Belfast Telegraph

Tyrone off colour but there's a long way to go

By Declan Bogue

Back in 2008 after a late escape in Healy Park, there were question marks about Tyrone's credentials too.

After 17 minutes, Tyrone had jumped into a seven point lead, helped by goals from Colm McCullagh and Sean Cavanagh, newly-housed at full-forward.

From then on Dan Gordon and Ambrose Rogers controlled midfield and gave the Mournemen a platform from which they could expose Tyrone's weaknesses. Abundant pleasures came from running at the Red Hands.

A goal from Benny Coulter one minute from the break gave Down a glimmer of hope. John Clarke smacked the woodwork. Rogers fisted home a goal to put Down in the lead and it took a bit of scrambling for Tyrone to earn a replay six days later in Pairc Esler.

Plus ça change ...

The Down substitutes contributed 1-3 in the first game of 2008 and while James McCartan only got a solitary Benny Coulter point from his bench on Sunday, it is acknowledged that the thrust of Ryan and Jerome Johnston, along with the steadying influence of Liam Doyle, helped turn the tide in Down's favour.

Tyrone opened up a lead but could not cope with a scoring blitz. The famous Down 'swagger' made a cameo appearance in both games.

On Sunday, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte sent for Justin McMahon to quell the uprising. Six years ago, it was his elder brother Joe that fitted the task.

In the replay, the extra-time defeat for Tyrone looked to have buried many fine careers. The moment of hesitation that Ryan McMenamin displayed to let Coulter punch the ball to the net would have made a poetic bookmark to a fine career.

Indeed, many might have settled with two All-Irelands at that stage and McMenamin gave serious thought to retirement that evening and for a week afterwards.

Should Tyrone fall to a similar fate this Saturday night in Newry, a few old stagers would be tempted by the thought that for the Red Hands, or at least them, it's all over.

That discounts the glorious uncertainty of football. Tyrone re-emerged in Croke Park for what seemed to be a last stand against Mayo.

Sheer resilience carved out a one-point win that evening, but there was a sense that the 'big teams' were licking their lips.

That evening, Eugene 'Nudie' Hughes was an analyst on RTÉ radio and when the broadcast switched from studio to Croke Park to interview Harte, Hughes directly questioned Harte's policy on keeping Sean Cavanagh from midfield. Harte said he respected the Monaghan man's opinion, but would trust his own judgement.

Tyrone were paired against Dublin and not given a chance, but they unleashed fury and hell and tortured the Dubs with a 12-point win in the quarter-final. They brushed aside Wexford in the semi-final, before the finest managerial performance of Harte's career took them over Kerry in the final.

Sean Cavanagh was named Player of the Year a couple of months later having accrued 2-23 in the Championship at full-forward, with occasional shifts to help out at midfield.

That's how predictable football is. This current Tyrone team have their faults, but so did the 2008 edition.

As tempting as it is to say that the 2008 Dogs of War rearguard of McMenamin, Conor Gormley and Philip Jordan would never have conceded 2-3 consecutively, it was not always the case. If any county team are likely to pile on a load of scores in a short space of time it is Down.

Today in Tyrone, you might catch the usual stuff. It is said that players are disaffected, but there is nothing wrong with the morale of a team that can recover a two-point gap when the game is on the line and the heat is really on.

Some may disagree with Harte over team selection. But they were probably of a similar mindset to Nudie six years ago. What is absent from Tyrone though is game-sense, or what some in the trade refer to as 'cuteness'.

It was curious that for a county routinely, lazily and falsely labelled as cynical in the last decade, no Tyrone player sought to stem the flood of Down scores by getting a row going.

Nobody went down feigning a calf strain, or even as we saw in a Championship game last season that Down lost, a head injury when no contact was made with the head (a game can only be stopped now in the case of head injuries).

In terms of rating the All-Ireland contenders, most people think Dublin are super-human. Tyrone were slightly detectable on the radar before Sunday. Now, they do not register at all.

But they are still the team that have presented Dublin with their stiffest challenges for the last two seasons. Don't forget it.

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