Amazing the things you pick up while out and about.
On the sidelines of a club pith last weekend, a former Tyrone footballer let something slip.
This player in question would still be close to the action, close enough to hear the odd snatch of gossip in any case. He held that since Tyrone beat Cork in the second round of the Super 8s and therefore qualified for the All-Ireland semi-finals, the only thing they heard on the training ground was ‘Kerry, Kerry, Kerry.’
No mention of Dublin. Looking at last Sunday, that makes perfect sense.
Tyrone have been waiting on this one since July 20 and while Kerry are priced up as favourites, casting the mind back to the last Championship meeting between the two throws up enough evidence that the Ulster side can make it to their second consecutive All-Ireland final.
Kerry won the 2015 semi-final 0-18 to 1-11. Kerry were the better side, but Tyrone didn’t help themselves.
As the clock ticked onto the hour, Peter Harte’s penalty put one in it and two minutes after, Mark Bradley levelled the contest.
What happened next? Experience happened. Kerry hit the last four points.
Comparing the team sheets gives a sense of the transformation of both teams in the intervening four seasons.
Retirements have claimed Brendan Kealy, Marc Ó Sé, Anthony Maher, Johnny Buckley, Donnchadh Walsh, Colm Cooper and captain Kieran Donaghy from the starting 15. Replacements Fionn Fitzgerald, Bryan Sheehan, Darran O’Sullivan, Aidan O’Mahony and Barry John Keane have also departed the scene.
Jonathan Lyne and Killian Young remain on the panel, but have drifted into the background as Éamonn Fitzmaurice began a process of transformation now superbly curated by Peter Keane.
The 2019 Kerry are exciting and dynamic, but they are raw too.
Even getting to the semi-final in 2015 was some achievement for a Tyrone side that were demoralised with a preliminary round defeat in Ballybofey to Donegal.
It was that defeat that forced Harte to entirely abandon the idea of defence for the sake of defence. From that moment, Tyrone remodelled their game and became a counter-attacking machine, Peter Harte, Tiernan McCann and Mattie Donnelly their Flying Column.
Something else happened that season. Peter Donnelly had been handed a role working with the underage players in Tyrone at the end of 2014. Such a prized asset was worth putting to work in the senior set-up and he began to oversee their physical transformation from the outset of the 2015 season.
At this stage with Donnelly’s work recognised enough for Ulster Rugby to swoop and claim him as soon as Tyrone’s run comes to an end this summer, his legacy is to be seen in the lean cheekbones and running power of Tyrone.
Such is the standards and records he keeps, that after the return of the team from their team holiday to Thailand in late December and early January, they underwent a series of athletic tests. Senior players confided that they were a full six weeks behind their readings the previous year, which may go some way to explaining their rotten showing in the opening league game, a 0-11 to 0-7 defeat to Kerry in Killarney.
From the 2015 game, only Cathal McCarron, Justin McMahon and Sean Cavanagh have retired from the starting line-up. Mark Bradley is on a year out while injuries have halted Ronan McNabb’s career.
A number of the 2015 All-Ireland winning Under-21 team were promoted to senior ranks. The likes of Paudie Hampsey, Ciaran McLaughlin, Michael Cassidy, Rory Brennan, Kieran McGeary, Frank Burns, Cathal McShane are now the dominant presence and have all been fast-tracked to grizzled veteran status with the help of Donnelly’s expertise.
Kerry have some of the finest young talents in the country. Sean O’Shea, Killian Spillane, David Clifford, Tom O’Sullivan, Gavin White and so on will carry their team over the next decade. But they are coming up against an entirely different proposition this weekend when it comes to power.
One of the most undervalued metrics in predicting a game is the weather. In the 2015 semi-final, the rain lashed and it suited the more powerful, physically gifted side.
At this remove, the weather is predicting a fine and dry day in Dublin on Sunday.
The Tyrone panel will be doing several rain-dances around their Garvaghey Centre this week.