Joe Brolly: 'Boring, boring Tyrone. No one can suck the life out of a sporting occasion quite like them'
Boring, boring Tyrone. No one can suck the life out of a sporting occasion quite like them. Aside from Fermanagh. They didn't put anything much into this All-Ireland semi-final, so they didn't get very much out of it.
Since the demise of the truly great Tyrone team of the 2000s, Mickey Harte has been afraid to let his teams express themselves.
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He tried to ape Jimmy McGuinness' finely balanced defensive/counter-attacking system but didn't have the imagination to make the attacking side work. Instead – like Fermanagh under Rory Gallagher – Tyrone ended up stuck in a highly negative, rigid 13 man zonal defensive system. They flirted with a more expansive style in the second half of the league (with success) but he abandoned that when Donegal took them to the cleaners in the Ulster championship, returning to the 1-13-1 formation.
Against a raw, nervous Kerry team, they therefore squandered their talents. Kerry started the game as though they were surprised by Tyrone's 13 man defence. With no system for penetrating the blanket, they quickly degenerated into an every man for himself situation, with Kerry players trying to pin-ball their way through the Tyrone defensive maze like Indiana Jones, kicking passes over the sideline, turning the ball over stupidly and generally looking as though it would be a blessing if they didn't make the final.
The first half had the feel of a terrible anti-climax, like the bronze medal game at the World Cup, or the Tipperary u16 B football final throwing in straight after the senior club hurling championship final. It was as though the teams were not quite sure whether it was a good idea to win. This lacklustre atmosphere was added to by the 33,000 attendance, with the intensely annoying noise of children sounding horns the only thing punctuating the silence.
With Kerry making no headway against Tyrone's rigid defensive system, Tyrone slowly went ahead, Cathal McShane, Niall Sludden and Mattie Donnelly kicking some good points under not very much pressure. At the other end, Tyrone were getting in some shot blocking practice.
That purgatorial first half was exemplified by David Clifford twice kick-passing the ball straight to Tyrone men, prompting groans from the Kerry ones. By half time, Kerry had taken 14 shots, scoring only 5 points. Tyrone meanwhile had toiled to a dull 9 points from only 12 shots, an accuracy rate of 35% versus 75%. Mickey Harte needn't have worried about the GAA folk watching in hospitals and nursing homes, most of whom would have fallen asleep by half-time. Who needs sleeping pills when Tyrone are playing?
Four points up, Tyrone came out for the second half exactly as they had in the first: Risk averse, heavily defensive and (what tends to happen with teams playing this sort of system) on auto-pilot. They played as though all they had to do was keep on keeping on in order to win. So, when Tommy Walsh was introduced and suddenly ball that was kicked in was sticking instead of coming straight back out, Kerry found their mojo, and Tyrone remained stuck in their rigid game plan, unable to change up or adapt. In the 55th minute, David Clifford kicked an awesome point to level the game at 0-12 to 0-12.
A minute later, Paul Geaney delayed his hand-pass to allow Stephen O'Brien to run clear, then delivered it perfectly to the little sprinter, who gobbled up the ground before planting the ball low to the Tyrone net. 1-12 to 0-12. A minute later it was 1-13 to 0-12 and the game was gone from Tyrone. They were forced to push up and try to play, which in turn left them open at the back. The Kerry men now had the whiphand and unlike the northern men, they were not about to squander their advantage by playing conservatively. Clifford demonstrated his absolute technical mastery by scoring another monstrous point from play, pivoting on his right leg as he took the pass before sweeping it over the bar with his left in one movement. Do not try this at home.
Mickey Harte brought on a few good forwards but it was too late, and although they tagged on a few points, Kerry were always able to respond, galloping through the now wide open spaces to keep the margin steady. A word on David Moran, who was colossal throughout, even in the first half when he seemed to be playing alone. A 6'4" skills machine, his ball winning, ball carrying, passing and general leadership was what Kerry have to thank for waking up in the morning in an All-Ireland final. As one of the Stewartstown men said to me as we were leaving the park, "He didn't lick it off the ground." "
It was, as it has been for Tyrone since 2008, another dull anti-climax, with keen Tyrone football people leaving the park feeling they had somehow been cheated.
It will be a much better final without them. The Dubs would have patiently and methodically cut Tyrone's blanket defence to pieces in a dull affair, as they did in 2017. Kerry meanwhile, being Kerry, will go man to man, and adventure will be the order of the day. A goal from Clifford. A goal from O'Brien. A rousing effort from this young team brimming with potential who will use the final as a stepping stone, victory being out of the question.