Worth the wait as Tyrone ambush favourites Kingdom to reach All-Ireland final

Conor McKenna reels away in celebration after scoring his second goal of the day, this one coming in extra-time, during Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry. Picture by Philip Walsh
Conor McKenna reels away in celebration after scoring his second goal of the day, this one coming in extra-time, during Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry. Picture by Philip Walsh Conor McKenna reels away in celebration after scoring his second goal of the day, this one coming in extra-time, during Saturday's All-Ireland semi-final victory over Kerry. Picture by Philip Walsh

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

ABOUT an hour after the long whistle, Tyrone bodies finally started to succumb to the torment they had been subjected to. Stiffness stifled the stride after 90-plus minutes of mayhem, the widest of smiles giving way to twisted expressions when a twinge somewhere or other took hold.

As adrenaline subsided, even the stoop to place bags into the team bus hold proved too much for some on a day when the limits of their own physical capability were pushed all the way to the edge.

Saturday’s ambush of Kerry was something few had seen coming except themselves, a feat all the more remarkable in light of the stress and strain caused by the Covid chaos that ripped through the panel in the past month, forcing this All-Ireland semi-final to take place two weeks after it was supposed to.

For once, though, Gaelic football’s great aristocrats found themselves in the shadows – out-thought, out-fought and out of a Championship they were strongly fancied to win.

Inside the dressing room after, there were no wild celebrations; certainly none that were audible from the concourse outside. Without even being asked, joint boss Feargal Logan praised the GAA, and Kerry, for granting Tyrone’s request for a fortnight’s delay after the Red Hands had gone all in on a threat to forfeit the tie.

Not in living memory has a top level inter-county game been played out against a backdrop of such mystery and innuendo, in keeping with the strangeness of the times in which we now live. What sort of shape are Tyrone in? Who will start? Will they last?

Yet while some in the Kingdom were more concerned with whether this particular All-Ireland success would merit parity with the other 37, given all that had gone on, the gates of Garvaghey remained shut as final preparations were bolted down.

For those reasons, this must have been just about as satisfying a victory as the Red Hands have ever pulled off. The toxic Noughties rivalry dominated so much of the pre-match narrative, halcyon days of which we may never see the like again.

But as players and management embraced at the end, none of that seemed to matter; this was all about the Ulster champions. And, if history has taught us anything, it’s that Tyrone are never more comfortable than in the trenches.

The disappointment of defeats to Mayo (2016) and Kerry (2019) at the same stage, the 2017 semi-final hammering at the hands of a rampant Dublin and the tepidness of their challenge in the following year’s All-Ireland decider were a distant memory as the Red Hands set the tone from the start on Saturday.

Their ballsy approach was a tribute to the two men on the line. And if the calm assuredness and the measured introspection, amongst so much else, comes from Logan, this is a Tyrone team carved out in Brian Dooher’s image - selfless, insatiable, single-minded, hard, shades of the ferocity of ’03 at every turn.

As a result, the “blinder” Pat Spillane claimed Tyrone had played off the field was replicated in unimaginable fashion on it.

There was barely a backward step taken in a game that was both gripping and downright ugly at times, the Red Hands setting out their stall to impose their will on the Kingdom by flooding the middle sector.

Those rampaging bursts from deep that have illuminated Kerry’s year were now being curtailed by a Red Hand blockade led by Kieran McGeary, Frank Burns and the twin towers of Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick.

Entrusted to keep the country’s most potent forward line in check, Michael McKernan, Ronan McNamee and Padraig Hampsey fully justified that faith.

The playmaking mastery of Paudie Clifford was crushed by the relentless running and dogged discipline of Conor Meyler. Whoever decided on that match-up pulled off a master-stroke. Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney, Stephen O’Brien, they had barely the air to breathe.

All of a sudden the value of Tyrone’s odyssey through Ulster was clear to see – from ousting defending champions Cavan to edging out Division One rivals Donegal and Monaghan, they were battle ready when they arrived at Croke Park.

Facile victories over Tipperary and faded foes Cork, by contrast, barely left a scratch on the Kingdom, and it showed.

