Dance floor clears for Kerry and Tyrone

 

GAELIC GAMES:IF YOU were curmudgeonly enough you could complain about the quality but not about the excitement.

Yesterday's big football double-header at Croke Park spilled out more than its share of thrilling tales and ripping yarns and if at the end of it we were left with the familiar-looking pairing of Kerry and Tyrone on the dance floor in three weeks' time we still had enough novelty along the way to brighten a gloomy season.

Cork and Kerry got through their third championship match of the season with just one sending-off and a minimal amount of fisticuffs and amateur dramatics. Kerry prevailed by a four-point margin, which looked a good deal more comfortable posted on the scoreboard than it actually was down on the pitch.

Having gone eight, then nine points ahead of Cork only to see them come back relentlessly to draw level with six minutes left, Kerry must have been wondering if there wasn't a specific sort of stake that needed to be driven through the hearts of their neighbours before they could proceed to a fifth All-Ireland final in succession.

At last they found the right weapon. It was Gooch-shaped.

David Moran, son of Ogie and sprung from the Kerry bench in a time of desperation, made good use of his first touch out on the left wing. He popped a ball to Darren O'Sullivan, whose blinding speed took him toward the Cork goal.

He held on and held on and at precisely the right moment flicked a pass out to Colm Cooper.

You know the scene. Croke Park. Edge of square. Gooch in possession. The umpire reaching for the green flag before the deed was even done.

Cooper's goal gave Kerry back a four-point cushion and restored confidence in the house of Kerry after a distressing 15-minute period where Cork had scored 1-6 without reply.

If the sight of a relieving goal scored from the boot of the Gooch and achieved at the end of a clinically confident move was reassuring for Kerry fans much of what went before was worrying.

Another scion, young Tommy Walsh, turned in a fine first half and scored a wonderful goal to give the first real stretch to the Kerry lead with 12 minutes of the half remaining.

But on the stroke of half-time Cork came back with a fine goal of their own from Daniel Goulding and the teams went into their tea break with just five points separating them but the momentum apparently with Cork.

Kerry came out and ripped into the second half, though, and Declan O'Sullivan finished a fine move just 40 seconds after the break with Kerry's second goal.

Walsh added another point and we assumed Kerry were about to do to Cork what they have done so often in recent years: dismantle them. But Cork owned the next quarter of the game and their running and adventure exposed worrying weaknesses in Kerry's game, but the champions prevailed as much through instinct and a memory of how to escape these situations as anything else.

The sight of Cork winning so much midfield ball for a while added a little yearning to the roars that greeted the shots on the big screen of Darragh Ó Sé sitting in the stands.

"The reality," said the Cork manager Conor Counihan afterwards, "is that maybe this season is progress but the only real progress is when you get across the finish line and you actually beat them. From my point of view the lads did everything for me. Any other questions are for others."

His Kerry counterpart, Pat O'Shea, who stands on the verge of leading his county to a three-in-a-row, handed the laurels to the dressing-room.

"These are an exceptionally good bunch of players. They have been questioned many times over their careers. Did I know they were able? They showed character and composure. Cork are a very good side. We were fortunate to get over the line in a tight game."

By contrast to the main event, Wexford's slingshot assault on the giants of Tyrone looked for quite a while like being a miserable mismatch that would put a gloomy end to Wexford's fine season.

In the first half Tyrone did what Tyrone do and Wexford receded farther and farther in the rear mirror. We noted that romance had deserted us and things got worse when injury deprived Wexford of Matty Ford.

And then, suddenly, mayhem! Ciarán Lyng solos through the Tyrone defence and rams the ball to the net to close the gap to three points. Seán Cavanagh goes off. Lyng adds a point from a free. Two points in it, 20 minutes left. This is what you pay the money for.

Now it's a rip-roaring snorter of a game. Tyrone thump one off the Wexford crossbar. Wexford counter. There's madness in the air. Fevered football, 65,252 people out of their seats Two teams charging from end to end. Every attack breaking as a wave of noise down the field. Each point drawing a guttural roar of pleasure and anticipation.

Wexford slipped five points back, This, after all, is where Tyrone belong: in the big time.

Mickey Harte had warned Tyrone to be careful: "No team dominates a match for 70 minutes and the other team will always get 10 or 15 minutes when they will attack you, and thankfully when they cut our lead to three points there in the second half we were able to get ourselves focused again and opened up the gap that bit further again."

In the end the boys of Wexford went under by six. Losers on the day but winners for the season formed a huddle in the middle of Croke Park and spoke to each other about the journey they had made together.

Coach Jason Ryan summed it up with his customary eloquence: "It's been a long summer season with some ups and downs but I know these players want to work together again for the future. It has been a great journey."