THERE is a reason why Kerry and Tyrone have won every All-Ireland title since 2003.
Kerry have prospered largely by virtue of their superior players.
Tyrone’s success has stemmed from their superior tactics.
All that changed at the weekend. On Saturday, Kerry were outplayed, while Tyrone were tactically out manoeuvred.
Strangely, before the first game, it was impossible to find a Down man who thought his team would win. It was equally difficult to find a Kerry man who thought his side would lose.
Even in the North, Down were massive outsiders. The Mournemen were 10/3 with most bookmakers and 4/1 with others.
I expected them to win, and tipped them in my preview. My rationale was obvious. Kerry were missing too many players.
Put simply, the Kerry side that won the All-Ireland final included Diarmuid Murphy, Tomás O Sé, Darragh O Sé, Tadhg Kennelly, Paul Galvin and Tommy Walsh – and the team which started against Down – did not.
Furthermore, it’s a disservice to describe certain men as ‘players’. Having watched and admired Kerry for the past decade, it’s the same individuals who have continually ridden to their rescue.
Tomás and Darragh O Sé aren’t just footballers. They are leaders. There is a heroic quality to their performances. For some games, they should have worn capes. To a slightly lesser extent, the same applies to Paul Galvin.
It is impossible to replace men of this calibre. When Kerry really came under the cosh, they managed just one rally. But once Killian Young’s goal was disallowed, it seemed to fracture their spirit.
There was an absence of leadership, and in the case of the disallowed goal, there was an absence of justice.
Meanwhile, Down took advantage of every opportunity that was presented to them.
Micheál Quirke was dispossessed three times in the first half. On another day, those errors would amount to nothing. On Saturday, they led to 1-2.
It would be grossly unfair to hammer Quirke as he was largely responsible for bringing Kerry back into the game. At one stage, Kerry won nine successive kick-outs. This was due to Quirke who won the aerial battle on his own.
Down, however, were having one of those days, evidenced by the two 45s converted by Ambrose Rogers and Martin Clarke.
Down’s supporting cast also rose to the occasion as Paul McComiskey and Mark Doran took maximum advantage from minimal possession.
Ultimately, the massive haemorrhaging of talent that occurred after last year’s final, and the suspensions to O Sé and Galvin, wrecked Kerry’s season.
Given their shortage of genuine strength in depth, Kerry needed to progress through the Championship without any injuries or suspensions. Unnecessary indiscipline that failed to contribute to the success of the team has cost them dearly.
Meanwhile, if Dublin versus Tyrone was to be compared to a soccer match, then it was like watching Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan playing Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan.
Defence was the order of the day. Pat Gilroy has suffered enough hammerings to realise that he just can’t afford the luxury of playing with six conventional defenders.
His tactics against Tyrone were eminently sensible. He set out to defend in numbers and protect his full-back line at all costs. Gilroy knew that if Dublin were level with 10 minutes to go, then they would have a puncher’s chance.
The Dublin manager has also learned that close games are won by the 15 men who are on the field at the end of the match. He achieved that objective by ensuring that Eamonn Fennell, Paul Flynn and Cian O’Sullivan were all involved for the crucial last quarter.
With five minutes to go, the score was tied at 0-13 each. When the ball rebounded off the bar, Eoghan O’Gara was presented with an exposed chin. His goal put Tyrone on the canvas and they failed to beat the bell.
Pat Gilroy’s tactics and substitutions were virtually faultless. He also got the all-important break.
Meanwhile, Mickey Harte has had better days on the sideline. His match-ups were debatable.
Joe McMahon is a brilliant sweeper. He has proved adept at knowing when to stay and when to attack the approaching player. On Saturday, Ryan McMenamin occupied the sweeper role, but his positioning wasn’t great as he often failed to put himself in front of Bernard Brogan.
Tyrone would have been better served with Joe McMahon playing sweeper and McMenamin marking Brogan.
Harte was also slow to make substitutes. Nearly everyone in Tyrone is raving about Peter Harte. The Tyrone players love him and by all accounts the 20-year-old was flying at training.
With the 35-year-old Brian Dooher struggling, Harte’s nephew could have been brought on much sooner.
But therein lies the real story of the weekend. Having won three All-Ireland minor titles in 2001, 2004 and 2008, Tyrone have players who are ready to replace the old guard. It’s only a matter of time until Peter Harte takes over from Brian Dooher. But who will take over from Tomás O Sé and Paul Galvin? Kerry have failed to replace Darragh. And at the weekend, Kerry’s minors were no match for the Red Hands. It’s easy to see Mickey Harte returning to Croke Park with a younger, stronger Tyrone team. The same cannot be said for Jack O’Connor.