Tyrone must find answers to deck Dubs
We had a long winter in Tyrone trying to figure how last year's All-Ireland semi-final came to pass.
You see over the last 15 to 20 years, we've had a change of mindset. When I started playing, we went to Croke Park hoping to perform. Now, we expect it. Winning a few All-Irelands has a way of shifting your horizons like that.
So when we left headquarters with our tails between our legs last August, it required a major rethink. The introspection was long and painful. Tomorrow night in Omagh we'll find out just how much we have learned.
This year it will be different in a number of aspects. For one, it won't be the culture clash last year's semi-final was billed as. I never saw that game as the immovable object against the irresistible force as some commentators put it.
Broadly speaking, the top teams all play a similar brand of football.
There's a photo I took 10 minutes into the Donegal-Dublin game.
Declan Bonner's side are on the attack and all 15 Dublin players are in their half.
And we saw their pragmatism at the end too as they played keep ball to see the game out. They were in control and were happy to run the clock down. Like everyone else they aren't in the entertainment business. Doing what they have to do to win is their only mission.
Now that's not a criticism, it's just an observation. They are entitled to do what they think will help win the game. Dublin are analysed slightly differently in terms of their style of play because they can move the ball so quickly and hurt you in a number of different ways that their set up isn't always as obvious as it is with other sides. And also because they have been winning all around them.
However, the core principles are the same across the top sides. Force turnovers and hit on the break.
Tomorrow's game will also be different because Tyrone will field a very different team to the one that ran on to Croke Park in 2017. I reckon that there will be seven changes from last year's team. Some will be down to injury and retirement but it's still an extraordinary turnover in less than 12 months. Dublin on the other hand will probably have two.
Tyrone have also added a new dimension to their attack. Last year it was left to Mark Bradley to carry the can up front. This year they are looking to kick it more and Richie Donnelly's inclusion has helped that.
Richie is a big, mobile fella who is well able to compete in the air. Tyrone tried his brother Mattie on the edge of the square last season and they put Sean Cavanagh in there too for a while. There was an acceptance that Bradley needed more help up there.
And after being injured for much of last year, Richie was given his first start against Meath and he has got better game by game.
So there's no doubt they are improving and offering a different type of threat than just the hard running game they depended on last year. Their conversion rate against Roscommon was 82pc while against Cork it was 70pc and 75pc versus Cavan. The general rule of thumb is that over 60pc in championship football is a decent return.
However, those numbers are tempered by the fact that many of those scores still came off their counter attacking game while quite a few of them came late in the game when maybe the outcome had already been decided.
Dublin won't let that happen as easily as the teams Tyrone have played of late. Jim Gavin's men mind the ball better than anyone in the country. And if you do manage to rob it from them, they have the athleticism to recover and the smarts to foul at the right time and stop your momentum. Tyrone will have to find other ways of hurting Dublin.
That direct ball caused Dublin some trouble in the early part of the Leinster final when they found Donie Kingston to be a handful.
Donegal got some joy from it too last weekend and Richie Donnelly's presence means Tyrone can ask similar questions.
For that reason I expect to see Philly McMahon back in the Dublin team. Eoin Murchan did a fine job tracking Ryan McHugh last weekend but McMahon will add a bit more power to that defence and I think that's what Gavin will go with in Omagh.
And while Donegal had some joy at certain times, they just couldn't get their hands on enough ball to do real damage and that's because Dublin are better at managing kick outs at both ends of the field than anyone else in the country.
I watched Donegal in the Ulster Championship against Down. That day, Down couldn't get their hands on their own kick outs. Even when Donegal were reduced to 14 men, they were so good at pressing up and giving Down no options that they starved them of possession and ran out comfortable winners.
When it came to the Dublin game, they simply couldn't apply the same pressure. Once again Stephen Cluxton was brilliant in that regard. He helped Dublin win 23 of their 25 kick outs, a remarkable return for a team that looked so good at applying pressure.
Dublin put the squeeze on at the other end too. Shaun Patton has rightly won early plaudits for his ability to find Donegal men so far this season but Dublin picked off 10 of his kick outs.
It's a key aspect of the game and Tyrone will have to find a way to compete at both ends of the field. If they could find parity in that regard, they would be doing very well.
Still, it's a very big ask for Tyrone because Gavin has Dublin purring just now. They have lost a few leaders and big players over the last few seasons but against Donegal two of his less established players were to the fore in Niall Scully and Brian Howard.
Scully earned his place in 2017 while Howard came on the scene this year. In the early stages of their careers, you wouldn't have had either down as a star in the making in the way, say, Con O'Callaghan was. However, Gavin has worked on them and they are key men for him now. There's plenty who don't like how Gavin goes about his business but you can't deny his excellence in developing players.
Of course they are out of Croke Park which is a help. And I think the crowd will make themselves heard in Healy Park but Omagh isn't the fortress for Tyrone that Mickey Harte would like it to be. Their record there proves that.
And after taking a bit of flak for having two home games in the Super 8s, they'll be out to prove a point that it doesn't matter where they play.
So things will be different in Healy Park tomorrow night than they were 12 months ago. I don't expect to see the implosion we saw in Croke Park.
And I think Tyrone will ask questions of Dublin that they didn't last year. They are closing the gap on the best team in the land and are on the right road. I'm just not sure they are ready to overtake them yet.