Tyrone's Mattie Donnelly experiment set for acid test against Dublin
Allianz National Football League Division One: Dublin v Tyrone (tonight, 7pm, Croke Park, live on eirSport 1)
ON September 2 last year, the sound of a Dublin party starting deep in the bowels of Croke Park provided the backdrop as, one by one, the Tyrone players made their way from the losing dressing room.
Not much more than a year before they had trudged across the same slab of concrete, heads bowed, shoulders slumped. After weeks of build-up wondering whether the Red Hands were ready for the Dubs, the answer was delivered in as emphatic a fashion as you could imagine at the All-Ireland semi-final stage.
Twelve points was the gap in the end, but that doesn’t nearly tell the full story. It was excruciatingly easy for the Dubs at times, and Mickey Harte’s men departed Jones’s Road that night under no illusions about the distance they had to travel.
The contrast with last September, therefore, was stark. This time it was an All-Ireland final Tyrone had lost, the biggest stage of all, but the Red Hands had more than held their own at the beginning and end of the game.
As they walked from the dressing rooms, Kieran McGeary, Colm Cavanagh, Padraig Hampsey, Connor McAliskey and others all stopped and talked to the waiting media. They were hugely disappointed, of course, but you could sense a belief that Dublin were no longer out of sight; that the gap had been narrowed considerably.
Tonight is the first meeting between the two counties since, and another opportunity to get some idea of where the Red Hands stand relative to Jim Gavin’s sky blue juggernaut.
In the All-Ireland final, it was the runs of Mark Bradley across the full-back line that caused Dublin so much bother as Tyrone raced into an early lead after 20 minutes.
The Killyclogher man isn’t part of the set-up this year, but in the last two games – both wins over Monaghan and Cavan – Mattie Donnelly has played that role to impressive effect.
Harte had to do something after a lacklustre start to the League that looked like threatening their Division One status. In three games they had managed the paltry total of 1-10, losing twice and drawing once along the way.
And there is no doubt that Donnelly’s redeployment has given Tyrone something they have badly lacked – a physical presence in the forward line, and a powerful, direct threat to the opposition full-backs.
It will be interesting to see how he fares tonight against a Dublin side that struggled with the pace and power of Roscommon’s Conor Cox a fortnight ago.
Another attacking option could be to leave Peter Harte in with Donnelly. Harte has typically struggled to shake off John Small when these two have gone toe-to-toe, so it might be worth seeing if he can do some damage elsewhere.
Mickey Harte might also look at how at how to get the best from Niall Sludden, with his raiding runs largely curtailed by Eoin Murchan in their last two meetings with the Dubs.
The awesome threat of Dublin’s cast of forwards has already been evident throughout the League, and it is likely Paul Mannion will return to the starting line-up tonight having come off the bench against the Rossies.
Padraig Hampsey did a decent job on him last September and could be handed that brief again, while Hugh Pat McGeary might come out and pick up Con O’Callaghan in the continued absence of Michael McKernan.
Mattie Donnelly marked Brian Howard that day but, presuming he continues in his forward role, Ben McDonnell might be most physically able for the Raheny man.
The energetic Kieran McGeary took the fight to the Dubs in the All-Ireland final and it would be no surprise to see him pushed up against Cian O’Sullivan in a bid to cause a bit of chaos among the Dublin ranks.
Jim Gavin, however, has shown himself tactically astute enough to adapt to whatever is thrown Dublin’s way. That was evidenced by the way they shut down the Tyrone threat last September before going for the jugular.
The Red Hands might just signal that the gap has closed another bit but, with the options available to Gavin seemingly ever-increasing, you still suspect Dublin will end the night a step closer to another National League final.
Tyrone: N. Morgan; P Hampsey, R McNamee, HP McGeary; T McCann, F Burns, B McDonnell; C McShane, R Donnelly; M Donnelly, N Sludden, C Meyler; C McAliskey, P Harte, K McGeary