Slow-learning Kingdom wake up in time after flashbacks to 'Noughties' nightmares
It is not often I have accused Kerry footballers of being slow learners on the football field but at half-time in yesterday's All-Ireland semi-final, when they were fortunate to be ahead of Tyrone by one point, I thought the description was very apt.
Three times since 2003 Tyrone have beaten Kerry in championship at Croke Park with largely the same style of football and much to the consternation of Kerry people. So imagine the shock among their supporters yesterday when they saw Tyrone exploiting the same tactics and once again putting the shackles on them when the score was 0-8 to 0-7 in favour of Kerry at the break.
Tyrone closed down their rivals time after time and on several occasions literally took the ball out of Kerry players' hands when surrounded by Ulstermen.
Flashbacks to 2003, '05 and '08, only that three early points in the old-Kerry style from Johnny Buckley during the first 10 minutes steadied the ship for them, and they kept marginally in front to the break.
It was clear Éamonn Fitzmaurice had seen enough at half-time and the first dramatic move was to replace Kieran Donaghy. The Austin Stacks man had spent a futile 37 minutes of going in and out from the goal area to midfield with Justin McMahon doing as expected by standing in front of, behind, and on top of Donaghy to the exclusion of any worthwhile contribution for Kerry. That was until in the dying seconds of the half when Donaghy scored a very important psychological point that edged his team ahead by one, before departing the scene.
Then Paul Geaney came into the Kerry attack. Next the Kingdom stopped conceding Tyrone kickouts as they had foolishly done in the opening half and Tyrone were forced to change to traditional, long kickouts which were mainly won in Kerry style and this changed the game.
Geaney opened up the attacking set-up much better and that allowed more space for Colm Cooper to get more ball.
It took Tyrone 20 minutes after the break to score three points and in that same period Kerry had rattled over six to go into a four-point lead.
The Tyrone system of play, with up to 13 players back in defence at times, was gradually being eroded and their attack paid the price for over-defending as for the last 31 minutes they only scored 1-2 with the goal coming from a rocket of a penalty by Peter Harte.
The paucity of scores finished Tyrone's hopes and Kerry had the extra forces, recruited from their very strong bench, which allowed them to score four unanswered points.
No team has the quality of subs that Kerry have, and it is critical in tight games like this one as apart from anything else it allows the manager to vary the pattern of play. This was proven in the second half and successfully devised by Fitzmaurice and his advisors, and implemented cleverly by his players.
Tyrone people will have gone home satisfied, I reckon, if you can ever say that after losing an All-Ireland semi-final. They nearly frustrated Kerry on the big day yet again but this time there was no Dooher, O'Neill or Jordan to fuel the Red Hand engine.
Only the next couple of years will tell us if there are men on this squad to match their predecessors but yesterday was a very good day for Tyrone football after a week that is best forgotten by everybody in the GAA.
There are some wonderful young players on this Kerry team but as yesterday showed they are not yet worthy of being called invincible. Some of their big names like Anthony Maher, David Moran, and Donaghy struggled badly but in the Kerry tradition they will probably more than compensate if they are selected for the final.
Two things that did not help Tyrone were their tendency for dissent when frees were awarded, and some poor use of free-kicks.
Once again a goalkeeper, this time Niall Morgan, missed a couple of long frees, something I have referred to involving several counties. It is a fad that is not worthwhile when one considers the psychological damage to a team when these goalkeepers miss frees.
And Tyrone also missed frees from regular free-takers that proved costly, such as the one Darren McCurry hit wide just after the Peter Harte's 66th-minute penalty which left his team trailing by a single point. How easy it is to overlook some of the elementary matters such as free-taking that often cost a team the game.