Saturday 7 December 2019

Vincent Hogan: Kerry and Tyrone lock horns in an unlikely dogfight

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Like so many good ideas, he'd probably quite like to decommission it now. Jack O'Connor's chronicled dislike of the "arrogance" rolling through northern football sits like a spill of ink in a pool.

When he draws breath on those lonesome hikes up into the mists of Toorsaleen mountain, you have to wonder where his thoughts on Ulster take him. Does he curse the God that deprived him the common Kerry convention of roguish flattery?

Tonight, in Omagh, Jack re-introduces himself to the "flash and nouveau riche and full of it" footballers of Tyrone with whom his beloved Kerry have shared the last seven All-Irelands.

His autobiography, 'Keys to the Kingdom', is two and half years on the shelves now, yet the contents of page five continue to be recycled as an example of candour packed as gunpowder. Maybe it's like that text message dispatched during an office party that, in the cold light of day, fills the sender with mortification.


O'Connor can be sure of a warm and fervent welcome this evening but, beyond the official courtesies, the air in Healy Park will have its electricity. For, as a few locals might be quick to remind the Kerry manager, it was Jack who penned the words "Losing to Tyrone is worse than losing to almost anybody else."

This game is being tagged "a relegation battle", both teams peering through the trap door into Division 2. Yet it is from Championship that their relationship takes its definition.

In three meetings through the noughties (the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final and the finals of '05 and '08), Tyrone have always prevailed. And, in Kerry, that constitutes a mortifying wipe-out. One thing to get turned over on ash-grey League days. Quite another to get your pockets picked in Croke Park summer cauldrons.

Yet, the League has uncorked little tributaries of discord too.

In February of last year, Kerry went to Omagh with the body language of men tending to profoundly personal business. O'Connor hadn't been their manager for '08, yet it was common knowledge that the contents of his book had been used by Tyrone on All-Ireland final day.

In Healy Park, they launched themselves at their hosts with uncommon energy. Within 19 minutes, they led 2-6 to 0-1. If O'Connor had travelled north with the intention of laying down a marker, his team was faithfully responding.

Tyrone trailed by 11 points at half-time and, after what he refers to as "a mind search", Mickey Harte got his team to change their jerseys in the dressing-room. They dominated the second-half, out-scoring Kerry 0-10 to 0-2 and eventually coming up just three points short of a remarkable escape.

The game was marred by an incident late in the game between Ryan McMenamin and Marc O Se and there was no handshake between the managers at its conclusion.

Harte wrote in his book, 'Presence is the Only Thing', "There had been an edgy feel about Kerry all day. Over the years, any conversations I had with Jack O'Connor were confined to a few chats on the odd All Stars trip or sharing a table at the All Stars banquet. But Jack wasn't passing the salt on Sunday.

"Before the game, I strolled down the line to shake his hand as the ball was being thrown in. Jack was already locked into watching the game. He shook my hand, but his mind was elsewhere. That gave me an idea of his mindset for the day," he said. "With all the commotion at the end of the game, I didn't get a chance to seek him out and congratulate him. Though I didn't see him making a bee-line for me either."

Thirteen months on then, they reconvene in the same town, little evidence of any significant thaw in the relationship between Gaelic football's big two.

Peter Canavan dismisses the personalised jabs of O'Connor's book as "old hat" now. Yet, he believes that -- for Kerry -- little worries still sit in the brain when it comes to their relationship with Tyrone. "Without a doubt, it rankles with Kerry folk that they haven't got one over Tyrone," says the '03 captain. "Definitely this rivalry is more of a problem for Kerry than it is for Tyrone.

"Even after winning that League game last year, I'd say they still went home a little ruffled. Because they couldn't put Tyrone away. They'd put on an exhibition in the first half and destroyed us. Then Tyrone really upped the ante in the second half and Kerry ended up hanging on by their fingernails.

"To be honest, even if Kerry win this game in Omagh, I don't know that it would mean all that much to them. I'd imagine that it's in an All-Ireland final or semi-final that they'd be keen to set the record straight."

Both teams have looked in deep transition thus far through this League, Tyrone losing four games out of five, Kerry losing three. It is unfamiliar territory for O'Connor and Harte, though hardly a trigger for panic.

