Sunday 26 March 2017

Avengers v pretenders

With his team still in transition, Mickey Harte’s men have defied expectations but for Kerry’s old brigade a Tyrone scalp in Croke Park would still be treasured prize

Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell saves a shot from Declan O’Sullivan to turn the tide against Kerry in the 2008 All-Ireland SFC final SPORTSFILE
Tyrone goalkeeper Pascal McConnell saves a shot from Declan O’Sullivan to turn the tide against Kerry in the 2008 All-Ireland SFC final SPORTSFILE
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Declan Bogue

BY the 56th minute of the 2008 All-Ireland final, it looked as if Kerry were about to do what came naturally for over a century.

The scores were level when Davy Harte clung onto a little too much of Bryan Sheehan's jersey for referee Maurice Deegan's liking.

Colm Cooper went over to the ball, worked a quick one-two with Kieran Donaghy to get on the edge of the 'D', and fired over to put Kerry one up with 14 minutes left. With Paul Galvin introduced a minute later, Tyrone's fate looked sealed.

By the 64th minute though, Seán Cavanagh had Tyrone one up again, before the turning point of all turning points.

Tomás Ó Sé had been a menace down the right wing all day, and he moved into the heart of the Tyrone defence. He exchanged fist-passes with Sheehan, before Declan O'Sullivan came bursting off his shoulder, taking possession.

He rode a challenge from Conor Gormley and drilled a daisy-cutter. Pascal McConnell, only in goal because of the tragic death of John Devine's father the night before, kept it out.

"The long legs came in useful then," laughed the giant Newtownstewart goalkeeper this week.

Stranded

"I remember lying on my back, stranded on the ground and the ball just went into an awful spin. Time seemed to stand still and I don't want to repeat what was going through my head at the time, it was a case of, 'Get by that feckin' post!'"

That intervention spurred on Tyrone, who added three points with a scoring spree in the 69th minute through Enda McGinley, Kevin Hughes and Colm Cavanagh.

In the press conference room afterwards, Brian McGuigan stated there was no doubt over the Team of the Decade debate.

In the RTÉ studios, Joe Brolly felt the same way.

It would take another 12 months before a visibly fuming Pat Spillane would be able to place that crown on Kerry heads after they recovered to beat Cork in the following year's decider. By then, the rest of the country snorted and thought, 'Yeah, but, it's Cork like…'

If we are all products of our environments and experiences, then it comes as no surprise how Kerry players of different generations see the challenge of Tyrone.

Tommy Griffin, for example, believes: "The furore over the Tiernan McCann thing and all the press, I don't think it's good for Kerry. In a strange way it can be good for Tyrone, it will galvanise them even further. It's a real us-against-them mentality, which probably is always there in some form or other."

And Seán O'Sullivan: "I firmly believe that Kerry would rather have played Monaghan. There is something about Tyrone. I am in Killarney at the moment and I was down around the town and met a few guys. The feeling is that you just can't trust Tyrone."

He continues, switching the focus to players such as Marc Ó Sé, Paul Galvin, Bryan Sheehan and others: "Among the older brigade, there is a little bit of unfinished business. When it came to Croke Park, we just couldn't get the better of them. The lads now see that there is an opportunity to put that one to bed.

"The win in Killarney (2012) helped, but to get Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final at headquarters, it's one that Kerry boys will be relishing, to lay a few demons."

Yet ask Spillane, the man whose diving goal in the 1986 final buried Tyrone, if there is a feeling that Kerry people are spooked by the presence of Mickey Harte, and his answer is emphatic.

"No. That's history," he insists. "Absolutely not and not under (Eamonn) Fitzmaurice; a different regime, and they are a different breed. No complacency, tactics will be down to a fine art, analysis on the opposition will be done."

Though he understands why O'Sullivan and Griffin feel the way they do.

"They were on the receiving end. Maybe that's the difference," he argues.

And then he says something that would surprise many outside of Tyrone.

"I met so many Tyrone fans that day up in Ballybofey and we would say out of every five I met, five of them wanted to get rid of Mickey Harte, which I was surprised and shocked about.

"I couldn't get over it. But of course it was just after the U-21 win and they wanted change. Ageism is rampant in the GAA. A guy over 60 is considered a dinosaur, obsolete and hasn't a clue. Whereas a guy in his 30s is considered cutting-edge and innovative."

Such sentiments are something McConnell senses also. Perhaps this team have been more unloved than previous sides.

"Mickey has taken a lot of flak as well," McConnell says. "Surprisingly, a lot of that has come from within the county.

"There were people writing the team off, thinking that Tyrone football would have been 'red up' a lot earlier this year because they didn't have much hope in the team, which was a little unfair when you consider the ability there in the panel.

"Tyrone people demand a lot from their footballers and the expectation has gone up a notch or two since the glory years. Suddenly, success is not only demanded, but it is expected.

"These lads are burdened by that. It's an unfair burden, but they have to get used to it all the same.

"It's no secret that it's a rebuilding process and rebuilding processes just don't happen overnight. It's going to take time and there hasn't been much slack given over to that from inside or outside the county."

Rebuilding jobs are always complete when a statement victory arrives, and a win over Kerry certainly would qualify as that.

And if Packie McConnell had to call it?

"Tyrone by a point, with Tiernan McCann getting the winner, would be nice!"

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