This is not just another qualifier

I think it was Heraclitus who first said that no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.

Nothing stands still in this strange game of Gaelic football and thus all talk of today’s beast of a game in Killarney being a chance for Kerry to settle up for 2003, 2005 and 2008 is redundant. That water flowed under the bridge a long time ago and Kerry were swept away by it.

While it would be wrong to build up the latest clash of Kerry and Tyrone as something it is not, it would be just as wrong to dismiss it as just another round 3 qualifier game.

This evening for Kerry is going to be about tradition, about experience and about legacy. It is that big and it is that important because, whether they like it or not, it could be definitive in how they are remembered as a team.

It’s quite a prospect. Tyrone, nearly 12 months into the difficult business of renewal and regeneration have put together a really decent team despite injuries to some key players. While we have been lamenting those players Tyrone don’t have, they have brought the average age of their squad down without compromising much on their ability to win games.

I find myself in a strange and unfamiliar position today as I’ve rarely anticipated so little for this group of Kerry players in a knockout game. It reminds me of that quarter-final game against Dublin of three years ago — and see how that panned out! It is difficult for Kerry folk to recall a time of such uncertainty at this stage of the championship and even the memories of three years ago don’t provide succour to many of them.

On merit alone, they must be true to the evidence in front of us all after last weekend.

Jack O’Connor’s comments after Mullingar have to be taken at face value. There were signs when things weren’t going right in the first half against Westmeath that a run of form is just around the corner for some of these Kerry players. Unlike in the Cork match last month, the body language was right for this one but Tyrone, too, know the perils of living life in the shadowlands — where the sun is always shining somewhere else. When Tyrone’s eventual core cracking came in last year’s quarter-final against Dublin it was brutal and disfiguring. In the back of their minds, the fear of such an ending may drive some of the Kerry players to greater heights in front of their own people.

We can expect a tactical struggle this evening. Don’t switch on the television or travel to Fitzgerald Stadium expecting a scorefest.

Here are two teams in transition fighting for position and for relevance in this year’s championship. After last weekend, I doubt there is an All-Ireland in either team but it will still be fascinating. It could be a game of chess played by old masters where chance is all but eliminated.

Tyrone’s team selection suggests that they will set up in a similar way to how they approached the Donegal game last month. While this evening’s game might not be quite as deliberate, there were still passages of play in that game that could be instructive in terms of how they might approach the Kerry challenge.

Conor Clarke had a monster of a game at full back for Tyrone against Donegal. Apart from an early foul, he totally subdued Michael Murphy, kicked a first point from distance, created one for Stephen O’Neill and would have had another late in the game, were his effort not ruled out and called back for a free. He looks to the manor born in the last line of defence and has a stride similar to that of his club-mate, Justin McMahon, in his pomp. After seeing off Donie Shine last weekend, Clarke appears tailor-made for a marking job on Kieran Donaghy.

For a brief period midway through the second half on Sunday in Mullingar, Donaghy threatened to impose himself on the game. He gave the final passes to Paul Galvin and Bryan Sheehan for what turned out to be crucial points and both passes came from balls threaded through to him chest high. After that, however, Westmeath’s extra man at the back, Ronan Foley, got to grips with his brief again and frustrated Donaghy up until to his eventual removal.

Dermot Carlin could end up operating as sweeper in front of Donaghy this evening and the big man is going to have to find a way of making that extra covering player redundant. If that means standing right at Carlin’s shoulder, bringing Conor Clarke with him and freeing up space for James O’ Donoghue and Colm Cooper — then so be it. There are only so many times a full forward can expect his team-mates to keep the supply line open if the ball isn’t sticking inside. Donaghy is astute enough and unselfish enough to play this game and by doing the simple things well early on, he can get himself back into the game in the second half — just as he famously did against Francie Bellew six years ago.

Of course, so much about full-back line play has changed since then and big target men like Tomás O’Connor, Michael Murphy, Nicholas Murphy and Padraic Clancy have found out in recent weeks that no self-respecting full back is operating alone anymore.

Donegal’s best period of play against Tyrone coincided with Colm McFadden engaging the extra man, Ryan McMenamin, as well as his own marker. All it takes, it seems, is hard work and the humility to sacrifice one’s own game.

Kerry will have spent a lot of time looking at how they fell between two stools up front last weekend. In the end they have gone with the same six starters and they must trust that their own patch in Killarney and the occasion of the visit of the only rival in the modern era to get under their skin, is going to draw a performance out of them.

It’s a lot of trust to be placed in a bunch of players who’ve underperformed as a group in their last four outings. However, the prize for some of the veterans of 2003, 2005 and 2008 is huge. This evening offers them a rare opportunity to beat Tyrone in championship football.

One of the harsh lessons learnt from Tyrone in Kerry is that in order to succeed you have to play the game without fear. Everything needs to be done with conviction and with certainty. It is doubtful that any other team in the history of Gaelic football has forced Kerry to think about the game and question themselves as much as Tyrone.

Such is the respect that Tyrone’s success has demanded of Kerry football that a win this evening would be cherished like few others. It is the final frontier for many Kerry players who’ve achieved so much in their careers.

I expect that respect to manifest itself in a huge crowd this evening. And, despite their recent form, the uncertainty and the doubt, I expect Kerry to win.

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