Friday 19 January 2018

Peter Canavan: 'Puke football'? I'm sure Pat meant 'Peak football'

Kerry’s Johnny Crowley is tackled by Tyrone duo Philip Jordan and Ryan McMenamin in their 2003 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile
Kerry’s Johnny Crowley is tackled by Tyrone duo Philip Jordan and Ryan McMenamin in their 2003 All-Ireland SFC semi-final. Photo: David Maher/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

Almost 13 years since 'puke football' first spluttered across our TV screens, the term has wrongly - in my, admittedly biased, opinion - become part of the GAA dictionary.

The phrase spewed out of the mouth of Pat Spillane after Kerry's seven-point defeat to Tyrone in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final, forever tarnishing (Ulster) teams who showed no respect for tradition or regard for convention.

We all know, of course, that Pat is not a sore loser, so it would never be sour grapes that could motivate him to come out with this; I think what the Kerry legend really meant to say was that he had just witnessed 'peak football'. I'm sure it just came out the wrong way on live TV. It happens us all, Pat.

For me, 'peak football' is what Tyrone were about that day - hunting in packs to turn over a Kerryman in possession, moving the ball quickly and intelligently to find gaps, and taking our scores when the chances came. This level of intensity was new to many and some didn't find it pretty, but by God, it was pretty effective.

My personal memories of the game aren't great. I wasn't on the pitch for long as I had to come off with an ankle injury following a 13th-minute collision with Seamus Moynihan. We started well, but it wasn't in Mickey Harte's plan for the team to lose its captain so early.


But, what came soon after my departure showed everyone how well Mickey had us drilled for the big day. I encourage you to go to YouTube and relive the pivotal passage of play. In its entirety it lasts about 40 seconds.

A hopeful ball is pumped into 'Mugsy' (Owen Mulligan) on the edge of the small parallelogram, but it is batted away and collected by Kerry's Sean O'Sullivan. He kicks the ball to Dara Ó Cinneide, who gathers. Then, the fun starts.

Ó Cinneide is soon surrounded by four Tyrone players, one of whom is Mugsy, who has sprinted out to help his team-mates. Bish! The ball quickly breaks towards the sideline and Ó Cinneide somehow regains possession, but is again pursued by three Tyrone players before a fourth - Mugsy - comes in and tries to shoulder him over the sideline. Bash!

In fairness to Ó Cinneide, he does well to stay upright but the ball soon squirts from his grasp. It's now helter-skelter and Eoin Brosnan tries to take it on. But he is hit by one, two and then a third Tyrone player - Mugsy again, bosh! Now, if Mugsy, one of our more skilful forwards, is bouncing around like a Duracell bunny making tackles, you can only imagine the message he's sending out to his team-mates.

Meanwhile, Brosnan stumbles and the ball breaks to Enda McGinley. He tries to escape from the traffic, but is dispossessed by Darragh Ó Sé near the sideline.

By now, however, there is just a sea of legs. The Tyrone queue forming to tackle Darragh under the Hogan is longer than it was to get a mineral at the Springsteen concert last Sunday. Kevin Hughes drives into Darragh, followed swiftly by Stephen O'Neill, and the ball is dislodged.

What happens next shows that Kerry are the proverbial rabbit caught in headlights. Darragh panics. Against all the instincts of the pure football that he has been reared on, the greatest midfielder of his generation wildly pulls on the ball with his left leg. It scuttles along the ground for about 30 yards, and into the grateful arms of an unmarked Brian Dooher. Kerry are broken.

One of the great myths that developed afterwards was that we had been tearing strips off each other with similar ferocity in training. But the simple truth is we hadn't, because we couldn't afford to be.

Mickey knew we had to be at our peak during that game - not before, not after - and getting us primed for the task was all about ensuring our physical and mental preparation were spot-on. Our tackling drills were done with fierce intensity, our ball skills were practised at a breakneck speed and repeated until we got them right, and the pace never let up in our training matches, yet the sessions hardly ever lasted more than an hour.

Don't get me wrong, it was hard work on top of more hard work, but we found the harder we worked, the easier it got.

One other key part of our preparation was how Mickey got us to believe we could win. We had won Ulster, but automatically went in as underdogs because this was Tyrone against almighty Kerry, and we had never beaten them at this level. We were taking on the Kingdom of football and there was a certain level of awe in the back of our minds.

Mickey knew he had to chip away at that, so we watched the video of the previous year's All-Ireland final against Armagh quite a bit, and he said: "Look at the difference between the two halves - when Armagh stood back and let Kerry play in the first half, the likes of Mike Frank (Russell) and the Gooch looked superhuman; when Armagh got in the tackles and closed out the space in the second half, they looked ordinary."

So going out onto Croke Park, we trusted what he told us and knew what we had to do. The hard work had been done on the training pitch and we had to go hell for leather from the start: conviction, aggression and intensity.

These are the basics needed to win any Championship game, but I saw none of that in the past two weeks from Derry or Armagh. Straight away, you knew something was missing from the players' body language, jogging onto the pitch with no energy, no drive, no belief.

That's why I'm hoping we don't see the same from Laois tomorrow. Every one of their players must tear into Dublin like tigers from the start and carry out their game-plan with conviction. There can be no let-up and no hostage to reputation. They have to give their crowd something to shout about because games can sometimes take on a life of their own. Especially when you play peak football.

Irish Independent

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