t play any banana shots that brought you off your seat. He didn’t even smoke (what a loser).

At a time when Oasis were swaggering to the top of the charts, Stephen Hendry was Travis.

Yet Hendry was unstoppable. Give him half a chance and you were buried. As a result, his opponents played with fear, knowing that any mistake would be punished mercilessly.

Jimmy White may have suffered a lapse in concentration as he sized up that black ball, but he also missed it because he knew what would happen if he did.

Achieving that level of control over your opponents is perhaps the most powerful tool a sportsman or team can possess. Tyrone are certainly not Jimmy White (everybody loved Jimmy after all), but Dublin have cultivated a similar aura to his great nemesis.

Four of the last five All-Ireland titles. Winners of the National League in five of the last six years. The only conversation in Leinster is who will earn the right to finish runners-up, and whether they can get within 10 points of the Dubs doing it.

Jim Gavin’s pursuit of perfection is in full swing – and it was a bit of rock n’roll from another Jimmy that proved the turning point in its evolution.

Donegal were 7/1 rank outsiders when Jim McGuinness brought them to Croke Park for their 2014 semi-final against the defending All-Ireland champions.

In front of a full house on a glorious day, Dublin lost control. After a blinding start when they shot the lights out with some outrageous scores, the well ran dry and Donegal sucker-punched them in the most spectacular fashion imaginable.

It was a Eureka moment for Gavin, and they have spent the last four years making sure it never happens again.

Tyrone are shorter odds than Donegal were, available at around 11/2, yet their chances of victory appear even more unlikely because of what transpired against the men from Tir Chonaill that day.

Dublin won’t try to shoot out the lights on Sunday. There are no banana shots off three cushions with this lot. No missed blacks with the finishing line in sight.

Risk has been all but eliminated for the boys in blue, whereas it is Tyrone’s only hope. That is a dangerous place to be.

Both camps can talk down the significance of last year’s one-sided semi-final all they like but, 12 months on, it remains a hugely significant factor. Before that, we wondered. After it, we knew.

There is a huge chasm to close, and sticking to what they have done all year won’t be anywhere near good enough for Tyrone. They know it but, more importantly, Dublin know it.

For them, control is king, And they are the unrivalled kings of control.

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