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Ulster's 'no' to Kerry's dominant ways gets louder

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Donegal's Karl Lacey battles past Eoin Brosnan of Kerry during one of the Kingdom's recent high-profile defeats to Ulster sides in the All-Ireland. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Donegal's Karl Lacey battles past Eoin Brosnan of Kerry during one of the Kingdom's recent high-profile defeats to Ulster sides in the All-Ireland. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

Donegal's Karl Lacey battles past Eoin Brosnan of Kerry during one of the Kingdom's recent high-profile defeats to Ulster sides in the All-Ireland. Photo: Barry Cregg / SPORTSFILE

Donegal head into next Sunday's All-Ireland final holding a psychological advantage over Kerry that only two other counties enjoy.

It's a privileged position that Jim McGuinness will, no doubt, emphasise in his team talks as Donegal attempt to maintain their 100pc record in All-Ireland finals.

And since all three counties that beat Kerry more often than they lost to them in the championship are from Ulster, it raises the intriguing question as to why northern teams have a better record than their southern counterparts against football's aristocrats.

Donegal, Down and Tyrone are the only counties with a balance of success surplus in their account from championship meetings with Kerry. The other 27 (Kerry never played Kilkenny) have all experienced more defeats than wins - in most cases by overwhelming differentials.

It's 9-2 to Down, Tyrone and Donegal from their 11 championship clashes with Kerry. And while Kerry lead Armagh 4-1 with one draw, it's significant that the Orchard's success came in 2002, just before Tyrone embarked on a three-match winning run against the Kingdom. Donegal followed on with a win over Kerry two years ago.

Success

This is new territory for Kerry, who success rate against the rest of the country is most impressive. Even Dublin, by far their closest pursuers on the All-Ireland honours' list, have a 67pc failure rate against Kerry. Indeed, it stood at 72pc prior to Dublin's wins in their 2011 All-Ireland final and last year's semi-final.

Cork's failure rate against Kerry is 68 pc, Mayo's stands at 77pc, Meath's at 71 pc, Kildare's at 64pc and Galway's at 63pc. Those figures underline the degree of dominance Kerry have enjoyed over so many strong football powers, which makes their record against Ulster opposition all the more curious.

Down have beaten Kerry in all five championship clashes; Tyrone beat them in three of five while Donegal beat them in their only clash so far - the 2012 All-Ireland quarter-final.

Kerry didn't lose to an Ulster county in the championship between 1969 and 1990 but, since then, have been beaten by Tyrone (three times), Down (twice), Armagh and Donegal. It may, of course, be down to the simple reality that Kerry just weren't as good as the opposition on those seven occasions.

Alternatively, it raises the issue of whether Kerry have developed a complex against top Ulster teams, who impose their particular game plan on them.

It started with Down's success over Kerry in the 1960 All-Ireland final, a breakthrough year for the Mourne men, who brought the Sam Maguire Cup across the Border for the first time. According to Down centre-forward, James McCartan snr, the victory was based on a dramatic change of attitude towards Kerry.

"Other teams gave them too much respect because of their tradition. Our management had instilled in us a total belief in our own ability," wrote McCartan.

And so began a relationship where Down have been the dominant partner, also beating Kerry in 1961-68-91 and 2010.

Next up was Armagh, who were unlucky against Kerry in the 2000 All-Ireland semi-final, eventually losing by three points in extra-time.

Two years later, Armagh beat Kerry in the All-Ireland final. Prior to the final, Joe Kernan received an anonymous letter from "So Long, Rathmore, Co.Kerry, which informed him that Kerry's subs would beat Armagh.

"Another All-Ireland for Kerry, gloom and doom for Armagh," it concluded.

Pat Spillane described the final as "the aristocrats against the dogged," leaving no doubt which title fitted the two counties.

"Kerry always come to Croke Park expecting to win, If you don't match that, you have no chance," wrote Kernan subsequently.

Tyrone replaced Armagh Kerry's tormentors, beating them in 2003-05-08. The 2003 semi-final was a major breakthrough for Tyrone, for whom self-confidence was a central theme.

Conviction

"There was the simple conviction that we would win. This wasn't 1986 when winning an All-Ireland semi-final and getting a big day in Kerry's company was enough. We were journeying to an All-Ireland title.

"That was the bottom line. Maybe that sounds smug and arrogant, but it's also the truth. There was no fear of Kerry in 2003. Respect, but no fear," wrote Mickey Harte.

Tyrone got deep under Kerry's skin in 2005 and 2008, beating them in All-Ireland finals. Just how deep they burrowed was illustrated by Jack O'Connor's comments about the 2005 final defeat, which he described as "worse than losing to anybody else".

O'Connor, who steered Kerry to senior All-Ireland titles in 2004-06-09 and who will be in charge of the minors in Sunday's final, gave an honest assessment of how the Kingdom viewed Ulster teams.

"There's an arrogance to northern football that rubs people up the wrong way. They're flash and nouveau riche and full of it," he wrote in 2007.

A year later, Tyrone completed a treble over Kerry, after which Harte admitted that O'Connor's comments were helpful in the build-up to the All-Ireland final.

"It was handy fuel to keep us going. The quotes had been extensively carried in the northern media and debated up and down all the time," he wrote.

Down extended their dominance over Kerry in the 2010 All-Ireland quarter-final and, two years later, Donegal added to the Kingdom's unease against Ulster teams.

The change in dynamic between the Kerry's relationship with Ulster counties adds a fascinating dimension to Sunday's final.

Jim McGuinness has spoken glowingly about Kerry and their successes but, not so far beneath the surface, lurks a confidence born of a belief that a different football world exists from the time when Ulster counties travelled to Croke Park more in hope than in confidence.

Some counties still have to be considerably better than Kerry to have a decent chance of beating them. That used to be the case with Ulster teams too but not anymore.

Now, it's very much a battle of equals on all fronts.

Irish Independent