Darragh Ó Sé: Criticising Tyrone makes them more dangerous

As a Kerryman, last thing I want is team coming up to Croke Park with siege mentality

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has always favoured players who are instinctively going to do the right thing in tight spots, and won’t tolerate players who make handling errors. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte has always favoured players who are instinctively going to do the right thing in tight spots, and won’t tolerate players who make handling errors. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho


All week in Kerry, the conversations have started in the same way. I was at two funerals and the chat was the same at them both. Not just that, the tone was the same. I wouldn’t say it’s confident, more that people are looking for comfort. “We’ll beat them, Darragh, won’t we?”

Now, if you’re looking to me for comfort, you’re in a bad way. I played Tyrone three times in Croke Park and lost every one of them. And before every one of them, I ran into fellas going, “We’ll beat them, Darragh, won’t we?” But sure what can you do only tell them we will? No point depressing lads in the middle of the first decent bit of summer we’ve had all year.

As it happens, I think Kerry do have the winning of this one. I fancied Tyrone to beat Monaghan and told anyone who would listen that they were a Croke Park team who knew exactly how they were going to win the game. But I just think they’re coming up against a better team with better players here and that Kerry can win by five or six points.

Maybe that’s the sort of attitude that got us in trouble in the past. There’s no doubt that the first time we played Tyrone back in 2003, we definitely underestimated what was going to happen. We had no bone to pick with Tyrone. We had played them in league games and we always seemed to come out the right side of the result.

Often, it was a case of bottling up Peter Canavan and you’d be happy enough that you could deal with the rest of them. They were a good league side that never really kicked on in the championship. We took for granted that there’d be a fair amount of intensity but we figured we’d get on top in the end.

Never happened. Tyrone gave us a lesson that day. They brought a ferocity that we hadn’t seen before. Meath were physical but they weren’t ferocious. Armagh were eventually but even when they beat us in 2002, they didn’t have that all-out fury that we met against Tyrone the following year. What they hit us with was unprecedented.

Few more beatings

And it changed Kerry football. It took us a few years and a few more beatings to accept that we had to change but we did because we had to. Don’t let anyone in Kerry tell you otherwise. We had to learn to play more tactically, to prepare better for that ferocity, to never take things for granted. And even then, Tyrone still had the better of us in my time playing.

It wasn’t just that ferocity, of course. That works the first time but there’s a limited lifespan in it if that’s all you have. Tyrone won those All-Irelands because they had ball players all over the pitch.

Mickey Harte has always favoured players who are instinctively going to do the right thing in tight spots. He needs them to move into loads of different areas of the pitch as the game goes on and to be able to do the job required of them when they get there.

Players have come and gone over his time in charge but any time he has had a team involved in Croke Park in August, that basic requirement has never changed. Look at some of the scores his defenders took against Monaghan the last day. Ronan McNabb and Ronan McNamee came up to kick mighty points. Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly can play anywhere on the pitch and be the best players on the pitch.

Depth of quality

Second Captains

There’s a bit of the Dutch Total Football about them in that respect. I wouldn’t say there is just the depth of quality in this side as there was in the great All-Ireland-winning sides but the basics of what Mickey Harte’s teams are built on haven’t changed.

Ball players is a vague enough term so here’s what I mean by it. Time is not your friend in Croke Park and it is definitely not the friend of the player you are giving the ball to. It’s not enough to give a pass – you have to be able to help him cheat time in whatever he’s going to do with it. To do that, you need to be a ball-player.

To survive in Croke Park, you need those ball players. Tyrone brought on a sub against Monaghan, Conall McCann, who was eventually taken off himself before the end. That’s a tough day for anybody but when you look closer, his ball-playing just wasn’t of a high enough standard to survive on the day. Colm Cavanagh gave him a lovely pass under the Cusack Stand at one point and he left it behind him because he took his eye off it.

Harte whipped him off soon after because the requirements to play for him don’t change. You have to be relentless, you have to be ferocious and you have to be able to play ball at close quarters at a high tempo. That’s what makes a Croke Park team. If you’re going to be out there making handling errors, Harte is going to find somebody who won’t. Simple as that.


