Time Tyrone stood up to the big boys
All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Tyrone v Kerry
Sunday, Croke Park, 3.30pm, live on RTÉ2 and Sky Sports Arena
AS Mark Bradley’s left boot sent the ball scything like a Stanley knife down the middle of the Canal End posts, he turned with one arm aloft to the delirious Tyrone crowd in the Cusack Stand. It said one thing: Here. We. Are.
Ten minutes later, they were gone.
When Bradley made it 1-11 to 0-14 in that All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry four years ago, the Ulster side had all the momentum.
But sensing the wolf bounding up the garden path, Kerry scuttled through the rooms and pulled the windows in.
Tyrone that day were just a year or two too young. They’d given Kerry hell when they ran at them, but the lights blinded them when the goal chances presented themselves.
Conor Meyler, that day a 20-year-old starter, was keen to point out during the week that August 2015 was day dot in terms of Tyrone’s development.
It was the start of a brand new cycle. The previous summer, Armagh’s bicep brigade had broken the blunt blade they’d been trying to scare teams with.
A few of the All-Ireland winning under-21s were fast-tracked into senior football within weeks and suddenly, their counter-attacking game became a cut-throat razor.
Four summers on, they’ve left multiple adversaries strewn on the ground around them, but been unable to leave so much as a bit of soft-tissue scarring where they’ve needed to leave it.
15 minutes of success on Stephen Cluxton’s kickout felt like progress in last year’s final, given what had gone in 2017, but to even take solace in such a small victory signified the length of road they still had to travel.
This is their third All-Ireland semi-final in a row, something the county has never achieved before.
But as Enda McGinley reminded us in his Irish News column yesterday, Tyrone’s last truly significant championship victory came in the 2008 All-Ireland final.
“In eight of the 10 years since that 2008 campaign, Tyrone have come up against Dublin, Kerry or Mayo in the Championship. They have lost every one of them,” wrote the former Red Hand star.
We have seen too often their counter-attacking game blow them down the motorway only for it all to blow up in their faces when they get there.
As a style of play in big games, the running game has been an irrelevance in Croke Park against the better sides.
Their average championship score against Division One sides since the start of this cycle in 2015 has been just 1-13. Six of those 14 games have been played in Croke Park, and their average score at Headquarters is below 1-12. They’ve scored just three goals, and never more than one in a game.
“We're not naive enough to think...what we've done the last couple of years hasn't been enough to get where we want to go,” said Colm Cavanagh earlier this summer.
“The definition of insanity is that if you keep doing the same thing, expect the same results so we know that we have to tweak and amend things as we go and see what works for us.”
The key to their improvement last year was that they kept two up top at all times.
Tyrone have kept Darren McCurry fairly high up but they have drifted away from that two-up shape a bit. If that’s to create space for McShane, it’s been effective so far, but they must beware him getting isolated as others have in the past.
Mattie Donnelly’s positioning will tell us all we need to know about Tyrone’s outlook. It’s expected that he’ll start in defence, but there’ll come a point in the game that he resumes the role he played to such great effect in the second half against Cork.
To give McShane space in front tomorrow would be tantamount to neglect on Peter Keane’s part. Morley will pick him up, while Tom O’Sullivan seems the most likely candidate to go after Peter Harte.
Those are two men in serious form, but Harte’s influence on the really big games has been questioned. Their battle will have a huge bearing on the outcome.
Same at the other end, where it would be unfathomable for Tyrone not to start Padraig Hampsey. After his jobs on Conor McManus and Paul Mannion last summer, the Coalisland man has had a more difficult 2019 – playing just 109 minutes off the bench since the confidence-sapping Donegal game - but is still the prime candidate for a task like this.
Ronan McNamee will be on Paul Geaney, while Rory Brennan is set for the biggest test of a good summer when he goes up against Stephen O’Brien.
Kerry’s defence, individually, is nowhere near as bad as they’ve been made out to be. No defence would cope with the space Kerry have given the opposition at times, and beyond their pumped-up display against Mayo, their middle third hasn’t covered themselves in glory when teams have run at them.
That win over Mayo was founded solely on David Moran’s display at midfield. Should Niall Morgan kick 100 balls out tomorrow, lacing one of them in Moran’s direction would be one too many.
