The final countdown: winner takes all

THE great imponderable. Will it be holders Kerry after their five games, or Tyrone in their tenth, who will benefit most in Croke Park on Sunday from their different routes to the All-Ireland SFC final.

The simple answer, managers Jack O'Connor and Mickey Harte agree, is that nobody can be sure.

Interestingly, however, O'Connor conceded that he would be happier to have seen his team tested like they were in the Gaelic Grounds by Limerick last year, describing the drawn Munster final as Kerry's "biggest battle" over the past two years.

"I can't tell you right now whether it's an advantage or a disadvantage,'' joked O'Connor, "maybe it was a bit easier on my heart than on Mickey's, because he was in a few tight corners. We feel we are going into the final very fresh, with a nice build-up of four weeks to prepare.''

Harte's response was that: "any route is very acceptable, we don't go through too many of them. Ultimately nobody will make a valued judgement until after the final.''

While O'Connor is happy that his team is going into the game "in good shape," he agreed that it would have been "nice to come through a tough battle." Kerry's only such experience in recent times was that game against Limerick, a point down, an extra seven or eight minutes added on and "it could have gone either way."

"We'll be going in with the mindset that this certainly will come down to the last ten minutes. We have often spoke about that and where we would be looking for the type of response required in that situation. It would be better if you were through it already. We have been trying to simulate that situation, where we'd be preparing players to battle it out in the last ten minutes, when scores are tight.''

Having three weeks to prepare for the final is a luxury Tyrone didn't have for much of the summer, Harte pointed out. But it has given players and management time to reflect and to prepare. And, as ever, training has been geared towards 'freshness.'

"We only train twice a week (collectively) and that's all we have done all the year. I think that's sufficient. That's my philosophy. Other people chose other ways to do the very same thing, that's their prerogative, but our way has served us very well.

"The modern-day Gaelic footballer is an athlete and he looks after himself well. It's not to say that the two nights we do are his only fitness contribution. They work on their own, but they have their own time to do that and are dedicated enough to do it.''

With the Kerry manager indicating that they will announce their team this evening and Harte confirming that they will name their line-up on Thursday, O'Connor spoke of the tactical use of substitutes.

"Often guys you bring in can change games and win games for you. It's the strategic way you use them, and the Tyrone/Armagh semi-final was a case in point. Tyrone brought in players who made the difference and maybe Armagh's substitutes didn't work on the day!''

He described as "a kind of media invention" talk that Kerry had been forced to 'innovate' after the type of football Tyrone played against them in the semi-final two years ago. Through all the different teams he has been in charge of colleges and Kerry U21s he said he had always tried to get teams to play "a similar way."

"There's no rule against players working that's all we talk about, fellows working hard when they are not on the ball. I don't use terms like 'men behind the ball' and 'blanket defence', only in relation to somebody asking a question.

"Maybe Kerry didn't have the right type of players in the positions that you need for that kind of workrate. We set out early to find that type of player. Paul Galvin would be the type of player I'm talking about,'' he added.

"He might fit into everybody's scenario of a Kerry forward, but he is the ideal prototype of a modern wing-forward very mobile, he can go back, he can go forward, he can kick scores and get in for a break. That's what we're talking about. You can't impose a style on a player. He has to be that type of player already for to work with.''

Asked about his reaction to criticism of the Tyrone style two years ago as he articulated in his book Mickey Harte said that some of the comments 'got more oxygen of publicity' than they deserved. "It was only a comment or two. Overall there was much more to it than the incidents that people talk about, which seem to reflect that, that was 'all' the game was about. It's hard to shake that off, but time will do it. I think Gaelic football has moved on. That's not to say that any one team or any one group of people have contributed only to that. Every team every year observes what's going on around them, tries to play to their own strengths and tries to be innovative. I think there is a lot more innovation in the game than there used to be. It's evolving all the time. Everybody thinks that maybe a good game must be a high-scoring game and have lots of good fielding. I think there is a lot more in the game. I think there is a lot of high quality defending, and defenders never got the credit that they deserved throughout their games.''

Contesting the final for only the fourth time shows that Tyrone's experience is 'very modest' compared to Kerry's (with 51 appearances behind them). However, Harte points out that success at under-age level and on through to senior has given the current group of players a belief "they can win things."

"If you had never made the breakthrough that would be more difficult. The fact we did make it in 2003 is helpful, because we are now going into the final knowing what it's like to win.''

Harte was asked about what some people perceived to be a 'north/south' divide, the different reactions provoked by Armagh's and Tyrone's victories.

"It is over-used and abused in many ways. It would not matter where Tyrone and Armagh were positioned in Ireland. We have done what we have done because we believed it was the right thing with the panels we had at our disposal.

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