on the ropes | 

Dublin’s goal drought and leaky defence could see them relegated at 'Red Hands' of Tyrone

Darren McCurry of Tyrone in action against Ciarán Kilkenny of Dublin during the league meeting of the sides at Healy Park in 2020. Photo: Sportsfile

Ciarán Whelan

The reigning All-Ireland champions versus the victors of the previous six years collide in Omagh this weekend – a marketing dream you would imagine. However, there’s a lack of anticipation ahead of Sunday’s clash.

Tyrone turned their season around totally last year and were deserving champions but in the analysis since perhaps the icing on top would have been if they had taken out Dublin en route to lifting the Sam Maguire.

The Dubs arrive in Omagh like a troop of wounded soldiers, five losses on the bounce dating back to last year’s All-Ireland semi-final collapse against Mayo.

Dessie Farrell’s men are on the ropes and fighting for their survival in the league’s top flight. Tyrone will relish the opportunity to inflict even more pain.

Go back a few years and Dublin were able to travel to Omagh with depleted squads and get the job done. That, most certainly, is no longer the case.

I expected Tyrone to have a hangover following their All-Ireland success. They were certainly behind other teams at the start of the league but awoke from that slumber in their victory over Kildare.

I watched them live in Ballybofey against Donegal and I was really impressed with their first-half performance. There were aspects that indicated they will be a force again this summer. They lost their way, however, and were picked off by Donegal.

In the opening 35 minutes against Declan Bonner’s side they were clinical and well organised defensively but it was their transition to attack that impressed me most. They were playing with the confidence that comes with being champions.

Tyrone are particularly good at getting extra men into the scoring zone, close to goal, while holding possession. This allows them to cut through opposing defences with effective use of the handpass.

Granted, they lost that game after losing their shape in the second half and their shot options and decision-making deteriorated. However, that is all fixable and Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher will look to build on that performance come Sunday afternoon.

Dublin’s issues and problems have been well documented and possibly for the first time in many years, they will start this game as outsiders. Indeed, the times they are a-changin’.

Not so long ago the heroics of the Dublin footballers had Gaelic games historians working overtime to ascertain what the latest national or Dublin record was they had smashed.

Longest unbeaten run, their chain of successive provincial winners, the historic five then six in a row, individual records for the likes of Stephen Cluxton and Dean Rock.

Those same archivists are now searching the vaults for records of a different hue, as Dublin’s slump continues. Their defeat to Kildare, last time out, was their first to the Lilywhites in league or championship in 22 years and now Farrell’s men will have to pull off a great act of escapology if they are to preserve their top-flight league status.

It was a game that saw them fail to score a goal for the third consecutive occasion – a real concern as Dublin’s ability to both create and clinically take goal-scoring opportunities was one of the qualities that set them apart.

How many times over the past decade did we see a team stay in contact only for the boys in blue to score a goal and then immediately tag on a few points to push themselves into clear water?

Dublin have scored only one goal in their four games to date this campaign – that from newcomer Lorcan O’Dell in their opening clash with Armagh.

Since then they have failed to raise a green flag against Kerry, Mayo, and Kildare. By comparison, look at their goal-scoring prowess in recent seasons in their opening quartet of games.

Last year in the condensed format – operating in Division 1 South – they hit eight goals in their four games, three in their regulation games (Roscommon, Kerry, Galway) and then victory over Donegal, as the Dubs and the Kingdom shared Division 1 title honours.

In 2020, the figure was four in games against Kerry, Mayo, Monaghan, and Donegal. A year previously it was five (against Monaghan, Galway, Kerry, Mayo) while in 2018 six was the number (against Kildare, Tyrone, Donegal, and Mayo).

It’s only one of a number of facets of Dublin’s game that needs to be remedied – their first-half fadeouts also need addressing – but there were some signs of encouragement against Kildare two weeks ago in Newbridge, as they created three decent chances but failed to capitalise.

Dublin are not at full strength but in the absence of the injured Con O’Callaghan, they have failed to build an attacking strategy that has in any way extended opposition defences.

At the other end of the field Dublin have been very open at the back. The maths are simple: if you are not taking chances up front, you cannot afford to leak as many scoring opportunities.

There were more definitive signs of a defensive structure against Kildare. Adopting a sweeper on Sunday will offer Tyrone the option to free up Frank Burns but at this moment Dublin have no choice but to deploy one.

Another important area will be midfield, with Dublin struggling to find a consistent partner beside Brian Fenton.

Last year Tyrone were perceived to have a weakness at midfield, yet in the All-Ireland final they delivered in that sector big time. They have two dominant fielders in Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick. In contrast, Fenton is being asked to carry nearly all the responsibility. The options look limited but Brian Howard should be the man for the job.

So is there light at the end of the tunnel? Well the only tunnel in view for Dublin is the one in Healy Park, Omagh; something of a Bermuda Triangle. I’m convinced young, callow footballers have walked down that tunnel and never been seen again!

Dublin’s backs are to the wall and a victory looks beyond them. However, maybe they will embrace the challenge of fighting off relegation and finally spark to life.

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