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Red Hands must rediscover bite after summer sorrows

By Declan Bogue

As Tyrone lick the wounds of a heavy beating by Dublin, now it's time to reflect on an underwhelming summer of Championship football for Ulster representatives.

Not before time, the All-Ireland Football Championship is set for radical change. There has been a gradual whittling down of the term 'Super-8s' - coined as a reference to next year's quarter-final group stages - to Super-4s, and now just Super-3s in light of recent results.

In examining the overall health of the Ulster counties and their performances in the Championship, you have to question if we indulge our existential tendencies too much.

At times like the 1990s when Sam Maguire resided in the province for four consecutive years, Ulster was regarded as the best Championship with the best teams.

It gained a reputation that still clings on despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Another period of dominance spearheaded by Tyrone and Armagh, but also enlivened by the presence of Fermanagh in an All-Ireland semi-final, meant the middle of the last decade was flush with cash and football.

At other times, a team came in like a comet - Cavan in the ancient world of Gaelic football, Down in the 1960s and Donegal more or less by themselves for a few years recently.

The overall quality within a province wasn't something that ever caused concern throughout the other three provinces, but it was a sign that Ulster GAA was spoken, discussed and thought about as a place apart.

There was nobody fretting for the collective health of Connacht football when Galway snapped up two Sams under John O'Mahony.

And virtually no discussion takes place now about Leinster as the other 11 teams spend their time trying to hide from the playground bully that is Dublin.

Here is how 2017 unfolded: Fermanagh took a trouncing in the Ulster preliminary round from Monaghan, who eventually got one of their own from Dublin. Antrim, as expected, were crushed by Donegal, who in turn were hammered by Tyrone, who also dished out heavy beatings to Derry, Down and Armagh.

Of all those mis-matches, the standard bearers were Tyrone. And few could have comprehended the scale of their defeat to a truly excellent Dublin side.

The Red Hands' season was a total enigma. They won the Ulster Championship and racked up record scores, but the margin of the Dublin defeat was the heaviest Sean Cavanagh and Mickey Harte had experienced across 16 seasons.

Although the hat has been deservedly tipped to Dublin for being outstanding in their gameplan and execution, Tyrone suffered the same fate as Donegal did in the 2014 All-Ireland final.

A counter-attack game only works if you are ahead. If not, then the system swallows itself whole, with a defence lying deep while the opposition toss the ball about among themselves with no thought to aesthetics and appearances.

It wasn't just in this way that Tyrone and Harte got it wrong, though. Questions have been flying about regarding the lack of bite last Sunday.

Players such as Conor Gormley, Ryan McMenamin and Mickey McGee - somewhat unfashionable, snarling and unafraid to use methods on the edge - are notably absent from the Tyrone line-up.

Playing a zonal defence, Dublin's players could sneak in between the lines. Tyrone stars casually strolled into their allotted defensive position and passed players onto the next man and pointed fingers.

All labourers without a charge hand.

In the meantime, Ciaran Kilkenny was left unmarked and allowed to rack up almost a touch per minute. He set the pace of the game, and Tyrone consented by not detailing a man marker.

Meanwhile, Dublin simplified things. They looked at Tyrone's main men, and Peter Harte in particular. They tasked John Small with following Harte all day, and he banged into him, got in his face and clung to his jersey. He tread a fine line throughout and negated Harte completely.

In Mickey Harte's early years with Tyrone, they had a mantra among the team that they needed to be 'psycho for the ball'.

It's easily forgotten, but in the trio of late majestic points from Sean Cavanagh (the equaliser), Peter Harte (to take the lead) and Kieran McGeary (the clincher) in the 2016 Ulster final, the turnover that gained possession for the former's came when Johnny Munroe clattered hard into Frank McGlynn for a loose ball.

Another referee might have awarded a free and that could have closed the door on Tyrone. But Munroe got away with it. He was 'psycho for the ball'. Earlier this year, Munroe walked away, frustrated by his lack of opportunities.

On Sunday against Dublin, nobody was 'psycho for the ball'.

In keeping with another sporting shambles over the weekend, Tyrone have vowed to 'win or learn'.

Their strategy might have been off, and the personnel can be worked on.

But nothing lasts forever. There is an air off this Dublin team that Kilkenny carried into the 2008 All-Ireland Hurling Championship, which culminated in a 23-point trashing of Waterford in the final.

All the things being said about Dublin echo Kilkenny then: tradition, winning culture, investment in the games and a healthy under-age scene.

The law of averages will kick in.

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