Prizefighters still slugging it out to end
Fierce rivals Kerry and Tyrone go head-to-head again with more than just relegation at stake
Two years ago, Kerry rolled into Omagh for their final league game. Tyrone had already qualified for the semi-finals. Kerry desperately needed a win to survive in Division 1.
Kerry led by 11 points at half-time but Tyrone couldn't countenance the trauma of a trimming from their old rivals. The Kingdom scraped over the line by one point.
Tyrone also had history to draw from. When the sides met in Omagh in 2009, they were in the same position. Kerry were ahead by 11 at half-time. Tyrone were within a point by the end but the atmosphere was toxic. Ryan McMenamin slapped Marc Ó Sé. Jack O'Connor faced off with Colm McCullagh. McMenamin was suspended for eight weeks for kneeing Paul Galvin in the groin. Both counties were fined €2,000.
Kerry wanted to make a stand, Tyrone refused to yield, which provided the perfect metaphor for the counties' modern rivalry. The relationship has been defined by a tension rooted in their differences, but what had driven them apart also bound them together to make them great.
Their championship meetings since 2003 have always been the key reference points but their league meetings have invariably been the testing ground. Since 2003, seven of their ten games were either the penultimate or final matches in Division 1. Almost all the games had something riding on them.
On Sunday, the prospect of relegation hangs over both teams.
Some of those previous meetings set the tone for the year: 2003 and '05 in Killarney; '04 and '09 in Omagh. A few of those games were brilliant. Others were wars.
"There has always been an edge to the relationship but I think it's been more in league than championship," says former Tyrone player Philip Jordan. "Maybe players are a little more relaxed in that if they get sent off, it's not as big as in the summer."
Kerry-Tyrone championship matches have invariably been seminal games invested with a monumental significance. Old World versus New Order. Then New World versus New Order. Kerry will always be Gaelic football's supreme power but even they cannot deny the part Tyrone have played in framing their current identity.
"Would Kerry take any extra pleasure in relegating Tyrone now?" asks former Kerry player Dara Ó Cinnéide. "A small bit probably. You'd still hear it from a small element within Kerry supporters accusing Tyrone of starting the current culture of football with their northern-style game. There is no northern-style football. We're all it."
In the early days, Kerry felt they had a right to cock their noses at Tyrone. In December 2004, then Kerry chairman Sean Walsh used his annual report to proclaim his delight that "it took a Kerry team to restore pride in Gaelic football, with a return to a free-flowing game as opposed to suffocating, blanket defensive football".
In his book, Jack O'Connor claimed that "losing to Tyrone is worse than losing to almost anybody else". O'Connor added: "there's an arrogance to northern football which rubs Kerry people up the wrong way. They're flash and nouveau riche and full of it."
Initially, that was how Kerry viewed Tyrone. "After they beat us in 2003, I wouldn't have respected them," says Ó Cinnéide. "I just thought, 'This isn't the way we want to play football'. Then Jack O'Connor took over and said, 'This is the way the game is going, we either adapt or die'. We won in 2004 but Tyrone kept evolving. After 2005, I had huge respect for them."
For Tyrone, they felt they had Kerry's number after their breakthrough.
"In 2003, we might have caught them a wee bit by surprise but we were on a different level to them in 2005," says Jordan (pictured).
Tyrone repeatedly out-fought and out-thought Kerry. When Kerry did beat them in a qualifier in 2012, it helped scratch an itch, even if the victory never fully removed the unease.
"It was still a hollow enough victory in 2012," says Ó Cinnéide. "It was never avenging anything really because that ship had sailed. Of course it p***es me off we didn't beat them in those games but what can you do about it? Darragh (Ó Sé) said that he never lost any sleep over it."
The deep respect Tyrone earned from Kerry firmly manifested itself in the manner in which Harte and his players were embraced after that 2012 game. Yet when it appeared any lingering dust had settled, sparks flew again.
In his annual report, Tyrone secretary Dominic McCaughey talked about poor refereeing in Killarney and how Kerry's victory was "greeted, amazingly, with tears of joy by some players and wild scenes of jubilation among highly vociferous supporters". The point was clear. A qualifier victory would never match the monumental games Tyrone had won against Kerry.
When Cookstown and Finuge met in an All-Ireland club Intermediate final two months later, both sides got embroiled in a vortex of retribution and reprisals, involving alleged spitting incidents and sectarian remarks. It was dispiriting, coming just 12 months after another chaotic club game between Derrytresk and Dromid Pearses.
The trouble in those club games reflected the worst of the rivalry but it never fully infected the counties' relationship, especially between the players.
"The reception Mickey got in 2012 stands for way more than a couple of incidents in club games," says Jordan. "Certainly after 2005, we always felt respect from Kerry towards us. We talk about Kerry and their players with huge respect. People on the outside probably get more worked up about Tyrone-Kerry than the players."
It is easy to forget now the epic games they played and the part that had in creating two of football's greatest teams. Tyrone may no longer be the team they were but their players can still always call on their legacy when they play Kerry.
"Even though most of the players are gone now and Tyrone will be going in with the mindset of underdogs, Tyrone have always been fit to lift it against Kerry," says Jordan. "That lack of confidence they've had recently is an issue but that wee bit of confidence Tyrone always have against Kerry might help them get a result on Sunday."
The atmosphere will be charged. The threat of relegation will sharpen the serrated edge of the rivalry but that tension still neatly encapsulates the jagged beauty of a relationship that has done so much to define modern football.