Tomas O Se: We never beat Tyrone when it really mattered
The old rivalry was fierce but, like Kerry, Mickey Harte's men have lost their swagger
Published 16/05/2014 | 02:30
To understand why losing to Tyrone always stuck in my throat so much, let me tell you about '08. Remember their goal in the All-Ireland final? A slip by Padraig Reidy and Tommy McGuigan stabbing the ball home from maybe a yard?
Well I'm jogging back out to my position, effing and blinding away inside my head. It's a desperate body blow to take because you can just tell it's lit up Tyrone's dander.
Next thing, Kevin Hughes shunts into my back. Hard as he can go. I'm Kerry captain and, as he sees it, he's posting a message here to the first in command. A message that tells the three-in-a-row chasing champions "we're marking our territory here and f*** ye!"
That was the swagger they had, the kind that Dublin have now. They had their bullies, their tight defenders, their muck-dogs around the middle of the field, winning breaking ball. They had their silky forwards up front too. They had it all.
And I hated them when they beat us, hated them for that swagger. Maybe the biggest regret I have in football is that we didn't beat that Tyrone team when it mattered. You can have arguments till the cows come home about what we did in Killarney two summers ago, thumping them by 10 points in a qualifier.
But that doesn't count in my eyes. We just beat a skeleton of the real Tyrone. It was a moral victory, not the real thing.
If that day had long-term meaning, it was only in the message Kerry people delivered to Mickey Harte. What he's had to endure, no man should have to go through. But I do remember him saying it's the GAA that has carried him through, that if he didn't have it he'd possibly be in a worse place. And maybe Killarney offered a tiny glimpse of why.
Michaela had been murdered the previous January 12 months and, after that game, I'll never forget the respect with which Kerry people clapped him onto the Tyrone team bus and how the applause then followed that bus all the way down through the town. It was a gesture directed at one man: Mickey Harte.
People talk about the hatred between Tyrone and Kerry, but stuff gets built up into something it never is. You get ideas about one another that have nothing to do with reality.
I remember after the '08 final how a part of me was dreading going on the International Rules trip to Australia. In my head, I'm thinking 'How the f*** am I going to talk to someone like 'Ricey' McMenamin?' How was I going to face up to this fella, having to be friendly and make an effort?
They'd beaten us again and all I could see was the swagger with which they did it.
Well, it turned out I didn't have to make any effort at all. From the first day, he came up to me, started chatting. A completely different fella to the one I saw on the field. He was always a great player, a fella with real presence about him. But until that trip, I knew him only as another opponent I couldn't stand.
That's the curious thing about the GAA. You can think you hate people, when the truth is you just don't know them. I despised losing to Tyrone, but then I just despised losing.
I've gotten to know a few of them since and they're fair characters. That was the beauty of those tours. I get on great now with fellas like Hughes (a good mate of Darragh's), Sean Cavanagh and Brian Dooher. They understand how this thing works.
Actually, I met Hughes at a function recently and was just reminding him of that day he hit me. "What the f**k were you at?" I said and you had to hear the laugh out of him.
I suppose they'll always have those three wins ('03, '05 and '08) over us, but that was a serious team. They nearly had 15 match-winners, and just look at the forwards they could call on: Peter Canavan, Brian McGuigan, Dooher, Mugsy (Owen Mulligan), Stephen O'Neill, all incredible players.
They had that swagger, a swagger that's gone out of Tyrone now. It's gone out of Kerry too, mind.
I still think they'll have too much for Down in Omagh this Sunday, but it'll be some journey for either to win an Ulster Championship. Like, I played in a very good Kerry team but we'd have struggled to put together back-to-back titles if we were playing in Ulster. I have so much respect for Ulster teams because of what they have to do just to win that provincial medal.
For Kerry, with respect to all the others (and Limerick, in fairness, were right up there for a couple of years), it generally comes down to beating Cork. But for Tyrone or Down to win Ulster this year, they'll have to do the equivalent of that four times!
Anyway, I'm not sure what to make of this Tyrone team. They look very patchy to me at the moment, like Kerry I suppose. Two superpowers a few years ago, but both in transition now. That doesn't mean they're not capable of taking a serious scalp or two, they are. But consistency seems to be missing. Look at their league: they mixed the brilliant with the terrible
In fairness, Dublin had to get out of jail against them a few times in their last game. But then look at Tyrone against Kerry. Look at their performance against Kildare, they shouldn't have won that. You don't know what you're going to get from this team. You can't predict.
That said, they're up against, possibly, the least defensive team in Ulster on Sunday. I read Benny Coulter saying this week that he suspected rumours about the demise of blanket defence to have been greatly exaggerated. I'm inclined to agree. When it comes down to the brass tacks of championship, I think people will revert to what they know best.
I have a lot of time for Down manager James McCartan, another I got to know in Australia. But he just doesn't have players with the physicality to play defensively. That's why I'd fear for them in Omagh. I mean, I don't know if Coulter is the man of a few years ago either. He's been some player – a more honest, braver guy, you'd never meet. But I think he'll find the day frustrating.
Still, look at Down's league and you get an idea of how hard they are to read. They beat Donegal, Armagh and Louth in Division 2, then got done by Galway, who were going through an awful time. They lost to Meath. They lost to Laois. True, Down are a team that just find something if they get to Croke Park, as if their tradition of the '60s suddenly kicks in.
I remember sitting in the stand with Paul Galvin for the 2010 quarter-final against them and sensing quickly we were in trouble. "Jesus Christ, we're in for a hard day here," I said to Galvin. I wasn't wrong.
Anyway, I can't see them winning this Sunday. And I can't see that beating Down would signify anything monumental for Tyrone either. They don't have enough stand-out players, at least nowhere near as many as the team that became our nemesis.
A team I know in my heart and soul will always be able to look me in the eye and say: "Sure ye never beat us when it mattered..."