I always admired that about him. He was ruthless and so his teams were ruthless. And I came to find over the years that the football people in the county all aspired to that kind of ruthlessness. They wanted success and they took whatever steps they needed to get it.

And boy, do they take it seriously. I can talk football as well as the next man, I can talk it till the cows come home. In Kerry, it’s part of the deal. Go to the shop, go to Mass, go wherever and you’ll be sure to get stopped and delayed for a chat about football. It’s part of the whole ding-dong of everyday life down here.

But in Tyrone, you don’t get away with a chat. Or at least, I never have when I’ve been up there. I was at the Ulster All Stars last year and got talking to a few Tyrone fellas. My way of going about these sort of situations is to chat away but keep it light. It’s a night out, let’s not forget.

Somebody was talking about training loads and drinking bans or something like that at one stage and they asked me what we did in Kerry. And I made some joke about it, something along the lines of how in the aftermath of a bad loss I always thought it was best to get away somewhere quiet and how there were more quiet pubs in Kerry than quiet gyms.

And that was fine and they laughed away but when they were finished, they were still sitting there waiting. It was like, “Yeah, yeah, funny guy. You’re a great comedian altogether. Now, are you going to answer the question or what?”

They have that intensity about them that comes from craving success. You can slag them off all you like. You can say you don’t like the football they play. You can call them cynical. But you need to remember two things above all else.

Football’s good name

Firstly, they do not give a whistling dixie what you think. If you think you are going to shame them, you’re wrong. If you think you’re protecting football’s good name by giving out about them, you’re at nothing. They won their All-Irelands and they couldn’t care less about your delicate sensibilities.

A big regret of my career is a foul I didn’t commit. It was against Armagh in the 2002 All-Ireland final. Oisin McConville came running, flicked a ball up in the air for Paul McGrane and ran on past me for the return. McGrane was my man but I left him to close Oisin down, opening up the space in behind me for the quick one-two.

Oisin should never have got past me to collect the return ball. I could have checked him, maybe given away a foul and it probably wouldn’t even have been a yellow card in those days. One way or the other, Oisin wouldn’t have got his goal.

We’d have won the All-Ireland and I would have been standing on the Hogan Stand lifting the cup as captain. If I had my time again, I’d do it in a heartbeat. Did I learn from it? Damn right I learned from it. I heard enough about it!

That’s why I’ve watched all the people slagging off Tyrone over the past fortnight and found it all very hypocritical. Given the size of the prize, can any county truly say they wouldn’t do what it took if they had the opportunity? Of course you would. Maybe you think they go too far but where’s the line? Who decides that a bodycheck is part of the game but a dive isn’t?

Selfish reasons

Anyway, all this criticism of Tyrone makes me feel uncomfortable for far more selfish reasons. As a Kerryman, the last thing I want is a team coming up to Croke Park with a siege mentality. The more people have been hanging Tyrone from the rafters, the more I’ve been thinking about a story about a former Kerry footballer called Vincent O’Connor.

Vincent was a squad player on the great Kerry teams of the ’80s. At a team meeting before the 1984 All-Ireland, Mick O’Dwyer mentioned that some of the senior players weren’t overly happy with the effort being put in by some of the fringe members. He didn’t name any names but it obviously festered with Vincent.

After the meeting, he brought it up with Páidí. They had played together for years with West Kerry and driven to Kerry training together so they were fairly close. Vincent pushed Páidí to tell him who Dwyer was talking about and after a while, Páidí cracked and gave up a name. He said it was Jacko and yeah, one of the players he was talking about was you, Vincent.

Now, Jacko was a completely innocent bystander in all of this. He hadn’t said a word high up or low down to Micko. But West Kerry just happened to be playing South Kerry in the county final a fortnight later. And Vincent O’Connor just happened to be playing on Jacko. He went out and played out of his skin, gave Jacko the runaround, West Kerry won and Páidí became Kerry captain in 1985. And, of course, he got to lift Sam.

All this criticism coming down on Tyrone gives them one target to aim at and that’s an All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry in their sights. Kerry could be the Jack O’Shea of this scenario, about to feel the heat of a situation that they had nothing to do with. Kerry are the real victims!

In all seriousness, I think Kerry are in a better place, they have the better players and they will match whatever Tyrone throw at them. Kerry by five.

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