The Kerry manager has lost Diarmuid Murphy, Michael McCarthy, Darragh O Se, Tadhg Kennelly and Tommy Walsh from last year's All-Ireland winning team. Tyrone have been campaigning without three of the game's stellar talents, Sean Cavanagh (who makes his first start tonight) Brian Dooher and Stephen O'Neill.

The three-times and current All Star 'keeper, Murphy -- though now retired from inter-county football -- has been to all bar one of Kerry's League games and declares it "too early" to make any truly informed judgment on their well-being.

He believes that tonight's game is one that will "mean a lot" to both managers, but not for the ballast of personal agendas.

"From Kerry's point of view, I think the Tyrone thing has been over-played a small bit," suggests Murphy. "I played against them in two All-Ireland finals and, on both occasions, they were the better team on the day. When that happens, you've just got to hold your hand up and move on.

"Going to Omagh for a League game is going to be a tough encounter for Kerry. But I'd say it's exactly what they want now. It's where you're going to find out what you're made of."

For Tyrone, Cavanagh's return is seen by many as a virtual commencement of real business. Just this week, he spoke of the fatigue that weighed down on him last summer and those suggestions of friction between Cavanagh and the Tyrone manager over the content of Harte's book appear to have subsided.

Peter Canavan believes that Tyrone will win tonight and, ultimately, retain Division 1 status. Yet he would not consider failure to do so a catastrophe.

"The problems Tyrone have had in this League aren't entirely surprising," says Canavan. "With so many experienced players missing, it would have been wishful thinking to expect a real smooth transition for a lot of the younger fellas. I think the dilemma that's facing Harte now is that he has a core of players that are coming towards the end of their careers. It's no surprise that a number of them are struggling with injuries.

"But I don't think people are panicking or giving out up here. The position they're in is called 'transition' I suppose. If we're relegated, it won't be the end of the world. The only thing that would really be damaged would be their pride. And being as proud as Mickey Harte is, he certainly doesn't want to be involved in taking a Tyrone team down to Division 2.

"That said, the gulf between Division 1 and Division 2 football doesn't exist anymore. It's very hard to pick out a weak team in Division 2 at the minute. So Tyrone could learn as much down there as they can in Division 1. But I expect them to win their last two games."

If anything, Canavan is almost re-assured that Tyrone have made such a slow start to the year. "Last year, they were going too well too early," he argues. "They won the Ulster Championship without breaking a sweat and probably peaked too soon.

"So I'd be nearly worrying now if Tyrone were blowing everybody out of the water. Whilst you don't want to see them relegated, I'd prefer to see them gathering momentum slowly and arriving into the Championship with a full deck to deal from.

"I still think they'll have a very big say in the Championship this year."

It is a basic imperative for both Harte and O'Connor to deliver their teams into the autumn with real impetus. In that context, tonight's game won't deliver much beyond a peremptory understanding of how transition is progressing in either county.

Yet, it will be salted with an edgy narrative too. No rivalry, maybe in the history of the game, has been so personalised by literature.

O'Connor has been inclined to dismiss Tyrone's brand of football as some kind of cynical, mongrel hybrid. Yet, for the first 20 minutes of that '03 semi-final, they out-played Kerry with wonderfully expressive football and the '05 collision between the counties will be remembered as one of the more open and free-flowing finals of recent times.

"Add up the number of All-Ireland titles the Ulster counties have won and it's less than a third of Kerry's total," wrote O'Connor in '07. "But northern teams advertise themselves well. They talk about how they did it, they go on and on about this theory and that practice as if they'd just split the atom."

One year later, Harte's response was to define O'Connor's view as an "arrogant philosophy", adding that he himself would "never be smug enough to say how this game should be played."

He wrote "If Jack wanted to paint a broad, brush-stroke about northern football, I took it as somebody who wasn't sure what they were talking about. I see Tyrone as having more in common with Galway or Mayo than some counties in Ulster. I respect his opinion, but I don't buy this idea of a northern brand.

"Different people use different things to motivate themselves though and, deep inside all of us, we don't like to be told we're something that we're not."

Those words dance through the ether now, random as sparks from a bonfire, as Kerry travel north again. It won't be relegation that will crowd minds in Omagh tonight.

It will be the matter of hierarchy. Kerry's lineage decrees them masters of the game, yet their relationship with Tyrone asks persistently uncomfortable questions.

Don't expect the welcome to extend beyond the throw-in.

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