Neil Loughran: O’Connor expecting same Derry - but Harte’s Oak Leafs will be whistling Dixie unless they unleash both barrels

Old foes get ready to face off again in All-Ireland quarter-final showdown

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Mickey Harte and Jack O'Connor, pictured chatting after January's League meeting between Derry and Kerry in Tralee, will do Championship battle once more on Sunday. Picture by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Mickey Harte and Jack O'Connor, pictured chatting after January's League meeting between Derry and Kerry in Tralee, will do Championship battle once more on Sunday. Picture by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile (Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)
“I see it as probably the hardest draw we could have got…”

EYES narrowed, that familiar, far-off cowboy stare, Jack O’Connor has always carried himself like the last gunslinger in the saloon.

“Yerra… you gonna pull those pistols, or whistle Dixie?”

Jack has never been one to talk for talking’s sake. Questions – especially at this time of year - are met with a certain amount of suspicion, each put through the internal processor for possible agendas before offering back as little ammunition as possible.

No sooner had Monday morning’s All-Ireland quarter-final draw paired Kerry with Derry than nostalgia swept from one end of the country to the other.

Tyrone storming the Kingdom. Team of the decade. Puke football. Nouveau riche. It remains an era where every minute detail can be grabbed from the shelf blindfolded, such was the indelible mark left by the culture clash that defined the Noughties.

During the week, though, O’Connor had no interest in dwelling on past duels with Mickey Harte.

“Myself and Mickey Harte are not going to be out on the pitch on Sunday,” he said with a wry smile at Austin Stack Park.

That narrative would be left to the masses to perpetuate, rather than unnecessarily tossing fuel on the fire.

Of course, revisiting that rivalry seldom serves him well; perhaps there would be a bit more bonhomie were the passage of time enough to heal all of the hurt. But, for somebody to whom Kerry football means so much, those 2005 and 2008 All-Ireland final losses will always occupy an unwelcome space in Jack O’Connor’s subconscious.

So, instead of talking about Mickey Harte, he talked about Derry. And how, in not so many words, we shouldn’t read too much into the last six weeks. Or the three Championship defeats. Sure it could happen to anybody with a couple of men out.

Now, call me cynical, but... yerra.

Any doubts that surround Kerry’s ability to ride their first big hit almost certainly spawn from the sense, particularly during the past decade as Cork’s footballing fortunes headed south, of the Kingdom coming out of the provincial Championship cold.

Results, unsurprisingly, suggest otherwise. Yet the cloud left by 2021 has yet to clear completely. Harte was no longer there when Tyrone again did the damage, off to pastures new before later moving on to pastures new, while Jack was watching from the wings while Peter Keane’s reign neared its end.

There is no need to go back over the whole saga of Covid-enforced delays to the All-Ireland semi-final, but that Championship campaign can only ever be viewed in isolation.

First of all, lest we forget, it was still operating the old school knockout format. Never mind three cracks at righting a wrong, you didn’t even get one.

Therefore Kerry had only the hammerings of Clare, Tipperary and Cork to call upon before waiting five weeks for their next outing. If ever there was a perfect storm, this was it, and the Red Hands took full advantage.

How far Tyrone have fallen down the pecking order in the time between, allied to Dublin’s re-emergence from the most temporary of slumbers, provides further evidence of how little stock should be placed in Kerry’s failure to fire on a curious summer all round.

Yet the same argument was tossed up 12 months ago when Tyrone came to Croke Park on the back of their best performance of the year, dominating a Donegal side handed the ‘resurgent’ tag after beating Monaghan.

Would the Kingdom be spooked again? Would they hell. After a nip and tuck opening 35, O’Connor’s men made easy work of the second half.

That’s why, far from being the worst draw Kerry could have got, pulling Derry from the hat on Monday morning might just the best.

Even the most ardent of Oak Leaf followers would be foolish to expect their rehabilitation was suddenly complete because of a penalty shoot-out win over a Mayo side not exactly renowned for its big game resolve.

Just seven days earlier Derry were largely awful against Westmeath. Judged against their own standards from recent years – even recent months - they were no longer recognisable.

Coming up the road from Castlebar with a win will have restored some of the confidence ripped away in defeat to Donegal, Galway and particularly Armagh, but will that be enough?

A turbulent few months of a different kind were eventually shaken off as last summer wore on, to the point Derry faced Kerry fully believing they would be leaving Croke Park looking ahead to a first All-Ireland final in 30 years.

“We felt we had found our groove again,” said Ciaran Meenagh, the Tyrone man who took over the reins following Rory Gallagher’s shock departure.

Three up at half-time, two ahead with four minutes remaining, Derry had them right where they wanted them. But the Kingdom had other ideas, turning up the heat when it mattered, outscoring the Oak Leafs 0-5 to 0-1 down the straight to set up a date with the Dubs.

So near, yet so far.

“We’re expecting the Derry who we met last year, who put us to the pin of our collar,” said O’Connor on Tuesday afternoon.

Except this isn’t the same Derry team. Do they fully believe now the way they did then?

It would up there with the greatest – and surely most satisfying – days of Harte’s long managerial career if, amid the continuing din from outside, he could get another one over his old foe and shake the Championship to its core.

But Kerry believe they have become wise to the way of the northern upstart, especially those already rebounding off the ropes.

Pistols started to come out of the pockets at MacHale last weekend, but Derry need them to be fully drawn on Sunday - or they will be whistling Dixie all the way home.