Kingdom rediscovering that timeless art of 'a Kerry finish'
Kerry and Tyrone players, mentors and followers are engaged in a year-long contest of wills which is now at the halfway stage.
Since last year's All-Ireland victory by Tyrone over The Kingdom, the decks are being cleared for the grand finale which most GAA fans expect to happen in August or September when these two teams meet again in the closing stages of the championship.
It is in that context that we must observe carefully the demeanour and overall approach of each county as they trundle their way through their seven ordinary league games as Round 6 has been reached.
Kerry's football ethos, splendidly burnished by 35 All-Irelands, has been severely dented by two recent All-Ireland defeats under two different managers. Half-hearted excuses by some Kerry fans cut little ice with the public who realised that, in reality, Tyrone fully deserved their Sam Maguire successes.
So the onus for improving the situation and trying to avenge these losses to Tyrone rests mainly with Kerry and their restored manager Jack O'Connor. And they have gone about their league business in a very methodical way with critical victories over Tyrone and Derry in particular when they had very strong teams on duty and more methodical wins over Mayo, Westmeath and Donegal with weaker lineouts.
Tyrone, under Mickey Harte, seemed to have a different attitude to the league which indicated that winning all NFL games was not a matter of great urgency but a handful of games did require special attention to be paid.
These included the glamour Croke Park game in January which Tyrone duly won with most of the big stars on duty, another high-profile game with Kerry in Omagh which ended in defeat but one not significant enough to cause serious collateral damage and most recently the game with Derry on Saturday.
This was a very significant game and result. Derry have been very impressive in this league under new manager Damien Cassidy -- who seemed to be altering the Derry style into a more fast-moving way of playing with less emphasis on the physical power of most Derry teams in recent years. But Tyrone never like losing to Derry in good or bad times, because of the ferocious rivalry between the counties, and therefore Saturday's game was sure to be a major test for both sides.
That's how it turned out to be in a game of swaying fortunes and a tense enough atmosphere to justify comparisons with a championship encounter.
The result showed what makes this Tyrone team so special at the present time -- they are the best team in the country at knowing when to go for the jugular and crush opponents in the final five or 10 minutes. They did this in style on Saturday when they rattled over four unanswered points in the final eight minutes to leave them with the unlikely winning margin of three points despite an otherwise close contest which meant the teams were level at least six times. This is how Tyrone crushed Kerry in a few minutes of the 2008 final and also how they dismantled Dublin in the big league game in Croke Park in January.
Tyrone have mastered the art of winning games when they really need to and that is more important than being called the best team in the country or having the best individual players. These things are worthless if, as a group, as the game approaches the end they do not have the capacity to take control and destroy opponents. All great teams in any sport have that capacity -- as the Welsh rugby team learned recently.
For decades that was the outstanding quality of Kerry football teams and the term 'a Kerry finish' became legendary because of the number of times they snatched victory as a result of high-powered play in the final 10 minutes of a major game. In All-Ireland finals against Tyrone and Armagh in this decade and Down in 1961 and '68, Kerry failed to live up to that 'Kerry finish' label.
Saturday's game may have been fairly low-profile, yet victory was very important for Tyrone, and this game showed the capacity they have to get a job done in decisive manner.
This result was a substantial setback for Derry because they were totally unable to counteract the basic components of this Tyrone team, most notably their packing of the defence to frustrate opponents. Mind you, the fact that Paddy Bradley was the only real scoring threat to Derry made the Tyrone backline's job fairly easy.
Kerry had already qualified for the league final when they arrived in Parnell Park yesterday. Maybe that explained their lethargic display in the first half against Dublin. The latter, of course, are in dire straits for league points and, in fairness to them, they did avail of the Kerry slackness to build a very strong performance, their best of the league to date.
However, as soon as Dublin plug one or two holes in their team as they did yesterday with the arrival of Mark Davoren and the excellent performance at midfield of Ross McConnell, another problem seems to surface.
Yesterday, it was that most dominant failing of recent years when, once again, Dublin somehow failed to win a game that they looked to have in their complete grasp when leading by six clear points with 15 minutes to play. Kerry had a rake of subs on at that stage -- with every line of the team altered -- but it was they who came storming back with great help from Mike Quirke, the midfield sub, and scored 1-3 in the closing stages to justify their tradition as providing a 'Kerry finish.'
Like Tyrone, Kerry showed how to play their best football at the right time in the game, whereas Dublin seemed unable to give themselves the extra impetus they need to close the deal. This is a failing they simply have to address before the summer.