Forget about if or when Kerry will ever learn. When will the rest of us?
At the outset of every football championship season, we seem to form what could be called a Consensus All-Ireland pairing — and forget that, inevitably, a group of Disrupters will come along and spoil that party.
You can go back as far as you want, to, say, the last time Tyrone won an All-Ireland. Back in 2008, they had been written off at almost every juncture: after an underwhelming league, a first-round exit in Ulster, and as late as an underwhelming one-point last-12 win over Mayo. On the eve of that year’s All-Ireland quarter-finals, all everyone could see was a Dublin-Kerry final. Until along returned those most original and punkish of Disrupters in all their bearded and bandit glory, stunning Pillar’s Dubs, to such an extent he couldn’t even muster or coin a term like startled earwigs and simply stepped down instead.
Twelve months later it was Kerry’s turn to ambush the Dubs on their own patch. It would be wrong to say Jack O’Connor’s men came from nowhere that year. That May they’d won the league going the whole campaign unbeaten and it appeared just a matter if it’d be either Tyrone or Cork playing them in what would be their sixth consecutive final. But as that summer went on, especially after a jaded Gooch famously had a few pints in Jades, they looked a tired team waiting to be put out of their agony by a side on the rise, a profile which Dublin seemed to match. Only that profile was just what Kerry needed to awaken from their slumber and summon one of their greatest ever Feck Ye All performances, making us all seem foolish to think that Dublin side could ever have made it to September.
And on and on it’s gone ever since. On the eve of the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-finals, no one could look past another Kerry-Tyrone final until one crazy Saturday afternoon in Croker, Down and Dublin dumped the pair of them out of the championship.
In 2011, there was unanimity that the two best teams in the country were Cork and Kerry and that the only thing that could stop the pair of them meeting in the All-Ireland final was if they ended up in the same half of the draw. When they did, a semi-final showdown seemed inevitable. You might remember Tomás Ó Sé being interviewed after his side had comfortably beat Limerick in their quarter-final, saying how they’d “have to improve for Cork”, not knowing that while he was uttering those words in the bowels of Croke Park, out on the pitch Mayo were in the process of introducing themselves as the next great Disrupters for the decade that was to come.
The following two years Mayo again would foil reigning All-Ireland champions, only to come unstuck themselves in 2014 when heading into that semi-final weekend Oisín McConville had been in the majority of punters expecting we’d have another Dublin-Mayo final.
Of course we’d go on to have that pairing in numerous finals in subsequent years. But for long stretches of 2016 and 2017 no one was envisaging Mayo making it that far, especially when they had lost to Galway and were trailing Fermanagh and Derry late on in early-round qualifiers. In 2016 Tyrone were cock of the walk after the way they’d won Division Two and the Ulster championship. In 2017 it was a similar story with Kerry after how they’d won the league and blitzed through Munster; a final showdown with Dublin was assumed by all, just as it was for most of this year.
Yet each time Mayo were watching and waiting and licking their lips and duly pounced. Each time they met the criteria of the perfect Disrupters.
They were fearless.
They brought an eye-of-the-tiger intensity, epitomised by how Lee Keegan tormented and constrained Seán Cavanagh while kicking a couple of points himself.
And thirdly, there was a tactical boldness about them, from the deployment of Alan Dillon in that 2016 quarter-final which flummoxed Justin McMahon and Mickey Harte, to Aidan O’Shea being assigned to Donaghy duty in both 2017 semi-finals.
This year they did it again, quashing the Consensus All-Ireland. It is to Dublin’s eternal credit that so often for so long they were able to look into Mayo’s tigerish eyes and not blink and instead be the ones to stare them out. That they finally relented in 2021 to the relentless was no shame, or indeed, harm; as the county’s response to their previous semi-final defeats of 2012 and 2014 have shown, defeat can be the catalyst for necessary reinvention and regeneration.
For Kerry, there is less solace in their disruption, precisely because it has become an all-too frequent occurrence. Only once over the last six years have they failed to reach the league final, yet only once in that timespan have they managed to reach the All-Ireland final: 2019, about the only season this past decade when we actually got our Consensus All-Ireland. If you were to be cruel, you could say they’re becoming the new Derry: a magnificent league team but seldom able to translate that into ultimate championship success.
If you were to be fairer about it, you’d say Peter Keane has been desperately unlucky. Put it this way: his team could just as easily have won last Saturday by a point, just as Kerry did against Monaghan in 2007 playing considerably worse. Had they survived, we’d be saying it was the makings of them, the perfect preparation for their next game.
Another thing: both those underperformances — against Monaghan in 2007, against Tyrone last Saturday — came after lengthy layoffs. On each occasion, it was undoubtedly a factor in their underperformance, just as this column has often shown it has been an undesirable but important variable for multiple provincial champions in either code waiting so long for their next game. For most of the year, Kerry were in the rhythm of an Olympic boxer, the games coming quick and fast. Then because of Tyrone’s Covid difficulties, it meandered out to professional prizefight pace, upsetting their groove. Chances are the Kerry team of three weeks ago would have seen off the Tyrone of last Saturday.
Still. In recent years there always seems to be something that trips Kerry up, namely their difficulties in dealing with possible Disrupters. In 2017 it was Mayo. In 2018 it was Galway. In 2020 it was Cork. Now in 2021, it’s Tyrone.
It all means that instead of the Consensus All-Ireland we have the All-Disrupters All-Ireland, featuring the most frequent Disrupters of them all in Mayo and the original Disrupters of them all in Tyrone.
Last Saturday was vintage Tyrone. It didn’t matter to them that they’d lost their most three recent championship games to Kerry and that none of their players had ever beaten Kerry in championship. To them the spirit of 2003, 2005, and 2008 had more relevance than the more recent results of 2012, 2015, and 2019.
And they will bring that sort of selective thinking to the final. It’s inconsequential to them that they’ve no player who has beaten Mayo in championship and have plenty who lost to them in 2013 and 2016.
Just like the Down Disrupters of 2010 and indeed 1991 viewed themselves as a county that had never lost to Kerry in championship and only won finals, Tyrone will look at this as a contest between a county that usually wins All-Irelands against one that invariably loses them.
Not that such a perception will perturb Mayo.
Just as Tyrone have little respect for Mayo — as evident in how sparing Seán Cavanagh has been in his praise for them through the years, despite losing numerous big games to them — Mayo have little fear of Tyrone. In 2013, a good chunk of their panel had to contend going into big games against Tyrone hearing about how the Ulstermen invariably won them, only for Mayo to emerge victorious, in both that year’s All-Ireland senior semi-final and then the minor final.
Either way, it’s going to be ferocious, with the ferocity both sides will bring. As Cormac O’Malley tweeted last Saturday evening, not only do both counties see it as a huge chance to win Sam. As he’d wryly add, whoever wins has a great chance of being named third-favourites behind Kerry and Dublin for next year’s All-Ireland.