Saturday 21 January 2017

Vincent Hogan: Football's white knights show they can play dark too

Fitzmaurice happy to ‘grind’ out victory in bare-knuckle combat

Published 24/08/2015 | 02:30

Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey has his goal-bound shot blocked by Kerry’s Marc Ó Sé
Tyrone’s Connor McAliskey has his goal-bound shot blocked by Kerry’s Marc Ó Sé

It was a confederacy of sin, systemic, insidious and unrelenting, yet it gave us a battle for the ages too.

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And Kerry triumphed for the right reasons (better scoring forwards) albeit Tyrone will protest that they lost for the wrong ones (reputational issues and attendant prejudices of the mind).

No question, Maurice Deegan seemed harsh on them at times, most notably five minutes from the end when Padraig McNulty might have had a penalty but got booked, instead, for simulation.

That looked dubious, as did the referee's decision to yellow-card Shane Enright for an indiscretion that, apparently, warranted black for Marc O Se an hour earlier.

No matter, Mickey Harte learned enough about his young team in Croke Park to know that they are no imposters at this altitude now.

Their physical and psychological bombardment of the champions brought us a game that, finally, felt as if it had a mind of its own and could turn eccentric at any time.

And all the old ghosts in Kerry's heads were there to be exhumed, all those bats flapping about inside their minds were making noise.

Read more: Eoin Liston: Red Hands have only themselves to blame for 'dive' call

But Harte, critically, has not yet built goals into this team. That needs to be his next trick.

His system protects them defensively, but diminishes them in other ways. They must, by necessity, attack through multiples of short, slingshot passes because to kick long is to forsake possession. At times, Darren McCurry was the sole Tyrone man visible in the Kerry half, only to be reached by phone.

With their weight of numbers at the back, Tyrone don't simply create congestion, they create darkness. Hence Kerry's inside forward line - exotic butterflies the last day against Kildare - found themselves canned like tuna here.

It was nothing they hadn't expected, of course. But forewarned against Tyrone doesn't necessarily equate to forearmed.

With the music in their play silenced, Kerry found themselves invited to uncomfortable places. It was raw, bare-knuckle stuff and it should be said that Eamonn Fitzmaurice's men seemed well schooled in the new Commandments. They do beautiful better than anyone, but Kerry can play dark too.

Maybe the most important thing to know about them is that every time this game threatened to lurch away from them, Kerry just stiffened and charged.

Read more: Sean Cavanagh: All we want is fair play

They scored the last four points of the contest and, if Deegan's call on McNulty's late (admittedly theatrical) fall under Aidan O'Mahony's aggressive tackle looked Old Testament in harshness, there could be no avoiding a suspicion that Tyrone simply did not have the attacking refinement to close this deal.

Peter Harte might have goaled after just three minutes but, rather than shoot, offloaded to Conor McAliskey at a poorer angle. And on 26 minutes, McAliskey blazed wildly over from ten yards with McCurry unpoliced inside.

Maybe young teams simply overheat in these positions, especially against aristocratic opposition. To be fair, Brendan Kealy's 44th-minute save from Mark Bradley was wonderful, but would Gooch or James O'Donoghue have scored it? Would they have done better with the chance that Tiernan McCann fly-kicked wide?

Harsh

This might be harsh for there could be no doubting that Tyrone filled every cranny of Kerry's attention in this contest. David Moran spilled possession once, five white shirts wreathed around him; O'Donoghue tried jinking past Ronan McNamee and was bulldozed towards the front seats of the Cusack Stand; Kieran Donaghy came sliding out to a low delivery once only to be instantly swarmed by half a dozen bouncers.

When Moran had his pocket picked a second time approaching half-time, he tripped up McAliskey in frustration.

That was the tenor of it, the tone. Rumblings of '03. '05 and '08? Not so, said O'Donoghue when it was over. "I wasn't on those teams, most of us weren't on those teams," protested the Killarney man. "We want to have a record where we beat everyone. We're champions and we're coming back here now for the final.

"This was always going to be an unbelievable battle."

Read more: Cool heads and strong finish a winning mix for classy Kingdom

There was palpably no love lost between them either and the 69th-minute hit on Gooch by Ronan McNabb looked wretchedly wild and dangerous. Yet, neither team had exactly been programmed to play like altar boys here.

Neither found much difficulty suspending scruple in a contest that often blistered and bubbled with bad blood.

Fitzmaurice understood the fundamentals of what Kerry had come through.

"A ferocious battle and thankfully we just came out the right side of it," agreed the Kerry manager. "It was a grind, a tough day for football, the conditions were unforgiving. Obviously Tyrone were going to make it very hard for us again."

Harte's sublime 60th-minute penalty conversion was book-ended by Colm Cavanagh and Bradley points, meaning a five-point swing that brought the Ulster men level.

For Kerry, this was crisis. "We gave away a couple of balls and Tyrone turned them over and counter-attacked at pace," said Fitzmaurice. "They got a penalty from one and got a point straight afterwards and the game went back to all-square.

"But we knew that if we could get our hands on the ball and get it upfield, we'd still be able to get a few points. To be fair to the lads, there's great unity in the group, there's great experience there. We've been in tight corners before and thankfully that bit of experience told at the end."

Read more: Slow-learning Kingdom wake up in time after flashbacks to 'Noughties' nightmares

The difference in the end?

Tyrone's most natural full-forward, Sean Cavanagh, had to fire-fight in so many different places, the sheer intensity of the contest all but swallowed him whole. And Kerry's?

Fitzmaurice took off his captain, Donaghy, after a difficult opening half and, in so doing, completely recalibrated Kerry's attacking fundamentals.

Suddenly, they were pressing up on Niall Morgan's kick-outs, forcing turnovers. Suddenly they were necklacing short passes instead of kicking long.

Fitzmaurice could do that because the strength of his bench allowed it. Mickey Harte did not have that hand.

For all that, it was one of the games of summer. A confederacy of sin perhaps, but mostly venial.

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