Tyrone need to take him out of the game. Whether it’s through short kickouts, whether it’s through sucking him into the centre and kicking it outside him, whatever it is, they cannot allow him a foothold. Kerry without his influence are not really Kerry at all.
Despite the 1-20 against Donegal being their biggest concession of the summer, they’ll have been relatively content with how they protected their goal while pushing right up that day.
But Cork scored 3-10 in the Munster final. Even on their worst day, Mayo got to 0-15. Meath got 1-13 and could have had plenty more. So much of the damage is being done by runners from deep.
And what do Tyrone have in abundance? Runners from deep, but now with the added option to kick.
What Tyrone also are, and what Kerry are not, is four years down the road.
Four years of perfecting the gameplan. Four years of prime conditioning. Four years getting it wrong in order to get it right now. In very literal terms for most of them, four years growing.
Niall Morgan, Ronan McNamee, Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Tiernan McCann are all 28 years of age. Richie Donnelly’s 27, Darren McCurry’s 26, Rory Brennan and Padraig Hampsey 25. In terms of age profile, Tyrone could not be more poised.
They also didn’t have anything as prolific as Cathal McShane on the edge of the square.
If ever a team needed to say: “Here we are”.
Tyrone by two.
* * * * * * * *
Man of the moment
IF Stephen O’Brien was a gangly six-foot-four lad with wavy locks, he’d be getting talked about as Footballer of the Year. As it is, you look at the current list of odds for an Allstar position and he’s not in the top 10. But regardless of individual honours, people in Kerry know fine well what he brings to them. O’Brien has been Kerry’s most consistent forward over the last 18 months. Be it from wing-forward or occasionally the corner, it’s the directness and power of his running, as well as the eye for goal, that make him a very dangerous man for Tyrone to overlook in their match-ups.
Tyrone (probable): N Morgan; P Hampsey, R McNamee, R Brennan; M Donnelly; T McCann, F Burns, C Meyler; C Cavanagh, R Donnelly; P Harte, K McGeary, N Sludden; C McShane, D McCurry
MICKEY Harte has more decisions to make than Peter Keane has. It’s no-holds barred and that leads you to think Padraig Hampsey, Richie Donnelly and Tiernan McCann could all start. The three, because of injury struggles, have played only bit-part roles in the last six weeks. It means tough calls elsewhere. Hugh Pat McGeary, Michael Cassidy, Michael McKernan and Brian Kennedy are all likely to miss out of the men that you’d have in their top 20. Despite giving Dublin trouble last weekend, Connor McAliskey probably won’t force Darren McCurry out of the side.
Kerry (probable): S Ryan; J Foley, T Morley; P Murphy; T O’Sullivan, G Crowley, G White, S Enright; D Moran, A Spillane; S O’Brien, S O’Shea, K Spillane; P Geaney, D Clifford
THE news has been that David Clifford is expected to recover from the back injury that ruled him out – or perhaps offered a rest? – against Meath. He will come straight back into the two-man full-forward line with Paul Geaney. James O’Donoghue is set to remain sidelined with a hamstring injury, though he could be in the 26. Adrian Spillane is set to continue at midfield ahead of Jack Barry. Kerry have not been able to settle on a half-forward line all year, with Killian Spillane and Gavin White likely to occupy the two wing berths tomorrow, albeit the latter will probably end up playing from a deeper position.
Tyrone tactical take
IT was at the All-Ireland semi-final stage last year that we saw Tyrone have a cut at it and push right up on Monaghan, but 12 months on it would seem foolhardy to start off that way against Kerry. In terms of horses for courses, this is very much a day for sucking up Kerry’s kicking game with bodies in front of the full-back line, and trying to trouble the Kingdom the way they least like to be troubled. Tyrone will have noted Kerry’s dislike for teams running at them. Thus Mattie Donnelly is likely to start in a defensive role, with Darren McCurry playing off Cathal McShane up front. If Kerry leave a similar space in front of their full-back line as they have in the last two games, it will give Tyrone ample opportunity to move the ball quickly. Their one big worry will be how the running game has struggled in the big games in Croke Park.
