Danny Hughes: Tyrone's uphill task just got steeper as Mayo look to narrow the gap on the Dubs
We are in unchartered waters.
Tyrone preparations for their All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry have been thrown into disarray and the fact is that nobody knows how each individual reacts to this virus.
If the rumours are to be believed, few have escaped the infection within the camp.
Again, I know players who have been unaffected other than mild symptoms and others, very fit individuals, who continue to feel the effects months after becoming bed-bound.
The reality is that Tyrone needed to be, not only on their game, but physically in top condition in order to meet the Kingdom’s challenge.
Kerry annihilated Tyrone in an earlier League meeting and at the time I said that the result, while disappointing, did not accurately reflect where each team were.
Many of the things that could go wrong for Tyrone did and everything went Kerry’s way on that day.
While I do not envisage a complete turnaround of the League result, I would be very surprised if Tyrone did not learn from that particular defeat.
Kerry’s forward line currently look much more potent than Dublin’s even.
But we go back to that caveat.
Who have Kerry really played?
Take Kerry out of Munster and Down could win a provincial title there, as could many of the other lower ranked Ulster teams on any given day.
On form, Kerry have two of the best forwards playing in Paudie Clifford and Sean O’Shea
Then there is David Clifford.
The boy king has taken on the Gooch’s mantle of being one of the best players to have played the game – and he is only in his early twenties.
Clifford is certainly the most talked about Kerry forward and the expectation on the young man’s shoulders is huge.
One of the drawbacks of losing form is the endless talk of it and unfortunately, it’s hard to ignore all the social media stuff nowadays.
In years gone by, you could leave a conversation or just avoid them altogether and play your way into form.
The one consolation though from David’s perspective is that Paudie is playing his way into ‘Player of the Year’ territory.
Paudie is the key linkman between defence and attack and it’s almost like watching a young Declan O’Sullivan in full flow.
Tyrone will have a job in tracking him and in the past Padraig Hampsey has been assigned the main man-marking jobs on opposition main men.
Unfortunately though, Kerry have too many danger-men to cover.
The current Tyrone team lack what was Tyrone’s greatest strength when I think of the Tyrone Kerry battles of the Noughties.
The Red Hands had players like Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley and the McMahon brothers to mark the best of Kerry’s attack.
I cannot see how Tyrone can ultimately stem such a slick and potent Kerry forward line who will love the wide-open spaces of Croke Park over 70 long minutes.
Add in an outbreak of Covid and its impact on individuals and Tyrone really are facing an uphill battle.
In their first year, Brian Dooher and Fergal Logan have passed many of the tests thus far.
All-Ireland titles though need building towards in today’s era.
Tyrone have another week of preparation but in real terms, it is not an advantage given what they appear to be up against.
With some players isolating and others trying to stay sharp, adhering to protocols from the health professionals will be difficult and a very fine balancing act for management.
Ultimately, Tyrone’s focus will be on Kerry and only that game.
Players will be aware of who and what the opposition bring.
There will always be that anxiety around the ‘what-if’ we don’t perform and the fear of taking a trimming.
Even the most confident doubt themselves leading up to games and big occasions.
As a player, you hope that this anxiety and adrenaline response catapults the body and brain into sharper focus and thinking when the ball is thrown in.
There is a motivation to survive in the arena of Croke Park and I always compare it to the historical gladiatorial contests and the fight or flight response one might have experienced when a lion came running at you.
Some would say that David Clifford in full flow is scarier than a lion.
And remember that Kerry or Tyrone still have to face a Dublin or Mayo.
There is an almost unspoken confidence out west since Mayo overcome Galway.
Mayo have improved since December, since the All-Ireland final and there is no doubt that the Dubs have gone backwards.
Dublin have been hitting seriously consistent levels for almost a decade now, six years on the trot they have won the Leinster and All-Ireland titles.
Some finals were hard fought while others didn’t have to be.
Those same players, many of whom have left the stage, drove the standards from within and I am sure the in-house games were more competitive than some of the Championship fixtures they played in that time.
It reminds me of Bill Shankly’s famous quote that ‘Liverpool had the two best teams in Britain, Liverpool and Liverpool reserves’.
Dublin could well have made the same case, but I just don’t think the first 15 nor those being sprung from the bench this season are of the same quality the Dubs previously sent into battle.
Kevin McManamon, Paul Mannion, Bernard Brogan, Michael Darragh McAuley.
The list of Allstars was endless.
Mayo are themselves unlucky this year with Cillian O’Connor missing through injury.
While they have got away with it to this point, the Championship’s highest ever scorer remains the one player Mayo could look to who guaranteed them scores from play and frees against the top teams.
Had Mayo had more help in this department, they could have been sitting here with a few All-Ireland titles behind them in the last decade.
A lot will depend on the form of Con O’Callaghan, Brian Fenton and Ciaran Kilkenny.
Mayo will have these guys man-marked for sure, but I worry about where their scores will come from at the other end.
Perversely Mayo could well operate more effectively without the reliance on O’Connor as other players perhaps stand up and are counted.
However, the reality is that Dublin are six-time champions for a reason.
They all still have a big performance in them and have been doubted before.
Dublin to win, close as it may be.
As for Kerry or Tyrone?
Tyrone are just hoping to fulfil the fixture at this stage.
Or so they say.