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Red Hands show they're impossible to ignore as dreams become reality in Croke Park

Part of the crowd during the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship final between Tyrone and Kerry at Croke Park Dublin on Saturday       
Picture: Philip Walsh.
From Cahair O'Kane at Croke Park

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final: Kerry 0-22 Tyrone 3-14 (after extra-time)

THE Croke Park playlist has been exhausted by the time The Cranberries are rolled out. Normally everyone is halfway home by now, but not today. Tyrone are intent on lingering.

The words fit. They always do.

Tyrone’s players hang around pitchside as their county comes to meet them.

There are hugs and kisses and overjoyed faces and fistbumps. Brian Dooher’s smile would have filled the empty seats in the Canal End.

Conor McKenna is nabbed for a photo. A Tyrone father, a Kerry mother and a child drawn to the maternal line of thinking, sitting up on the barriers in his green-and-gold.

McKenna’s jersey is handed over. The cub has a sudden change of heart. His new hero disappears and the smile he leaves behind him is not the smile of a Kerry fan any more. His father’s smile? Bigger than Dooher’s.

It’s properly emotional stuff. Girlfriends and wives and children, all knowing better than anyone what it takes to get this close.

It’s a semi-final and there’s another big game to play but after dancing the same dance two weeks ago, Mayo will hardly have been sitting at home tutting and WhatsApping other ‘here, would ye look at the shape of that, celebrating there’.

Tyrone football has not had too many properly happy days in Croke Park. 13 years of losing to Kerry, losing to Dublin, losing to Mayo.

That was a lot of their own making. Coming to the big house, planting everyone inside the own 45’, waiting to be hit and then reacting.

Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan wanted to write a different legacy. They wanted their team to throw the first punch, and the second, and the third, and keep hitting this big green and gold beast, see if he has the chin for it.

He didn’t.

When Jack Barry awkwardly volleyed the ball into Conor McKenna’s path, the Eglish man fired it back beneath Shane Ryan. Five up in extra-time, this was different layers on top of impossible.

They convinced the world they needed the extra week and they stood by that after the match. We will never properly know what that did but this was a fully-fit, fully-operative, fully-focussed Tyrone team, here for an ambush.

When they trained at Garvaghey last Tuesday night, everyone was hunted out of the place. Not a sinner allowed so much as a peek in the direction of the pitch.

What had looked from a distance like a nod and a smile to pass Kerry on their way to the final became more like an armed checkpoint.

McKenna’s first goal raised the volume. McShane’s goal raised the game out of a wake-like state that fallen down like a strange mist on a game that was for so long enthralling, and then turned flat.

Niall Sludden was off on a black card. Peter Harte had to throw himself in the silhouette of Conor Gormley to deny Killian Spillane, but from the 45, Sean O’Shea still kicked Kerry ahead.

44 minutes it had taken them but they looked to have finally assumed the grip they were supposed to.

But all the butchering, of points and goals and possessions and black card spells and space, it came back on them.

Tyrone stayed living in a game where they won barely a third of the primary possession. If Kerry came expecting two men sitting in the pocket and the rest inside the 45, they were mistaken.

It’s one thing not having their football tested, but Kerry hadn’t had their lungs tested. Tyrone hit them, then hit them again, then hit them again. David Coldrick let it all roll and Tyrone made hay off the turnovers.

By the second-half water break, Kerry were two up but David Moran, Sean O’Shea and Jack Barry were all lying on their faces, the physios desperately trying to iron the kinks out of their calves.

Tyrone barely looked at a bottle of water. They spent 20 minutes of the second half down to 14 men.

But Darragh Canavan broke through and although he hit Shane Ryan square on, unlike Stephen O’Brien in the first half, Cathal McShane stayed out of the square long enough to get punching the ball to the net legally.

They couldn’t hold on in nine minutes of stoppage time, but the extra 20 can be in the heads as much as the legs. Tyrone kept theirs and built the lead.

The moments after half-time in extra-time suggested that Kerry had finally, finally worked the game out. All those years of the three-man-weave paying off as they chipped into the lead. Five. Four. Three. Two. One.

And then, just when they needed to display the cool heads of the champion they were meant to be, Tommy Walsh shot when he shouldn’t have been shooting. The ball drops wide.

Niall Morgan gets to enjoy that final walk out to the tee. He’d just missed a 45 to kill it but the Gods could only be kind after he kicked a free over the bar from Dundalk just before half-time.

The explosion dances in the bellies of Tyrone people, making its way up and meeting the sound of David Coldrick’s whistle on its way out.

Kerry v Dublin, the GAA’s recurring dream of a final gone, replaced by the final nobody was mad enough to dream of.

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