New angles on an old rivalry

Tyrone and Kerry clashes traditionally have something of an edge and tomorrow's encounter is significant for more than just historical reasons.

New angles on an old rivalry

ALLIANZ FL DIVISION 1:

Kerry v Tyrone

“Football evolves and goes in certain directions at certain times,” mused Mickey Harte after last weekend’s great escape in Newbridge, when his team honoured the memory of Cormac McAnallen with a late winner from Mark Donnelly. It was his most telling observation, and perhaps his most prescient.

If football is evolving and going in a new direction this year, you can be damn sure Mickey Harte will have a hand in guiding its course. Harte made his remarks in response to a question pitched to him after the latest scorefest, which saw his team score 1-21 and concede 3-16 against Kildare.

Could it be possible that there’s a link between the punishing of cynical play with black cards and the porousness of defences since the start of the year? While he may insist that the attacking football played by Dublin was the prevailing trend ever before the introduction of the black card, Harte will no doubt recall the last time his team visited Killarney, less than two years ago.

On July 21, 2012, in Fitzgerald Stadium, the mask of stoicism slipped in the Kingdom.

Until now, Kerry folk had convinced themselves and anyone who asked that the failures to beat Tyrone in the previous decade hurt no more or less than any other All-Ireland defeat. Tyrone occasionally got under the skin and Jack O’Connor’s comment about the ‘nouveau riche’ hinted at a certain prickliness about the northern side’s swaggering indifference to tradition. Tyrone cared only about rewriting history, but Kerry had enough of it on their side to accept their fate without resorting to howling at the cruelty of the Gods. Every year after losing to Tyrone in Croke Park — in 2003, 2005 and 2008 — they responded by winning the next All-Ireland. It wasn’t their fault that Tyrone only came out to play every other year. Why then is Paul Galvin standing in front of the terrace after a third round qualifier victory with his fists clenched in defiance before an ecstatic home crowd? And why are those Kerry folk, who take pride in their inscrutability and whose very nature dictates that the word ‘yerra’ is a suitable response to even the most innocent query about their inner well-being, now gathered around the scoreboard giddily photographing the result for posterity?

(For the record, it was 1-16 to 1-6).

After the game, a friend of mine declared that he “couldn’t care less” if Kerry went on to win that year’s All-Ireland or not. He later retracted the comment as unbecoming of a Kerry man and, blushing as he recalled his unseemly behaviour, removed the image of the scoreboard he had been using as a screensaver on his phone.

There is no erasing the fact, however, that the victory mattered. It mattered because Tyrone and Kerry mattered. And tomorrow matters too, if for less historic reasons.

For Tyrone, it represents a second chance in 12 months to push Kerry that bit closer to Division 2 football. For Kerry, it’s a chance to clip the wings of a promising team before they take flight.

So can we, as Ryan McMenamin suggested during the week, “expect a shootout” in Killarney? I’m not so sure.

For one, Kerry, being the home team and the team most in need of league points, will want to control the terms of engagement from the outset. Whether that means succumbing to the pressure to keep it tight at the back, remains to be seen, but if they concede the type of goals they left in against Mayo last weekend, those charged with coaching the basics of defending will be very disappointed.

Much has been made of the fact that the teams who have been doing well up to now in all four divisions of the league — Cork, Donegal, Roscommon and Clare — have adopted a style of attacking en masse, stringing passes together to bewilder opponents and committing bodies forward to force defenders into making rash decisions.

What has gone unnoticed is how the traditional midfield battle has become central to the running game again. In order to impose the type of game that brings rewards in a black card world, you simply must get your hands on the ball at midfield.

In the absence of a Stephen Cluxton in every other county, teams have resorted to demanding that their midfield win primary possession. In a straight match-up between Anthony Maher and David Moran and the two Cavanaghs, I’d expect the Kerry duo to prevail under Niall Morgan’s and Brian Kelly’s kickouts.

Indeed, one need only look at the influence that Kildare’s Seán Hurley brought to bear from wing forward on last week’s aerial battles in Newbridge to see how much Tyrone struggle to win even their own kickouts.

With the jury very much out on five of Tyrone’s six backs (Peter Harte being the exception), Kerry will aim to profit from any midfield dominance, but the ability of Kerry’s forwards to win breaking ball, to scrap for crumbs and track back will be equally crucial tomorrow.

After the defeat to Mayo, I would imagine that Eamonn Fitzmaurice has spent much of the last week highlighting the importance of these qualities to his forwards. There was a marked difference between the tackling of Mayo’s forwards and that of their Kerry counterparts. It could even be argued that this was the losing of the game for Kerry last weekend. Both Mayo goals came about as a result of lazy thinking from Kerry forwards, and it was also obvious that the intensity of Mayo’s tackling up front came as a surprise to the likes of Mark Griffin, Shane Enright and even the normally unflappable Marc Ó Sé.

If the sort of tackling we saw from Kerry’s forwards last Sunday is what they’ve been subjecting their colleagues to on the training ground on Lewis Road, they’ve been doing their defenders an awful disservice. We can expect them to raise it at least two notches at Fitzgerald Stadium tomorrow.

What else can we expect? Stephen O’ Brien should take Conor Clarke out of his comfort zone with his quick turns and direct style, but it is outside them, on the 40, that the real intrigue lies. Can Bryan Sheehan, in his first game back after injury, be trusted to keep tabs on Peter Harte, who will be fresh after only playing 28 minutes of last week’s game due to a black card? It’s a lot to ask of Sheehan but he is the type of creative player capable of giving James O’Donoghue the sort of ball he needs inside, and for that reason, as well as for his reliable place kicking (absent last Sunday), Sheehan could be worth his weight in gold.

Kerry supporters are getting unduly edgy about their team’s habit of fading out in the last 20 minutes of games. Many reasons have been forthcoming, most relating to fitness or conditioning of the team, or to the lack of quality on the bench.

It’s a bit more nuanced than that. Sometimes, early in the second half, opposition teams just figure you out as a forward — even the Gooch was shackled by Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan in last year’s semi-final.

It’s what happens next during that critical period between the 40 and 50-minute mark, that matters. Sometimes players stop making the runs that previously worked for them and the management make changes accordingly. But the biggest transformation needs to happen is in the player’s mindset.

Sometimes, as the great 13th century Persian poet, Rumi, said “The cure for pain is in the pain”. Or as the late lamented Páidí put it, “you just have to toughen”.

Many of the Kerry and Tyrone players who take the field tomorrow are still on a very steep learning curve and many of the grizzled veterans of July 2012 have drifted off into retirement.

Come throw-in, the residual memory of that July day and the epic battles that preceded it will give an extra edge to proceedings, but there will be no sense of sweet release for the winner. And nobody will be bringing home a digital memento of the result. Still, as my Kerry friend who once had a picture of the scoreboard as his screensaver admitted during the week, “it would be nice to beat them all the same.”

I take Kerry to win.

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