“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”
As Tyrone’s world collapsed in on itself on Saturday, sucking the greatest and most fascinating team of the modern era into a black hole from whence there is no return (ask Hawking), TS Elliot’s words naturally came to mind.
It was the worst beating anyone has received in Croke Park since Sligo’s pot bellied amateurs turned up in 1975 to take on the most fearsome stable of stallions in the history of the game. If nobody knew Jacko, Pat and Mikey before that day, they certainly did afterwards.
On saturday, this Tyrone group took their first (and last) ever beating. “Hard to feel sorry for them” a St. Vincent’s man said to me in Kavanagh’s afterwards, “They’ve bleedin’ done it to us enough in the last decade.” A text came in from a Collegeland man. “At least three more good years in Dooher!“ Strange, the only real gloating came from the Armagh ones. “Isn’t it brilliant!” texted another one, “time for Mickey to go!” The most optimistic one though came from a chap who texted “sitting with Enda McNulty here. Wants to compare medal collections with Dooher.” The fact that there would be only one winner in that trophy count didn’t seem to have occurred to him.
Before the game, opinion was divided, primarily on the basis that Brogan and Connolly would struggle very badly against Tyrone’s sweeper system and once the game became a dour low scoring struggle, it would be in the balance. Dublin don’t have a spread of scorers and if it remained close in the last quarter, recent history shows they cannot be trusted. At this point, Tyrone’s wise old heads would be on the field (O’Neill, Dooher, McGinley and the outcome would become a coin toss. As it turned out, none of that applied.
As Colm, Pat and myself took our seats, the first topic of conversation was who Tyrone would use to sweep. When Penrose was announced, it became clear. He was going to drop back from his nominal corner forward role and patrol in front of the two shooters. But no, he walked to his spot and didn’t shift. O’Rourke actually got his binoculars out to see where the libero was coming from, but no, nothing. Even Pat, whose tactical appreciation makes General Custer look like Rommel, shook his head and muttered “suicidal”. And suicidal it was. The man who coined the most memorable phrase in modern Gaelic football, looked on in bewilderment. “Pat” I said, “Where has the puke gone?” “By God” he responded, “now is not the day to start playing football.”
The key with Dublin is to prevent them playing champagne football. Bernard Brogan is a glamorous PLC. Against Wexford he struggled badly because he was tightly man marked (this alone would not have worked) and because Wexford had a sweeper in front of him at all times. In the event, he had no impact other than to pepper supporters in the Davin with wild shots from the impossible angles he was shepherded into, before being taken off. When he can’t score himself, he gets frustrated, unlike say Gooch who is perfectly happy to play for the team, absorbing pressure, making dummy runs, setting up others.
Likewise, Diarmuid Connolly, who was also anonymous in the midst of the Wexford swarm. The result? Wexford would have won it, but for an amazing own goal from Anthony the apologist. Sadly on Saturday, the Tyrone sideline appeared to be in some sort of trance. Bernard Brogan wasted his first five possessions but even this didn’t rouse them. If he wins five clean possessions in the entire Donegal game Jim McGuinness will publicly self-destruct on the sideline, like the witch in the Wizard of Oz.
It was mass hara-kiri without the swords. Dublin won possession and looked up to see an ocean of space in front of and to either side of Bernard and Diarmuid. Immediately, in their minds eye, they could see a large triangle of champagne glasses, with Dom Perignon over-flowing, à la the famous footage of George Best surrounded by lovely birds as he poured.
The charge of the champagne brigade was - it has to be said - a thing of beauty, but it was all so avoidable. Diarmuid Connolly didn’t have a hand laid on him all day so did, as Pat Gilroy said afterwards “what he always does in training.” At no stage was anyone near enough to get a block in. At no stage was a ball fisted away from him. He simply circled about in the scoring zone, took a pass then engaged in fun-filled shooting practice. He is a brilliant long range finisher, but Tyrone don’t usually treat opposing forwards as though they were a contestant in the kick-fada. One could almost imagine the Tyrone backs saying “Good shot old boy” after he casually swept over another beauty. They might have, had they been close enough for him to hear them over the ‘oles’ of the Dublin fans.
Nineteen points from play is a record in the knock-out stages, that will probably never be broken. It could have been a lot worse, four clear goal scoring chances going a begging.
The irony was that Dublin simply did what Tyrone had taught them over the years. I ran into Pat Gilroy after his first disastrous year and suggested it was time to adopt the Tyrone method, otherwise I said “you’ll still be winning O’Byrne cups in 2020”. On Saturday, Dublin had a full-time sweeper (Nolan). They clogged up the central area in front of goal. They worked the breaks ferociously. They attacked through the middle in numbers. Meanwhile Tyrone, the pioneers of modern football, did none of the above. On top of that, of course, Dublin are younger, fresher, faster and stronger.
Now, as suddenly as it began, their epic journey ends. Their time may be over, but it will never be forgotten. Thank you for the memories! Tyrone abu!