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Brawl casts shadow over feisty battle

Dessie coming to terms with first loss as Dublin manager and fallout from tunnel incident

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James McCarthy of Dublin in action against Peter Harte of Tyrone during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Healy Park

James McCarthy of Dublin in action against Peter Harte of Tyrone during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Healy Park

SPORTSFILE

James McCarthy of Dublin in action against Peter Harte of Tyrone during the Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Healy Park

We'd love to claim an ability to predict the future - especially when it comes to Lotto numbers - but there was nothing remotely Mystic Peig about our feature in Saturday's Herald.

'It's Battle Stations,' the headline boldly declared … but, in all truthfulness, the article itself made no attempt to claim the looming onset of anarchy in Healy Park that night, 14 years after the original Battle of Omagh.

We certainly didn't foresee the 'tunnel vision' that greeted our screens instead of the usual half-time analysis on RTÉ.

Saturday's article revisited that infamous 2006 league encounter, aided by interviews with the two competing goalkeepers - Pascal McConnell and Paul Copeland who, curiously, made his only ever league start for Dublin that day.

But the context was framed by our own scepticism about the chances of a riotous repeat - not just because such bouts are rarer in the GAA these days, but also because Dublin subsequently appeared to have mastered the art of winning without any great fuss or fanfare in Omagh.

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Cormac Costello of Dublin in conversation with referee Cormac Reilly after Saturday’s game in Omagh

Cormac Costello of Dublin in conversation with referee Cormac Reilly after Saturday’s game in Omagh

SPORTSFILE

Cormac Costello of Dublin in conversation with referee Cormac Reilly after Saturday’s game in Omagh

Audacious

On five consecutive occasions since 2006, the Dubs had departed Tyrone's flimsy fortress with the spoils of victory. Only one of those games, a roller coaster league clash in 2014, went right down to the wire before Diarmuid Connolly kicked an audacious injury-time winner.

Moreover, the still-raw memory of their record 19-point capitulation in Tuam - just six days previously - begged the following question: "Will Tyrone come out fighting against the Dubs in Omagh tonight?"

Safe to say, we have our answer: Tyrone came out fighting and so too did Dublin. Not that you've anticipated this eruption during a less-than-feisty first half.

The video evidence of flailing fists - from TV cameras beaming straight into the Healy Park tunnel of love, and from above via cameras phones and social media - tells you all you need to know while, simultaneously, perhaps not telling you enough. Specifically when it comes to the Croke Park investigation that is sure to follow.

There were a lot more punches thrown here than in 2006, which qualified more as a rolling maul of mayhem.

But it will be difficult in the extreme for the Central Competitions Control Committee to clearly identify the chief protagonists, whatever about deciding who lit the tinderbox.

Tyrone's Padraig Hampsey was black-carded at the start of the second half for his apparent role in the row; under rule, though, a black card is not punishable by suspension.

Dessie Farrell's summary of what happened was only partially from the School of Arsene Wenger; there was a pointed message too.

"All I will say is that we came up here to play football and that was needless what happened at half-time," the Dublin boss said. "I could not see it. There were a hundred people in the tunnel ahead of me."

Which sounds about right: on RTÉ's League Sunday Pat Spillane likened the congestion to Grafton Street on Christmas Eve. The layout of the Healy Park tunnel, with a narrow corridor veering either side at the end towards the two dressing-rooms, was doubtless a contributory factor.

The presence of so many bodies in such a tight confine of space - only a percentage of them players - demands an immediate review of match-day protocols by the GAA.

Ultimately, however, players must take responsibility for their own surrender of discipline. Yes, there may be mitigating circumstances - if you get 'dunted' or walloped or worse, it can be hard to back down - but the optics are terrible.

On a hideous night when football probably shouldn't have happened in the first place, the most abiding image is not of those cracking goals by Colm Basquel or Rory Brennan, or of Dean Rock's surreal banana shot, but of the tunnel brawl.

Moreover, the combination of his maiden league defeat and a probable disciplinary saga provides the first major challenge of Farrell's Sky Blue reign.

Dublin's performance levels to date have been patchy but, so long as their thrilling capacity for grandstand finishes had preserved their unbeaten run, it was easy to write off those pallid periods as proof of 'dirty diesel' yet to be expunged from their Rolls Royce engine.

There was less forensic scrutiny (from outside, whatever about inside the camp) than might otherwise have happened if, for example, the five-in-a-row All-Ireland champions had lost to Monaghan and/or Donegal. Now, though, the pressure gauge has risen - ever so slightly.

The two-week window to Dublin's next outing against Meath in Croke Park will be filled by reports, speculative or otherwise, about what action the CCCC might take and what happens thereafter. In the absence of any fresh video evidence, it's hard to see what, if any, individual punishments will stick but there certainly could be county board fines.

As for the defeat itself, this makes it far less certain that Dublin will reach the Division 1 final. Even presuming they extend Meath's losing streak on Sunday week, they will probably need a result away to table-topping Galway seven days later to ensure qualification.

In the bigger scheme of things, of course, none of this unduly matters. Dublin lost three times last spring - their worst league campaign under Jim Gavin - without any negative impact on their Drive for Five.

But, as Farrell himself conceded on Saturday night: "You don't like to lose, full stop."

As a Dublin manager, now he knows what it's like …