IF YOU want proof of how Tyrone have disturbed the Kerry psyche, consider the last words Dara Ó Cinnéide said to me earlier this year.
We were standing at a junction in Cork city. The discussion was naturally about football. All the focus was on Kerry and Cork. Just as he was about to go, though, Ó Cinnéide brought up Tyrone. I expressed my surprise that he still felt the Red Hands posed a threat. After all, everyone else was dismissing their chances.
But like many Kerrymen, it seems Ó Cinnéide’s preoccupation with the Kingdom’s nemesis was summed up when after walking off, he turned and said: “They are the ghost that will not go away”.
Following Sunday’s Ulster final, the good people of Kerry will need no reminding that the bogeymen from the north could produce yet more nightmares for them before the summer is out.
Make no mistake, Tyrone are back, and they are back with a vengeance.
If Mickey Harte has one failing as a manager, then it’s his lack of ruthlessness in the year following an All-Ireland victory.
After lifting Sam in 2008, Harte retained the entire panel for last year’s Championship. No-one was dropped. It was an act of loyalty but it bred complacency. Harte also displayed uncharacteristic leniency in his team selection. Paddy Cunningham kicked four points from play off PJ Quinn in the Ulster final and the Moortown man was still in the defence when Colm O’Neill scored another three points in the All-Ireland semi-final. Dermot Carlin has discovered that the Mickey Harte of 2010 is a very different animal. Carlin didn’t do much wrong against Down. In fact he held Conor Maginn and Paul McComiskey scoreless — but he was still dropped for Sunday’s Ulster final.
And being the proud owners of two All-Ireland medals apiece didn’t prevent Ryan McMenamin and Harte’s nephew Davy from being dropped for that semi-final against Down.
Like their manager, if the Tyrone players have a fault, then it is their inability to maintain the competitive zeal that’s necessary to retain the All-Ireland crown. The Red Hands are invariably at their most vulnerable when being subjected to universal praise. The opposite also applies and at this precise moment in time, conditions are absolutely perfect for Tyrone.
Even though, its just two years since Tyrone were All-Ireland champions, Colm O’Rourke and Pat Spillane still tipped Monaghan to beat them in the Ulster final. And even after a master class in Clones, not a single member of the guest audience in The Sunday Game tipped them to win the All-Ireland.
Mickey Harte will utterly relish his current situation. He will be totally convinced that his team can beat either Kerry or Cork and he has reason to harbour such confidence.
For all Kerry’s excellence, the template for beating the Kingdom remains relatively unchanged. You stop “the Gooch”. If Cork had been able to manage this task, they would now be the Munster champions.
At around the same time as Colm Cooper was ripping Cork to pieces, Lionel Messi was terrifying defences in the group stages of the World Cup. There were uncanny similarities between the two-left footed wizards. Close control and an injection of speed are central to their excellence. Messi is a genius. But Inter Milan and Germany demonstrated in the Champions League and the World Cup that genius can be contained by a carefully orchestrated defensive system.
Watching Tyrone on Sunday was like watching Mourinho’s Inter Milan. In Gaelic football, we are unaccustomed to the notion of one team controlling the game. Yet, this is precisely what Tyrone did against Down and Monaghan. Once they got a decent cushion in front, it was game over.
Against Down, they held the ball. On one occasion they made 25 successive passes. Against Monaghan, they were happy to invite the Farney men towards them. With nearly every player packed into one half of the field, it meant they could counter-attack at will.
While Kerry continue to rely on the undisputed brilliance of Cooper, Tyrone pulverised Monaghan without Stephen O’Neill and without Owen Mulligan registering a single score.
Tyrone know they can beat Kerry. The team they really want to beat is Cork. The wounds from last year’s All-Ireland semi-final defeat will still be raw. The general synopsis that Cork ‘out-Tyroned Tyrone’ was all the more hurtful because it was so true.
Cork’s single greatest advantage ahead of last year’s game was that the teams had never met before in the Championship. This meant Mickey Harte had lacked the data from which he constructs his match-winning formulae.
Tyrone are always at their most lethal when Harte has had the opportunity to study the opposition in detail.
If Tyrone were to meet Cork in this year’s Championship, Harte would view the contest like a replay. Unlike Cork, Harte’s side have a good record in sequels. Yet, despite Tyrone’s very favourable position, they continue to be ranked as third in the race for the Sam Maguire Cup.
Of course, some pundits get genuinely confused when differentiating between the team they hope to win from the team they think will win.
The anti-Tyrone sentiment that many pundits are struggling to conceal will only add further fuel to a squad of players whose determination is matched only by their manager’s will-to-win.
It’s a potent mix that will allow Tyrone to keep haunting Kerry while they hatch a plan to hunt Cork. Either way, the Munster men have reason to be spooked.
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