Monday 19 March 2018

Peter Canavan: Tipp can't afford to pay Kerry too much respect

An upset is unlikely with Kingdom planning for tougher tests ahead

Tipperary’s Brian Fox tries to escape Peter Crowley of Kerry during last year’s Munster SFC semi-final. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile
Tipperary’s Brian Fox tries to escape Peter Crowley of Kerry during last year’s Munster SFC semi-final. Photo: Ray McManus / Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

One of my earliest encounters with Kerry does not bring back happy memories, but I suppose I'm not alone there.

It's Croke Park, August 1988. I am supposedly the leading light in the Tyrone attack against Kerry in an All-Ireland minor semi-final. There's nothing between the teams, but we trail by a point as the game enters injury-time and we are awarded a free.

The kick is around the '45' and I step up to take it (they were all from the ground back then, remember). After a ding-dong tussle for an hour, on the biggest pitch in the country I'm weary but I put down the ball and give it everything.

The kick sails straight and true towards the Hill 16 goal, but as she nears her intended target, she loses altitude at an alarming rate and a Kerry jersey plucks the ball from under the crossbar. The final whistle blows and I'm shattered - for a Tyrone footballer back then, there was no guarantee whatsoever you'd get back to Croke Park ever again.

Fast-forward two years and we cross swords again. This time it's the All-Ireland U-21 final in Mullingar for what is a belter of a game. The ball moves up and down the field like there's no tomorrow, but they have Maurice Fitzgerald in his majestic pomp and we come out on the wrong side of a 5-12 to 2-11 scoreline. A fella by the name of Billy O'Sullivan scored four goals for them on a day that he'll never forget.

Twelve months later, we end up in the same final, but it's different for us this time. We are on a mission and from the moment the ball is thrown in, we just storm into overdrive. Non-stop. It's champagne football all the way - and all from Tyrone! At the end, people have to take a second look at the scoreline that reads: Tyrone 4-16, Kerry 1-5.

You can only imagine how big a win this was for us as a county. Winning our first All-Ireland U-21 title, and not just beating the 'masters' in the final, but annihilating them. It was a huge lift to our confidence: we could compete at the highest level and we also learned that lads playing in green and gold jerseys were human after all.

The following year, we met in the All-Ireland U-21 semi-final and we beat them again, before going on to successfully defend our title in the final against Galway.

These victories ultimately laid the foundations for what would happen the following decade because, for me anyway, it underlined that Tyrone could produce footballers capable of beating the very best. This wasn't just a 'bad harvest' of Kerry U-21 teams that we had beaten - the likes of Billy O'Shea, Pa Laide and Seamus Moynihan would all go on to win senior medals with them.

I still have Moynihan's jersey from that '92 semi-final (he was playing midfield) and it's a treasured memento in our house. Kerry football has always been treasured in these parts.

For a young lad like me growing up in Tyrone during the '70s and '80s, it was the great Kerry team of that era who you looked up to.

When you went down to the field to kick a ball - and in your head you were actually in Croke Park - you pretended that you were Mikey Sheehy, John Egan or Pat Spillane (unfortunately, I was always too small to even pretend I was 'Bomber' Liston!). There was an aura about them. Your dream was to be as good as a Kerry footballer.

There has been a lot said and written about the Kerry-Tyrone rivalry of the 'noughties', and lines were crossed by both sides during that period, but I believe that when both sets of players look back now, there is a mutual respect. But by God, did we have to work to earn that respect.

Obviously, our victory over them in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final was something Kerry folk struggled with. They hadn't seen it coming and the team hadn't either as they were caught cold by our level of intensity, and aggression, that day.

From a Tyrone perspective, it really was a monumental victory to our psyche. The players - most of whom had already won All-Ireland minor and U-21 medals under Mickey Harte - were making a statement: yes, Kerry football is the pinnacle, but we are going to knock ye off your perch and there'll be no bowing on bended knee anymore.

An edge, and a bitter one at that, developed between the teams, yet our All-Ireland meeting in 2005 was a magnificent game of football - arguably the best final this century. A lot of players played well on both sides. I remember Darragh Ó Sé was immense for them in midfield, but the most important thing was that we won. Just as it was in 2008 when Tyrone came out on top again.

Yet, the old saying about learning more in defeat than victory was never more apparent than four years later. The counties renewed rivalry in a qualifier in Killarney and Kerry won well. But you'd swear they had just won the All-Ireland from the way their players celebrated on the pitch afterwards. This was proof to us of how much we had succeeded in getting under their skin. Also that evening, Kerry supporters applauded Mickey on his way to the dressing-room - that public expression of recognition meant a lot to him and everyone involved in Tyrone football.

This Sunday, Tipperary footballers need to take a leaf out of the Tyrone book and try not be over-awed by the occasion of a Munster final in Killarney or the sight of the green and gold jerseys. It's a huge ask and for all the confidence that their deserved win over Cork will give them, they don't have their opponents' experience or strength in depth. The absence of last year's outstanding U-21 midfield partnership of Steven O'Brien (hurling) and Colin O'Riordan (Aussie Rules) is a huge blow - hopefully, they will return in the near future.

From a Kerry viewpoint, I will be interested in a number of things. The likelihood is that Kerry and Dublin will meet in an All-Ireland semi-final this year, so Eamonn Fitzmaurice will probably be contemplating some form of 'sweeper' role, which I'd expect to be given to either Marc Ó Sé or Aidan O'Mahony.

There's also the 'Paul Murphy dilemma' to consider. The 2014 All-Star wing-back has being operating in the half-forward line this year and while there was a degree of success in the League final against Dublin (in that he brought Cian O'Sullivan out of his comfort zone at stages), I feel the team is better served in the momentum he provides as an attacking half-back.

I also believe they need Kieran Donaghy closer to goal and not exhausting himself around the midfield. That means the likes of David Moran, Bryan Sheehan and Anthony Maher need to be fighting to get hold of those centrefield jerseys.

Having Donaghy hovering in front of goal gives defenders more than just their man to think about. His presence around the square should cause disruption and create more opportunities, allowing Colm Cooper and Paul Geaney to show their quality in front of goal. The imminent return of James O'Donoghue is another good reason to have Donaghy in there making a nuisance of himself.

As a son of a good Tyrone man, isn't he bred to get under the opposition's skin!

Irish Independent

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