Sunday 17 December 2017

Croke Park braced for long overdue fireworks

Tyrone's Connor McAliskey hopes to pierce holes Kerry's defense in today's All-Ireland semi-final
Tyrone's Connor McAliskey hopes to pierce holes Kerry's defense in today's All-Ireland semi-final

Damian Lawlor

The rivalry may not now be as strong as it was, nor the bitterness as raw, but all that could change this afternoon.

For Tyrone and Kerry carry with them not just the expectation of their own counties, but of the entire Gaelic football clan that has been starved of drama this season.

In a year where one-sided games have blighted the Championship, where the average winning margin has been nine points and where only one of the four quarter-finals was a truly competitive affair, the first All-Ireland semi-final offers chinks of light.

Today, in front of an expected crowd of 55,000, Croke Park will surely explode into life. There's a sub-plot in all of this too. To many who follow modern Gaelic football, there's only morally acceptable outcome and that's a win for the Kings of the game.

Those in Tyrone, however, rebel at the notion that they are dark-arts masters, and they come to Dublin kicking and screaming as if their very reputations depend on it.

Read more: Tyrone's careful rebuild unlikely to withstand champions' momentum

Against this backdrop they will unleash their frustrations this afternoon. They will surely heap great drama on us in the process. The severe contrast at play ensures that: the much loved pitted against the much maligned. The county everyone admires against the one they love to hate.

Their past is too contentious for a cut and dried affair, the odds of 4/1 on a Tyrone win far too kind. In their 2003 meeting, the iconic image of the Tyrone defence swarming around Kerry's Eoin Brosnan prompted Pat Spillane to introduce us to 'puke football'. Talk about a label sticking.

The '05 and '08 All-Ireland finals were both occasions where the Red Hand triumphed and in doing so they became the fly in Kerry's eye. Kerry finally eked out a measure of revenge in 2012 when they beat them in the qualifiers in Killarney, but that is not enough. There is more retribution required.

Will the edge be as sharp with the playing landscape so different? We imagine the edge will be as acute as ever. The heritage that the generals of the past have left behind will send jolts of electricity surging through the current squads.

And how could Tyrone not feel slighted given the fall-out from Rufflegate and the proposed eight-week ban for Tiernan McCann?

Today, the great defenders may just decide that attack is their greatest hope of victory and that by running at Kerry, Connor McAliskey and Darren McCurry might just pierce holes in a famous armoury. But ultimately, we suspect, Kerry will have to penetrate a steely barricade to reach the All-Ireland final and may need all of their rich reserves from the bench to help them.

It will be fascinating stuff. And long overdue.

Read more: Murphy's iron will provide strength to break through

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