Kerry and Tyrone illuminated the Noughties. If the early to middle part of the decade could be characterised by Tyrone’s throwing down of the gauntlet to Kerry, the second half saw Kerry issue a powerful response.
In head-to-head clashes, Tyrone enjoyed the upper hand: but it would be disingenuous to reduce the Tyrone-Kerry rivalry to those direct meetings. An All-Ireland won is an All-Ireland won, regardless of who you beat along the way, and your standing cannot be diminished by the failure of your opponents to advance far enough to cross your path.
We are listing dangerously towards reopening the circular debate about the team of the 1990s – a debate which, intriguingly, some tried to settle before all the evidence of the entire decade had even been assembled.
Rather our business here is to pay due tribute to Kerry and Tyrone for fascinating us so often, both as a pair and when operating away from each others shadows, during those mesmeric years.
For the purposes of illustration, we would like to engage in our own piece of reductionism – for the 2008 final was, in so many ways, a microcosm of the rivalry.
The startling array of subplots stitched into the narrative of that final almost defied belief. But, of course, this was Tyrone and Kerry: nothing could be simple, nothing could be straightforward.
There was the announcement just a few weeks earlier that Stephen O’Neill was back on the Tyrone panel, and the conjecture over whether he would feature at any point.
Add in another wandering star, Paul Galvin, who was coming back out of suspension, and speculation, too, over whether he would be called on to play a part.
Tyrone’s eerie relationship with personal tragedy manifested itself again with goalkeeper John Devine losing his father on Saturday evening, as Tyrone were about to face into a run-out at their Maynooth base.
Devine slipped quietly home, and Pascal McConnell filled the breach. With all of this in the air, little wonder that Croke Park crackled with intensity even before the throw-in.
The game lived up to its billing. Kerry played superbly, but still couldn’t shift Tyrone. O’Neill came on, and didn’t play well, later declining to accept his medal. Galvin came on, but failed to have an impact either.
McConnell made two wonderful saves, including the late stop from Declan O’Sullivan that finally doused Kerry’s fire. The man called in at the eleventh hour paid his way, and how.
This was Kerry and Tyrone, remember: nothing simple, nothing straightforward.
We don’t believe we have ever attended a better All-Ireland senior final. Tyrone made off with the cup, and Kerry licked their wounds. But if they did, it was Kerry who came back a year later to pick up another All-Ireland title, a considerable feat for a team after shipping the body blow of the 2008 defeat.
Little did we realise it then, but we were witnessing the final drama of a compelling rivalry.
Tyrone have threatened to return to those spectacular heights again, but in 2009, and again this year, vast promise came to nought.
There may never again be a time when Tyrone and Kerry jostle so regularly for national glory.
History shows us that while Kerry remain a constant – with the exception of the 1986-1997 drought – other empires emerge with reasonable regularity: the likes of Galway in the 1960s, Offaly and the Dubs in the ‘70s, Meath and Cork in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The Qualifier system means the chances of trans-provincial rivals meeting regularly are greater than they were in the old straight knockout days. For those of us who lived through Tyrone and Kerry in the noughties, their clashes of the future will always retain a special significance, regardless of the context of the day.