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Wednesday 13 December 2017

Dazzling Dubs destroy grim Tyrone Plan A

O'Callaghan's early bullet opens door to September

Con O’Callaghan of Dublin goes past the Tyrone full back Ronan McNamee on his way to scoring a fifth-minute goal during the All-Ireland SFC semifinal against Tyrone at Croke Park. Pics: Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan of Dublin goes past the Tyrone full back Ronan McNamee on his way to scoring a fifth-minute goal during the All-Ireland SFC semifinal against Tyrone at Croke Park. Pics: Sportsfile

In the end, all it took was four-and-a-half minutes for Dublin to destroy Tyrone's previously bullet-proof yet, when it really mattered, fundamentally flawed Plan A.

That was the timing of Con O'Callaghan's sumptuous opening goal. It left the three-in-a-row chasing All-Ireland holders with an early three-point cushion.

And, in an instant, you realised that this Tyrone team simply isn't designed to chase a game. So ingrained are they in the 'system' that they were unable to escape its strait jacket.

What ensued was a Sky Blue masterclass/Red Hand massacre, take your pi ck. The final margin was 12 points - Mickey Harte's heaviest SFC defeat in 15 seasons - and not even this does full justice to the chasm in class that separated exuberant winners from abject losers.

Indeed, perhaps the most amazing thing about yesterday - apart from the fact that it was more like a lopsided Leinster semi-final that the edge-of-the-seat All-Ireland semi-final it was predicted to be - was the scoreline after 58 minutes.

27 August 2017; Niall Scully of Dublin in action against Peter Harte of Tyrone
27 August 2017; Niall Scully of Dublin in action against Peter Harte of Tyrone

All-too-briefly, Tyrone had released the ultra-defensive handbrake and kicked three unanswered points - a Peter Harte free followed by a Colm Cavanagh monster and a score from Niall Sludden.

The gap was just six points - 1-13 to 0-10 - a statistic totally at variance with the reality of what our eyes had witnessed over the preceding hour.

Not that Tyrone were ever going to mount a grandstand victory charge: they lacked the personnel and game plan to do so. Moreover, the veneer of self-belief that came with their march through Ulster and pummelling of Armagh had been totally eroded by a truly brilliant Dublin.

Thus, it was no surprise to see the champions move through the gears for one final flourish that yielded a 1-3 salvo shared by a brace of subs keen on staking a September claim.

Paul Flynn landed his second point and this was followed by their second goal in the 68th minute, initiated by O'Callaghan's clever low pass up the Hogan Stand touchline to release Eric Lowndes. He in turn fed fellow sub Darren Daly, rampaging far from his defensive home and with Tyrone's own blanket now replaced by a threadbare sheet. Daly timed his handpass to O'Gara whose first-time fisted finish proved too hot for Niall Morgan to keep out.

O'Gara followed up with a barnstorming point and then, after Stephen Cluxton had summed up Tyrone's day by saving Peter Harte's 71st minute penalty, Flynn rounded off the scoring with his third point.

Mind you, knowing the perfectionist traits of his manager, Jim Gavin might call his four-time All Star to task for his involvement earlier in that same move ... Flynn went for goal and was denied by Morgan when two of his teammates looked better placed.

Soon after, David Coldrick put Tyrone out of their collective misery. This was Mayweather/McGregor, only to a far more glaring degree: it was like Dublin and Tyrone were playing two different sports on the same patch of grass.

Is this a good day for Gaelic football? No in the strict sense of wanting your biggest days of competition to be genuinely competitive; but most definitely yes for what it signifies.

Where once this Dublin team occasionally struggled to impose their dazzling agenda against uber-defensive set-ups, they have learned how to beat the blanket while sticking to their principles.

And they're getting better at it too: this was Dublin's most complete performance during Gavin's five-year reign.

Maybe that served as a minor consolation for Mickey Harte & Co as they headed back north last night ... for even if Tyrone had brought their A-game to Croke Park (as opposed to just a constricted and quickly unravelling Plan A) they wouldn't have lived with Dublin in this compelling mood.

It all means that we'll have that most familiar of All-Ireland final pairings on September 17. Any sense of Mayo jubilation after Saturday's thumping win over Kerry will have quickly evaporated; the watching Stephen Rochford knows, full well, the magnitude of the challenge that awaits.

That said, Mayo will bring serious momentum and improving form to the table; they are also perhaps the only rival out there with the physicality and athleticism to engage the Dubs in toe-to-toe combat. Will that be enough if their nemesis in blue reprise yesterday's form? Unlikely, but at least we've the prospect of a proper heavyweight decider.

DOWNFALL

Tyrone, of course, were partly complicit in their own downfall: Sludden would emerge as one of their few bright sparks but his errant hand-pass led to a fatal turnover, Ciarán Kilkenny stripping the ball from Pádraig Hampsey and finding Philly McMahon.

Tyrone's cover was immediately blown by a quick foot pass to the unmarked O'Callaghan. They may as well hand the Young Footballer of the Year bauble to him now: the Cuala prodigy skipped past Ronan McNamee as if he wasn't there and then unleashed an unstoppable bullet from 15 metres.

Game, set and mismatch. Despite a long-range riposte from Tiernan McCann, it quickly became apparent that Dublin had far too much patience and all-round smarts not to pick apart a Tyrone team that refused to come out of its defensive shell.

The winners had heroes everywhere. O'Callaghan was electric in a first half that finished 1-9 to 0-5, and chipped in with a couple more second-half assists.

Paddy Andrews did his usual thing of inflicting early scoreboard damage from the wings. Brian Fenton directed midfield operations in his standout performance of the summer.

And behind (or often in front of) Fenton you had the jet-heeled Jack McCaffrey leaving a stream of white jerseys in his wake.

McCaffrey's point, in the 42nd minute, captured this game in microcosm. As RTÉ TV outlined afterwards, Dublin held possession for two minutes and 20 seconds, playing keep-ball, patiently probing ... then enter Jack with a sudden injection of pace, taking him away from two opponents before he bisected the Davin End posts.

McCaffrey will doubtless rue his subsequent glorious goal chance, slashed wide after Fenton and O'Callaghan combined to put him through; a few minutes earlier, lively sub Kevin McManamon had skipped past two defenders only to hit the crossbar.

All of which tells you that Tyrone, notwithstanding their spurned penalty awarded for McMahon's barge into Colm Cavanagh, were lucky to get away with a dozen-point differential.

And to think: two former Footballers of the Year (Bernard Brogan and Michael Darragh Macauley) didn't see any action while a certain Diarmuid Connolly's much-hyped return was delayed until the 70th minute.

Now they're just 70 minutes from greatness ... if they're not already there.

All-Ireland SFC semi-final
Dublin 2-17 Tyrone 0-11

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