Kerry experience should shade semi-final showdown
All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Kerry v Tyrone (Saturday, Croke Park, 3.30pm, live on RTÉ2 & Sky Sports)
A GAME like this has the potential to wipe away all the negativity that went before it: from indentured slavery and Gaelic Football’s obituaries through sledging and diving to the hum-drum Qualifiers.
This is the one we’ve been waiting for. The thought of Tyrone and Kerry going at it reminds us all why we follow this game of ours and hopefully it’ll keep us at the edge of our seats, if not right out of them, tomorrow.
Kerry are the reigning All-Ireland champions and their place in the last four was predicted by all and sundry. As for Tyrone: Six weeks’ ago would you have bet on them getting this far? Not many would have.
On July 11, a rainy night in Omagh, the Red Hands turned their season around by dragging themselves back from behind to beat Meath in the Qualifiers and after the win Mickey Harte was asked if there was better to come from his side.
“I believe so,” he answered.
“It wouldn't really be clever to be playing at the top of your game right now because everybody knows it’s very difficult to sustain that over a longer part of the season.
“If you hit peak form too early, then that can be a worrying thing as well, but I don't think we have to worry about that particular problem.”
There were smiles when he said that but the Tyrone manager was proved right once again because his side have improved dramatically and must be close to hitting “peak form” now.
They go into tomorrow’s game with a momentum built by beating Tipperary, Sligo and Ulster champions Monaghan with 58 points scored in the process.
Alongside their form they have motivation from the bone they have to pick with the GAA, pundits in the media and the outside world in general over the criticism of, and the eight-week ban handed to, Killyclogher’s Tiarnan McCann.
McCann has been cleared to start tomorrow and will play in a side that enjoyed three memorable wins over the Kingdom when it really mattered back in the noughties – the All-Ireland semi-final in 2003 and the finals of 2005 and 2008.
Although Kerry got a little of their own back three years ago when they gave Tyrone a 10-point hiding at Fitzgerald Stadium, the Red Hands still hold the psychological advantage and the longer they stay in the game tomorrow, the more that could become a factor.
For that to happen it’s crucial Tyrone keep out the goals. Kerry bagged an All-Ireland quarter-final record seven majors when they hammered hapless Kildare three weeks’ ago.
Jason Ryan’s men hoisted a lilywhite flag early that day but the pace and finishing power of the Kingdom forwards was impressive nonetheless.
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice will have noted Donegal’s successful tactic of going for goals early on so, with Kieran Donaghy always a threat in the air and James O’Donoghue and Colm Cooper hovering in support, Tyrone can expect and barrage in the opening quarter.
When Donaghy goes up for a ball he’ll have Ronan McNamee jumping with him and Justin McMahon and Colm Cavanagh there to dispossess him if he lands with it in his hands.
If they win it, Tyrone break and it’s the seamless transition from defence to attack which has allowed this side to cut their last three opponents to shreds with Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Sean Cavanagh leading the way.
Up front, Connor McAliskey and Darren McCurry have thrived on this Championship run. McCurry didn’t start that night against Meath but he has gorged himself on points ever since he emerged as a second half substitute. Both frontmen are confidence players and early scores would settle them down.
Tyrone’s running game should cause Kerry problems because they looked very uncomfortable when Cork ran at them in the drawn Munster final but with manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice typically astute, they replay negated the tactic in the replay and restricted an off-colour Rebel side to just 1-6.
Paul Geaney was Kerry’s top scorer with 1-3 that night and the Dingle clubman is the only player to score in all four Championship games this season. Colm Cooper’s know how is preferred tomorrow but Geaney is a dangerous option to spring from a bench crammed with All-Ireland medal winners.
Darran O’Sullivan destroyed the Kildare defence with his pace as a sub in the quarter-final and scored 2-1 and Barry John Keane came on and scored 1-3. Alongside them there are Bryan Sheehan, Paul Galvin, Aidan O’Mahony, Paul Galvin and Tommy Walsh.
The pace and finishing power on the bench is formidable and with his accuracy from distance the introduction of Sheehan will allow Kerry to change tactics while Walsh is a ready made replacement for Donaghy if he is shackled by Tyrone’s defence.
Walsh could also operate in midfield which should be an intriguing battle with the pace and mobility of Mattie Donnelly up against the classy David Moran.
Alongside Anthony Maher, Moran has been in superb form this season and Tyrone goalkeeper Niall Morgan will need a repeat of his kick-out accuracy in the quarter-final win over Monaghan.
While both sides are packed with talented players in good form, a slow-burning war of attrition looks more likely than a gung-ho battle tomorrow.
Kerry won’t over-commit to attack because that would leave too much space for Tyrone to exploit on the break and if Tyrone have no room to manoeuvre the pace of the game will slow down and the scores will dry up.
All-in-all it’s evenly poised and the Red Hands are capable of winning. But for them to do that all the moving parts in their system need to work together in harmony which won’t be easy.
Against that, Kerry’s model is more straightforward - the Kingdom machine is well-oiled and battle-hardened.
Watching them in two hammer-and-tongs duels with Mayo in last year’s semi-final epic convinced most of the sceptics that this team has the minerals to tough it out and find a way to win. Their victory in the final over a Donegal side that had dethroned Dublin won over the rest.
That experience will be invaluable tomorrow because while Tyrone have the wind in their sails and have made dramatic progress this season, Kerry are farther along the road. That and the depth of talent available to Fitzmaurice gives them the edge they need to win this game.