Kerry tactical take
IT might have been the first meaningful game of 2019, but did we see a bit of Peter Keane’s thinking when the sides met in the National League in February? Much has changed since then, but it was a day when Kerry played Tyrone at their own game and won by 0-11 to 0-7. They haven’t done it since but it is an option. In their three games in the Super 8s, they’ve pushed right up on the opposition. It was hugely successful against Mayo, but had more mixed results against Donegal and Meath. The amount of space in front of their full-back line in the last two outings is something the Red Hands will have pinpointed as an area they can make hay in. Kerry have struggled all year with teams running at them, and no-one will run harder at them than Tyrone.
Padraig Hampsey v David Clifford
HAVING won an Allstar for his performances last summer, Hampsey has cut a frustrated figure on the sideline for much of this summer. Struggled with Michael Murphy in the Donegal game and has played just 109 minutes of football since. But when it comes to these big days in Croke Park, Tyrone have to play him if they’re to survive. While Ronan McNamee has had a great summer, he’s more suited to Paul Geaney. When it came to this stage last year, the Coalisland man turned in brilliant games against Conor McManus and Paul Mannion. There are few more naturally gifted players in the sport than David Clifford, but he can’t destroy you if he doesn’t have the ball. Tyrone will want to kill the space in front of him and let Hampsey take it from there.
THE storms are due to have rolled away again by the start of business tomorrow. There’s a chance of rain in the morning but it’s set to dry out as the day goes on. Still, bring a coat in case.
Last championship meeting
2015 All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Kerry 0-18 Tyrone 1-11
KERRY finished strong in the final quarter to edge out a gutsy Tyrone side that looked to have swung the momentum their way after half-time.
As the heavens opened in Croke Park, Kerry kept an arm’s length lead for most of the proceedings. After 54 minutes, they were 0-14 to 0-9 ahead, but already it looked as though Tyrone would pay for missed chances.
The Red Hands’ running game opened the Kingdom up several times, but Darren McCurry blazed over and Mark Bradley was denied by Brendan Kealy from their best two chances.
Then Peter Harte drilled home a penalty and Tyrone hit a roll. Bradley kicked a memorable equaliser from the Cusack side with eight minutes to play, and it seemed like the momentum would carry them home.
Tyrone didn’t score again. They had a claim for a second penalty controversially turned away, but Kerry kept the heads to seal a date with Dublin.
Kerry: B Kealy; P Murphy, M Ó Sé, S Enright; J Lyne, P Crowley, K Young; A Maher (0-1), D Moran; S O’Brien (0-1), J Buckley (0-4), D Walsh (0-1); C Cooper (0-2, 0-1f), K Donaghy (0-1), J O’Donoghue (0-4, 0-3f, 0-1 45’).
Subs: F Fitzgerald for O Se (black card, 15), P Geaney (0-3, 0-2f) for Donaghy (HT), B Sheehan for Moran (55), A O’Mahony for Crowley (62), D O’Sullivan for O’Brien (62), BJ Keane (0-01) for Walsh (69)
Tyrone: N Morgan (0-1f), A McCrory, R McNamee, C McCarron, R McNabb (0-1), J McMahon, P Harte (1-0pen), C Cavanagh (0-1), M Donnelly (0-1), T McCann, M Bradley (0-2), C Meyler, D McCurry (0-3, 1f), S Cavanagh, C McAliskey (0-2)
Subs: P McNulty for Meyler (47), B Tierney for McCrory (54), C Clarke for McNamee (black card, 54), R O’Neill for McCurry (65)
Referee: M Deegan (Laois)
Who’s the ref?
IT would probably be unfair to base referee appointments around history in a fixture, but still, of all the men they could have chosen for this game, they gave it to the same man that had it four years ago. And a few of his decisions that day have left a taste in Tyrone mouths, especially his decision to book Padraig McNulty for penalty-hunting rather than give him the spot-kick in the dying minutes. There were also a number of black card calls, with Ronan McNamee given a ridiculous one that afternoon moments before Shane Enright escaped one for dragging down Peter Harte. However, he did let Tyrone’s defence be as physical as they liked that day, with the horrid conditions playing into that. They’ll hope he stays on the same path.
Kerry (-1) Evs
Draw (-1) 17/2
Tyrone (+1) Evs
David Clifford 11/2
Paul Geaney 7/1
Cathal McShane 7/1
Worth a punt
Peter Harte to score a goal and Tyrone to win 14/1