GAA Football

Red Hands have narrowed the gap to Championship elite

Younger players like Darren McCurry (above) and Mark Bradley (below) provided the leadership up front for Tyrone against Kerry  
Breaking Ball with Philip Jordan

SOME defeats are pretty easy to accept, while others leave you with regrets and frustration. Last Sunday’s defeat will fall into the latter category for the Tyrone players.

Missed goal chances and a possible penalty not given were crucial in the outcome of the match. The three goal chances and the penalty claim all came at crucial moments in the match and each of them could have put Tyrone in front. I said last week Tyrone needed to ask Kerry questions to test their desire. Kerry showed great composure in the final 10 minutes, but those missed opportunities meant they weren’t tested to the full.

I felt before the match that Tyrone’s running game could exploit a weakness in the Kerry defence. Whenever they turned the ball over, Tyrone were able to cut through the Kerry defence and created several goal-scoring chances. However, when Kerry were able to get their defensive shape set up, Tyrone struggled to break them down. Too often, they give away possession cheaply under minimal pressure. Kerry were much more efficient in possession than Tyrone and were able to find spaces in the opposition defence to get scores.

The loss of Joe McMahon was a huge blow to Tyrone as it forced Mickey Harte to alter the shape of the team. Joe and Colm Cavanagh had developed an understanding with the rest of the defence, playing as the two sweepers. For much of last Sunday's game, though, Tyrone only had Colm playing as a sweeper. It looked as if Ronan McNabb, Tiernán McCann and Conor Meyler were to drop back at different times, but that natural understanding of the role was missing.

Kerry were able to find gaps inside the 45-metre line and got some easy scores which ended up being the difference between the teams. Kerry’s decision to push up on the Tyrone kick outs in the second half was also crucial. They have been one of the few teams able to nullify the restarts of Stephen Cluxton and they did a great job in putting Niall Morgan under pressure.

Tyrone’s struggles in winning possession combined with Kerry’s patience on the ball meant Tyrone spent long periods of the second half chasing Kerry. It took some of the energy out of Tyrone’s play.

The options Kerry have up front are the envy of most teams. Tyrone would have been delighted to hold Colm Cooper and Kieran Donaghy to a point from play each and James O’Donoghue scoreless in that regard. Éamonn Fitzmaurice, though, had several attacking options on the bench. I was very surprised Paul Geaney didn’t start and he was superb in the second half. He will surely start in the final now after scoring two points from play.

Despite those attacking options, Kerry will be worried about the form of Cooper and O’Donoghue. Cooper is struggling to get back to his best following his knee injury last year and he was a virtual passenger in the first half. It may be an option to play him further out the field to help break down a packed defence as he seems to be lacking the sharpness to play inside.

O’Donoghue has played very little football this year and he isn’t playing to the same exceptional standards of 2014. I’ve seen him twice this year, against Cork in the Munster final replay and again against Tyrone. On both occasions he has won plenty of ball, but mostly out on the wings where he doesn’t pose a major threat. Kerry need to get him on the ball within the scoring zone.

Fitzmaurice knew who Tyrone’s key players were and was able to limit their influence on the game. Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Seán Cavanagh all did their best work from a defensive standpoint, but were unable to dominate in the Kerry half of the pitch. In a strange way, that was one of the most encouraging aspects from a Tyrone viewpoint. The younger generation of Mark Bradley, Darren McCurry and Connor McAliskey provided the leadership up front. Having the younger players take on that responsibility is a good sign for the future.

The Tyrone players will be hugely disappointed, having got so close to a first All-Ireland final in seven years. Once the hurt eases, however, they will look back on a year of massive progress. After last year’s Championship loss to Armagh, it would have been a brave Tyrone supporter who expected an All-Ireland semi-final place. Tyrone lost an All-Ireland semi-final in 2013 and regressed the following year, but there is good reason to think next year will be different.

The age profile of the team is much younger, with only a few players in the 30-plus bracket. The likes of Seán Cavanagh and Joe McMahon will, most likely, be enticed back for another year with the prospect of being potential challengers.

The 2013 defeat to Mayo was also much more decisive and left you feeling Tyrone were still some way off the top teams. On the evidence of last Sunday, Tyrone have narrowed the gap significantly, although it’s too early to call them certain All-Ireland challengers. Discussion on that can wait for another day, but they answered most of the criticisms I had of them last year.


I’M REALLY looking forward to this weekend’s second semi-final between Dublin and Mayo. It has the makings of a great game of football and is very difficult to call.

Dublin were my pick to win the All-Ireland at the start of the year, but I’m more doubtful at this stage of the season. Michael Darragh MacAuley and Paul Flynn are two crucial players for them and they have been poor so far this year.

In my opinion, Dublin still have the best players in the country, though. This weekend will be their first major test this year. Mayo finally appear to have a forward line that is capable of putting up big scores and they have adapted their game-plan to ensure their defence is not left as exposed as last year.

Dublin’s players are not used to playing close games and Mayo will have a mental edge in that regard. Mayo to just edge it and set up a meeting with Kerry.

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