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Without McShane Tyrone might not have enough to punish Kingdom lapses

National Football League Division 1: Tyrone v Kerry, Sunday February 9, Healy Park, Omagh, 2pm


Tommy Walsh of Kerry in action against Sean Kelly of Galway during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 2 match between Kerry and Galway at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Tommy Walsh of Kerry in action against Sean Kelly of Galway during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 2 match between Kerry and Galway at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile


Tommy Walsh of Kerry in action against Sean Kelly of Galway during the Allianz Football League Division 1 Round 2 match between Kerry and Galway at Austin Stack Park in Tralee, Kerry. Photo by Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

It's hard to know where things stand now for Mickey Harte in this his eighteenth season in charge of the Tyrone senior footballers.

In the last couple of years it's felt as though they were building towards something following their return to the Division 1 ranks in 2017. The Red Hand played an All Ireland semi-final against Dublin that same year. They played an All Ireland final against the Sky Blues in 2018. For a (very) brief spell Tyrone even looked Dublin's closest challengers.

Now it's important to stress that closest is a relative term. It's not necessarily that people thought Tyrone had what it took to take down the Dubs - some did we're sure, most didn't - it's just that before last year's league, with Kerry seemingly a little too raw to challenge and Mayo a little too old, Tyrone seemed to be next in line.

The Red Hand's hold over that status was put to the test when they came face to face with the Kingdom in the All Ireland semi-final last year. It felt, even then, like a now or never type proposition for Tyrone. With Kerry developing as they were and as rapidly as they were, it looked Tyrone's best chance of overhauling Peter Keane's men for the foreseeable future.

It looked Tyrone's best chance of returning to the All Ireland final stage for just the second time since their 2008 triumph - over Kerry as it so happens - and for thirty five minutes of that August semi-final they were on course.

Harte's gameplan had Kerry at sixes and sevens. The beautiful ball being played into Cathal McShane on the edge of the square from the half-forward line (and Niall Sludden in particular) caught the Kingdom flat-footed at the back. Everything - well almost everything - was working out beautifully for Tyrone.

We say almost because Tyrone didn't put the game to bed when they had the chance, something they'd come to rue as Kerry's brilliant second half recovery put a stop to Tyrone's hopes of reaching the final.

More so even than that it seemed to represent something of a glass ceiling for Tyrone. Kerry stopped dead Tyrone's hard-earned momentum in its tracks. Obviously Tyrone would continue to be a force and continue to be competitive, but their path back to Sam Maguire was now blocked by not just Dublin, but by Kerry too.

One step forward, two steps back. Questions once again emerging about whether or not the time was right for Harte to step back and give somebody else a crack at it, questions as to whether or not he had brought this team as far as he could.

Whatever about the merits or demerits of that, the status quo persists, Harte remains. The trouble is McShane hasn't, having decamped to the Adelaide Crows (for now at least) and that seems to have prompted even more questions about the state of the project.

Without McShane Tyrone lack a focal point to their attack. Add to that the long-term injury to Mattie Donnelly - set to miss the league - and you can see why the mood music might not be the best out of mid-Ulster at the moment.

After a difficult couple of months Tyrone and Harte need something to help kick-start their season (yet another McKenna Cup triumph didn't really do the trick) and regain the momentum they lost last August. A win over Kerry on their home patch really would be just the tonic, which really ought to put Kerry on guard as they venture north this weekend.

Yes, Tyrone were pretty disappointing against Monaghan in Castleblaney on Sunday afternoon, yes, eleven points is a poor return and won't come anywhere near close enough to overhauling the Kingdom (Pádraic Joyce reckoned Galway would need about twenty last weekend), but on their home patch Tyrone will be a different proposition.

And it's not as though Kerry were flawless in Tralee last weekend. They have their problems too. The Kingdom gave up as many as six goal-scoring opportunities to Galway and were most fortunate that Galway only took two of those. It's no exaggeration to say that Galway should have been out of sight by the time Paul Geaney fashioned that late smash and grab effort.

The question for this weekend is do Tyrone have enough firepower of their own to take advantage of these defensive frailties and, to be honest, without McShane or Donnelly that would seem unlikely at this juncture.

Regardless of that Kerry should probably be better defensively this weekend assuming - as Peter Keane hinted on Saturday evening - that Tadhg Morley will be in a position to start in Healy Park. His value to the team was made vivid by his absence from it.

Kerry will need to improve offensively themselves oddly enough. After a brilliant first half where they took ten of twelve chances (84%), Kerry were very profligate in front of the sticks in the second half.

The Kingdom kicked three wides, dropped three short, were blocked down for an effort at a point, failed take three goal-scoring chances and needlessly wasted a '45 short despite having Shane Ryan trek up the pitch to take it. Joyce lamented Galway's failure to make the most of their chances last weekend, but the truth is Kerry were guilty of doing the same at times.

The likely return to the starting fifteen of Seán O'Shea - Keane said he was carrying a slight illness last weekend - will significantly bolster Kerry up front, but there's every chance that Micheál Burns did enough in replacing him to force his way into the starting fifteen, perhaps at 10 in place of Gavin O'Brien who was subbed before half-time in Stack Park.

Our suspicion is that, with O'Shea and Morley back in the fold, Kerry will improve enough in the areas that almost caught them out last weekend and will probably emerge from Healy Park with the two points and their unbeaten record in tact.

Without McShane, Tyrone are in a little bit of a funk, but still we wouldn't totally rule out the possibility that they could turn the Kingdom over this weekend. They won't make it easy for their guests, they'll battle and scrap for everything.

If Kerry do win, they'll have earned it.

Verdict: Kerry