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Red Hands must master Connolly and The Hill, warns Harte

Tyrone v Dublin, All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Croke Park, August 27, 3.30 pm

By Declan Bogue

It's eight days out from Tyrone's big game.

An All-Ireland semi-final. Against Dublin. In Croke Park. The biggest-attended sporting event in Europe that weekend. Dozens of cameras beaming images all over the globe.

They always say that semi-finals are for winning and nothing else, as if finals are immune to that kind of pragmatism. More often than not semi-finals are the games that leave the residue and the drama.

Part of the drama of course at this level of Gaelic football has to involve the only real 'ultras' element of the sport, which is the support Dublin get from the fans standing on Hill 16.

Red Hands boss Mickey Harte ponders the impact 'The Hill' can have on the Dubs, on the atmosphere and even the final result of the game.

"It's just that energy that they bring, it's almost like they're the 16th and 17th men, not just the 16th, but two of them," begins Harte.

"To me, it always has been, when you play Dublin in Croke Park in the All-Ireland Championship, it might as well be an All-Ireland final, because the same atmosphere is there, the same crowd is there, the same power of the Hill is there.

"Whether it's a semi-final, a quarter-final, or an All-Ireland final, I don't think there's a lot of difference. The energy that you find or get from an All-Ireland final is always present when you play the Dubs when they're in good form - and they're in good form this last number of years."

Before they began their dominance of Leinster, and began extending it in 2011, with four All-Ireland titles over the last six seasons, it felt like the Hill had an even greater kinship when the Dubs were struggling.

Harte reminds us: "Back in 2005 when we were maybe eight points up at one stage, the Hill got behind Dublin and I've often described it as they almost sucked the ball over the bar five times to get us back to three, until we got that other goal to take the heat off again.

"They have that power. There is an energy that comes off the crowd whenever a player or a group of players do something good. I don't know how it happens, it's almost like an orchestra, it just rises, the tempo rises, and everybody feels 'There's something special happening here'. It mightn't be that special to look at, but there's just an energy about it."

As positive an image as it can be on the game, there have been controversial moments.

Such as the time Tyrone's Martin Penrose was put through on goal during their 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final. A whistle was blown on the Hill. It was enough to scupper the chance.

"He just paused for that split second and he lost that opportunity of a clear-cut goal," recalls Harte.

Adding to the drama, there is of course a sense of Banquo's Ghost to the Dublin team this year as Diarmuid Connolly has been not quite hidden from sight and certainly not gone from mind as he serves out his 12-week suspension as punishment for a light push on linesman Ciaran Branagan during their win over Carlow earlier this summer.

Connolly's suspension is up in time for this game.

What plans Harte makes inevitably centre around the prospect the St Vincent's man will be there.

"You would be a fool to dismiss the influence that Diarmuid Connolly can have on any game - and has had over many years," rues the Glencull man.

"He's absolutely a quality player and has developed even into a better player than he was when he first came on the scene, where he had all the natural talent and skill and ability. But he's a powerful player now along with that as well.

"So I suppose it's something that Jim Gavin will be the one who will decide how and when we see him, and in what context. So I really can't say much about the detail, but I know for sure that he's certainly a strength that Dublin didn't have in their games since he got that (suspension)."

The temptation might be to keep Connolly for the final third nor even quarter of a game, to hold him in reserve until the spine of the Tyrone team tire and use his power and ball carrying.

However, Connolly can play it a number of different ways, and his ability to kick from distance, whether it be a score or a pass, would be a prized asset in a game where Tyrone can make the pitch feel very small all of a sudden.

The last time these two met in Championship action, Connolly helped himself to 0-7 from play.

"We always knew that he was a very talented player. You just see some players and you know they've got all the skills," admires Harte.

"And a two-footed player who's comfortable on either side. Physically an imposing person as well; he's not sort of a small guy. So he's got a lot of the attributes that you would love to have in a player.

"And probably at that stage he hadn't developed as much power as he has now. So I think he's a Connolly-plus now from 2011, which means that we've got to be very careful!"

Tyrone are coming in with a clean bill of health. Connor McAliskey, the victim of a cruciate injury in their very first outing of the year when Tyrone were beaten by Cavan in the Dr McKenna Cup, is now back in full training, but his lack of competitive action will probably see him left off the squad.

His manager pays warm tribute in saying: "His dedication to being with the group and being part of it is just admirable and a real breath of fresh air around the place."

The countdown is on.

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