Even after David Clifford landed the first couple of scores, Tyrone retained their focus, the entire full-back line popping up with scores in the opening quarter as the Red Hands moved into a 0-5 to 0-3 lead.

The first of four goal chances was passed up when David Clifford sliced an effort across the square, and then in the 22nd minute Kerry butchered another golden opportunity.

This time O’Shea and Geaney combined before O’Brien found the net, only to see it ruled out for touching the ball on the ground.

They were made to pay two minutes later when Conor McKenna coolly slotted past Shane Ryan after Peter Harte had sent Niall Sludden scampering towards the square.

Despite the full-forward line of Mattie Donnelly and Darren McCurry getting little change from Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Tom O’Sullivan, Tyrone kept their noses in front, a frankly incredible Morgan free from 67 metres sending them in a point up at the break.

The introduction of Killian Spillane was designed to help Kerry cut through the fog but it didn’t work out as the second half descended into a slog.

The loss of Sludden to a black card, and some wayward kicking from Morgan, allowed Kerry to move from a point back to two in front thanks to a David Clifford free, an O’Shea 45 and Paudie Clifford’s first point. It could have been so much worse, though, had Harte not thrown himself in front of Spillane’s goalbound effort to send the ball out over the sideline.

With their challenge wilting, Logan and Dooher introduced 2019 Allstar Cathal McShane – to huge effect, as he scored Tyrone’s second goal in the 69th minute, palming home after Shane Ryan had blocked a shot from Darragh Canavan, also sprung from the bench.

With referee David Coldrick letting the nine minutes of added time run, neither could land the killer score as extra-time loomed. The failure of David Clifford to re-emerge was a hammer blow for the Kingdom, who looked totally toothless without their talisman.

And any fears over Tyrone’s energy reserves, if they hadn’t been dispelled already, were blown from the water as they scored an unanswered 1-2 in the first six minutes of extra-time – the two points coming from McShane while McKenna lashed to the net after Jack Barry booted the ball straight to him in attempting to clear a dropping McGeary effort.

After being read the riot act by selector Maurice Fitzgerald at the break, Kerry weary warriors finally sprung to life and when Geaney scored to make it 3-14 to 0-22 with six to play, the Kingdom scented blood.

But, having given so much to the cause, Tyrone weren’t about to let it slip now, and when Tommy Walsh pulled a last-gasp effort wide of the post, the jig was up - Morgan’s restart and Coldrick’s whistle kick-starting the most unexpected of celebrations, paving the way for an All-Ireland final only the bravest souls could have predicted.

Kerry: S Ryan; B Ó Beaglaoich, J Foley, T O'Sullivan (0-1); M Breen, P Murphy (0-1), G White; D Moran, J Barry; D Moynihan, S O'Shea (0-8, 0-6 frees, 0-1 45), S O'Brien; D Clifford (0-8, 0-2 marks, 0-2 frees), P Geaney (0-1), Paudie Clifford (0-2). Subs: K Spillane for Moynihan (HT), G Crowley for Breen (49), A Spillane for Geaney (55), D O'Connor (0-1) for O'Brien (55), T Walsh for Moran (59), P Geaney for Clifford (70 - ET), T Morley for Ó Beaglaoich (70 - ET), J Sherwood for Barry (77), G O'Sullivan for Foley (80), M Burns for O'Sullivan (86)

Yellow card: A Spillane (65)

Tyrone: N Morgan (0-2, 0-1 free, 0-1 45); M McKernan (0-1), R McNamee (0-1), P Hampsey (0-1); F Burns, K McGeary, P Harte (0-1); B Kennedy, C Kilpatrick; C Meyler, M O'Neill, N Sludden; D McCurry (0-4, 0-2 frees), M Donnelly (0-1, mark), C McKenna (2-0). Subs: C McShane (1-3, 0-1 free) for Kennedy (44), T McCann for O'Neill (55), D Canavan for Sludden (65), B McDonnell for Kilpatrick (73), L Rafferty for Harte (76), M Bradley for McCurry (76). Temp sub: B McDonnell for T McCann (65, reversed 68)

Black cards: N Sludden (39-49), D McCurry (58-68), B McDonnell (90+1)

Yellow card: C Meyler (32)

Referee: D Coldrick (Meath)