A Tyrone fixture means Kerry will always know they have been in a game

When Tyrone aren’t as good as Kerry they’ll still conduct themselves with thorny disagreeability

Tyrone’s admiration for Kerry’s imperial football culture has never dimmed. But it’s accompanied by an insistence that the respect should be a two-way street. File photograph: Inpho

Tyrone’s admiration for Kerry’s imperial football culture has never dimmed. But it’s accompanied by an insistence that the respect should be a two-way street. File photograph: Inpho

 

Tyrone are the itch that Kerry never can and never will fully scratch – and they may not want to, anyhow.

By all accounts, a shimmering young Kerry team will deliver something of a football lesson on the Ulster champions this Saturday afternoon. Nonetheless they will motor back down to the fabled hills and breathtaking lakes still aware that there is something kind of . . . bloody irritating them.

The strange meandering build-up to this game runs against everything that they hold dear in Kerry. When Tyrone announced – with regret, mind – that they couldn’t fulfil the original fixture because of a coronavirus outbreak in their socially distanced camp, the GAA rumour mill ran its usual line in cheerful berserk. For 24 hours, all sorts of stories flew, including the notion of a scratch team assembled from Monaghan to step into the void. Then Dublin-Mayo happened and everyone completely forgot about the other game. Meanwhile, Kerry reportedly sent a delegation to Croke Park to gravely express the wish that the semi-final must be played, even if it meant waiting until the Tyrone men had recovered to the full of their health. It was the right thing to do, both as a sporting gesture and as an act of self-preservation: it would be neither advantageous nor lucky for Kerry to accept a free pass to an All-Ireland final.

Still. This kind of tampering with the fates does not sit well with the finely tuned and highly nuanced Kerry appreciation of the superstitious. And it won’t do much for their blood pressure down there, either. Is it really wise to insist that you not be given a bye to an All-Ireland final against the one county who have delighted in playing jester and tripping you up, spectacularly and with a kind of insolence which you will never fully get over?

That bouncy mid-Ulster tang will summon all kinds of demons for Kerry clans of a certain vintage

Kerry did not win their 37 All-Ireland football titles on mere summer talent and winter stout supping alone. You don’t win that much without cultivating a healthy sense of paranoia. So don’t imagine that the sons and daughters of Kerry are not even now convinced of some kind of trap: noon time on a muggy metropolitan Saturday and the necklace of lanes and streets around Croke Park infused with the lively accents from all corners of Throne. That bouncy mid-Ulster tang will summon all kinds of demons for Kerry clans of a certain vintage. They’ll concede to being “nervous” about this one and whisper soothing things to one another in the Dergvale and on the steps of the Gresham. Visions of old summer nightmares – a laughing Ricey McMenamin or a solemn Conor Gormley or Mickey Harte himself – will race across their minds. And they will sigh a little and wish the bloody game already over because semi-finals are just for winning.

The contemporary Kerry-Tyrone story dates back to 1986 when the Ulster champions appeared in the All-Ireland final to the surprise of everyone – including themselves. So much revolves around the looking-glass moment when the Ulster men had a penalty which would have put them an unseemly nine points ahead of a Kerry side then chasing their third title in a row.

The challengers were brilliant and assured for 40 full minutes. It was vital for Tyrone, as they walked the high wire that afternoon, not to look down in case they saw that the rope beneath their feet was illusory. So, of course, they had to look down. Kerry football was revered in Tyrone. They’ve spoken of it often. It existed on a different plane. For decades, Kerry football heroics had brightened their Septembers and perhaps convinced too many teams that getting there themselves was a fantasy best not entertained. That final seemed the theorem that proved it: Tyrone seven points up 10 minutes into the second half and then – puff!– Kerry finish 2-15 to 1-10 winners anyway. Kerry football was black magic in Ireland at that time.

Something had to change. When Tyrone finally emerged as the unpolished gem of 2003, abrasive, hungry to tattoo their own history on to the great summer canvas, laden with football talent and an ungovernable self-belief, they must have known that Kerry would be the fourth wall which they would have to smash. The chronicles of their famous meetings in 2003, 2005 and 2008 have been pored over since.

Tyrone had to earn their plaudits the hard way. By then, they’d long given up on trying to win popularity contests

There remains a sense that those Tyrone teams tore into their Kerry counterparts with an abandon that bordered on disrespect. But there was a nuanced sub-theme to those games. Tyrone had to earn their plaudits the hard way. By then, they’d long given up on trying to win popularity contests. The vexed summary of former British prime minister Herbert Asquith – whose frustrated attempts to draw up a Border in 1914 led him to label Tyrone as “the most damnable creation of the perverted ingenuity of mankind” had – begun to resurface in GAA circles including, allegedly, on a banner on the Hill end during the 1995 All-Ireland final. God only knows what Asquith would have said if he found himself in Omagh after around midnight after a big Ulster championship win.

As Tyrone rose, they acquired intense rivalries and keen enmities. In Ulster, they came from all directions. Dublin were not – and are not – crazy about them. There’s unfinished business with Meath. But taking on the Kerry mythos in the manner that they did required an unprecedented level of audacity.

The national acknowledgement that Tyrone ’03-’08 was a truly great team eventually came but through a reluctant and begrudging kind of praise. But the imprimatur which Tyrone truly craved was from the county they had thwarted: Kerry. They wanted and maybe needed to hear all those Kerry gods voice their admiration for them. The feeling was too fraught for anything but the most cursory of well wishes during the height of the rivalry. But in later years, many of the Kerry players from the Noughties were generous in their praise of what that Tyrone team was about. In the moment, it was slow coming. That stung them and has not gone unremembered.

The results have been reversed over the last decade and Kerry are likely to extend the trend this afternoon. But it’s different now. Tyrone’s admiration for Kerry’s imperial football culture has never dimmed. But it’s accompanied by an insistence that the respect should be a two-way street. Kerry will never have to like Tyrone. But they will always know when they are playing them.

So even when Tyrone teams aren’t as good as Kerry teams, they’ll still conduct themselves with a kind of thorny disagreeability and conviction which makes all Kerry folks experience an exasperation; a realisation that this crowd is never going to go away. But it’s an itch that is so familiar to them now that it is almost pleasant. It’s like Sinatra singing “cos I’ve got you under my skin. And I like you under my skin.”

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