Friday 22 November 2019

Ulstermen still capable of unsettling Kingdom’s reign

Antrim got up Kerry's noses 69 years ago and their provincial counterparts have followed suit ever since

Tyrone players celebrate as referee Maurice Deegan blows the full time whistle in the 2008 All-Ireland final
Tyrone players celebrate as referee Maurice Deegan blows the full time whistle in the 2008 All-Ireland final
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

Sixty-nine years ago this week, Kerry came within five votes of having their All-Ireland semi-final win over Antrim overturned by the GAA's Central Council for bringing the Association into disrepute.

The charge was brought by the enraged Ulster champions, who argued that Kerry deployed roughhouse tactics to disrupt Antrim's slick use of the handpass.

Antrim, who were quite a force in Ulster in the second half of the 1940s, had honed the handpassing tactics to a fine art, only to come up against a Kerry team determined to smash it.

That's exactly what they did in the 1946 All-Ireland semi-final in a manner best described many years later by Kerry full-back Joe Keohane.

"Antrim were trying to walk the ball into the net and tried to get as close as possible to goal, even when going for points.

"We decided that the only way to stop them was for each man to be prepared to tackle the forward for whom a pass was intended. Granted, we did not stand on ceremony," he said.

Antrim protested that Kerry's three-point win should not stand but, after a three-hour meeting, Central Council voted 19-10 against their proposal.

Read more: Kingdom fear Mickey Harte has their measure as Croke Park scars linger

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A five-vote swing would, at the very least, have left Kerry facing a rematch and the embarrassment of having a result declared void because of their foul play.


Instead, they went on to win the final, beating Roscommon in a replay. Business as usual then for Kerry, who were crowned All-Ireland champions for the 16th time.

While that controversial semi-final may now appear as no more than a footnote in history, it remains a timely backdrop to a Kerry-Ulster story that has often had a spiky texture.

Whether that's related to the fact that Down and Tyrone are the only counties in the country to be in positive equity with Kerry in the championship is a moot point.

All the rest have been beaten by Kerry more often than they won. Indeed, most of them have dismal records, while many haven't even a single win over the Kingdom to their credit.

In the midst of such subservience stand defiant Down and Tyrone, the former having won all five championship games against Kerry, the latter leading 3-2 from five clashes, with all three coming since 2003.

Armagh beat them too in the 2002 All-Ireland final, a win that drew some grumbles from Kerry observers, who alleged Joe Kernan's crew got away with blocking opposition players off the ball.

Read more: It will be a battle but no matter what we'll be lighting candles for the Kingdom and the Kingdom of Heaven

Armagh saw it as no more than an excuse from a county that couldn't cope with losing to new forces.

The criticisms were far more trenchant when Down signalled their arrival as a major football force in 1960 by winning the All-Ireland title for the first time and a year later when they retained it.

They beat Kerry in the 1960 final and in the 1961 semi-final, both by sizeable margins. It wasn't that Kerry begrudged Down their breakthrough as the first team from the Six Counties to win the All-Ireland title, but they did have serious reservations about the methods used to achieve it.

In his autobiography, Mick O'Dwyer, who played in both the 1960-'61 games, paid tribute to Down for their tactical nous, athleticism, ball retention and off-the-ball running, but also claimed that they "introduced a note of negativity which must have been pre-planned."

Yellow or black cards weren't in use back then so a team could indulge in consistent fouling without incurring any penalty other than the concession of frees. O'Dwyer alleged that Down exploited it to the maximum.

"They had no qualms whatsoever about fouling a player well out the field. I know they have always denied that deliberate fouling was part of their plan, but I played against them often enough to suspect that it most definitely was. After all, it was hardly a coincidence that they did it so systematically," he wrote.

Down again beat Kerry in the 1968 final, made it four in a row in the 1991 All-Ireland semi-final extended it to 5-0 in the 2010 quarter-final.

While a zero against their championship relationship with Down is a stone in Kerry's shoe, it's still not nearly as irritating for them as the run of three defeats by Tyrone in 2003-05-08.

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

They beat Tyrone in the 1986 All-Ireland final and made it 3-2 with a qualifier win in 2012. However, that was in Killarney halfway through the back door route, which is altogether different to an All-Ireland semi-final or final in Croke Park.

Jack O'Connor, who was in charge of Kerry for the 2005 All-Ireland final defeat, displayed real honesty two years later when he wrote that losing to Tyrone was "worse than losing to almost anybody else."

It had nothing to do with history between the counties because at that stage there was little enough to draw on between them. But after losing to Tyrone (twice) and Armagh (once) in 2002-2005, they had a bellyful of what O'Connor colourfully described as "an arrogance to northern football which rubs Kerry people up the wrong way."

If Kerry were frustrated by their experience against Ulster opposition, the reverse was also true, albeit for different reasons.

Pat Spillane's 'puke football' jibe after Kerry's defeat in the 2003 semi-final was regarded in Tyrone as sour grapes while a comment by Seán Walsh, the then Kerry chairman, in late 2004 rankled so much with Mickey Harte that he used it as an introduction to a chapter in his autobiography.

Sam Maguire returned to Kerry in 2004 and Walsh remarked a few months later that he was delighted "that it took a Kerry team to restore the pride in Gaelic football.

"The return to a free-flowing game is welcomed by the thousands of supporters that travel to our games."

Harte also noted how Mikey Sheehy, now a Kerry selector, had "described my teams as negative" and that Seán Walsh "was claiming Kerry had saved football from the northern hordes."

Read more: Seasoned Kerry firepower just too much for this Tyrone side

It was rich motivational food for Tyrone in their 2005 march to All-Ireland glory. And, by the end of 2008, they had won the All-Ireland title for the third time in six seasons, beating Kerry en route to all three.

Donegal got in on the act in 2012, beating Kerry in the All-Ireland quarter-final. It piled the pressure on Kerry going into last year's All-Ireland final against Donegal, where they duly delivered.

That still leaves the Tyrone conundrum. Kerry have been swamping Tyrone with compliments in the run-up to tomorrow's game but it's fooling nobody.

This is as up close and personal as it gets. It's nearly 30 years since Kerry beat Tyrone in Croke Park, a period in which they have beaten all other contenders, several quite often.

They are favourites to win tomorrow but then the same applied in 2003-05-08 so Eamonn Fitzmaurice will know how worthless that rating is against a county whose resilience has been a hallmark of the Harte era.

Some Ulster counties have a habit of getting up Kerry noses in a way others don't. It all adds to the intrigue at a time when the Tiernan McCann affair has Tyrone's motivational metre running at its highest.

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