You know that feeling. The slight quiver in your stomach. It’s the unmistakable sign of a proper match.
Sadly, that frisson has been notably absent from this year’s championship. But with the green and gold of Kerry and the white and red of Tyrone, we’ve finally got a pairing that will raise the pulse of the GAA nation.
This game promises to be particularly special. Kerry will be licking their lips. At long last, the mighty Kingdom is getting a chance to beat Tyrone when it matters.
Like true aristocrats, Kerry are willing to turn a blind eye to the occasional lapse. With the notable exception of Pat Spillane, who doesn’t uphold the sporting etiquette of his people, most Kerry men were prepared to accept the semi-final defeat in 2003. Yes, it was a bloody nose. But these things happen. And didn’t Tyrone go on to win their first All-Ireland title? Kerry could live with that.
Then came 2005 and Peter Canavan jumping on the Gooch’s back. Heaven forbid. Things were starting to get out of hand. 2008 was worse again. Peter the Great had retired, Stephen O’Neill and Owen Mulligan were on the bench – and Tyrone still won.
Meltdown. Kerry were in turmoil. Football was no longer making any sense to them. And when football doesn’t make sense to a Kerry man, he’s in a very bad place.
Tyrone were no longer opponents. Those northern nouveau riche upstarts were a curse.
The manic scenes which followed Kerry’s qualifier victory over Tyrone in 2012 revealed the psychological damage the Red Hands had inflicted on the Kingdom. Paul Galvin’s tears and the pandemonium in Fitzgerald Park. It was unprecedented. Kerry have celebrated All-Ireland titles with less gusto.
Crucially, though, Kerry will concede a Round 3 Qualifier in Killarney doesn’t carry the same import as Sunday’s match in Croke Park. In 2012, Kerry merely lowered Tyrone’s flag. On Sunday they have a chance to bury it in the ground.
Typically, the reigning All-Ireland champions will approach their prey with caution. They have learned to respect Tyrone. Moreover, they have an innate regard for Mickey Harte.
When I spent a week in Kerry ahead of the 2008 All-Ireland final, one constant theme emerged from my conversations: Mickey Harte.
When talking about the final, the typical Kerry man would state that he fancied his county to win. The supporters had no doubt Kerry had superior players. They would never mention Tyrone’s footballers. But, without fail, they would enquire about Harte. It was obvious they viewed Harte as their real nemesis. He was the man who was always a step ahead of them.
In 2003, the deployment of Gavin Devlin as a sweeper nullified the cross-field balls to Colm Cooper. In 2005, there was the double substitution of Peter Canavan.
In 2008, Joe and Justin McMahon and a carefully rehearsed defensive system neutralised the truly frightening threat of Kieran Donaghy, Tommy Walsh and Colm Cooper.
No matter what concoction Kerry threw at Tyrone, and regardless of whatever setback befell the O’Neill County, it seemed that Mickey Harte was always able to come up with the perfect antidote.
In essence, the matches between Tyrone and Kerry in 2003, 2005, and 2008 boiled down to one thing. Tyrone could always anticipate what Kerry were going to do. Kerry were predictable. In contrast, Kerry were always flummoxed when Mickey Harte pulled yet another rabbit from the hat.
Therein lies the key difference for Sunday’s reunion in Croke Park. During the past few years a paradigm shift has occurred in the way these counties ply their trade.
During Tyrone’s glory years, Harte encouraged his players to express themselves, to make decisions, and to improvise during games. While Tyrone were organised, a lot of their best football was totally spontaneous and off-the-cuff.
Consider Brian Dooher’s point in the 2008 final when he ran half the length of the field, beat three men and kicked the ball over the bar from an outrageous angle. There is no science behind a brilliant score like that. Those moments come when players are given a license to express themselves.
Move forward seven years and Tyrone are utterly transformed. Starved of the natural talent which adorned his All-Ireland-winning teams, Mickey Harte has installed a highly prescriptive system. The organic football of yesteryear has been replaced with a game-plan which borders on the robotic.
That’s not a criticism. Without this new style of play, Tyrone wouldn’t have got anywhere near an All-Ireland semi-final.
But Tyrone’s tactical rigidity now means Eamonn Fitzmaurice has the upper hand.
It can be assumed Lisa Fallon has already supplied Fitzmaurice with a detailed report which will have micro-analysed Tyrone’s displays in this year’s Championship. Fallon is also the opposition analyst for the Northern Ireland soccer team, and for Cork City. For her job, she studies how teams play.
Fitzmaurice engaged Fallon’s services after one conversation. When Fallon made a few observations about the changes which he made during a championship game, Fitzmaurice asked if she had a mole in the dressing room. After Fitzmaurice checked Fallon’s CV, she was hired.
Going into Sunday’s game, Fitzmaurice will realise what happened when Monaghan didn’t contest Tyrone’s short kick-outs.
Five of Tyrone’s points in the first half came directly from short kick-outs. Tyrone’s running game is excellent.
But what will happen if Kerry go man-to-man for kick-outs and Niall Morgan is forced to kick into a crowded midfield sector that includes Anthony Maher (6ft 5in), David Moran (6ft 3in), and Bryan Sheehan (6ft 3in)? And that’s before Tommy Walsh (6ft 5in) is brought off the bench.
Fitzmaurice might press up on Tyrone’s kick-outs. He might not.
He might start Kieran Donaghy. He might not. He could use James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper as inside forwards. He might not.
The point is, we don’t know how Kerry are going to play.
And with Fitzgerald Stadium now closed from prying eyes (but not tree climbers), it’s much more difficult to second guess what Fitzmaurice has in store for Tyrone.
And that’s why Kerry will be convinced they are finally going to record a victory over their northern bogeymen.
In Eamonn Fitzmaurice, they have a manager who also has a dark cape. Unlike the previous jousts between these counties, it’s now harder to guess what the Kerry manager is going to produce from his hat.