Serious half-forward measures as Red Hands are faced down

Kerry’s half-forward line were the difference against a formidable Tyrone defence

Kieran Donaghy of Kerry gets surrounded Tyrone players during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho.

The ballad of the unsung hero. How would that sound, exactly? Would it have to be accompanied by air guitar? The lyrics communicated by sign language? Above all, if we sing for an unsung hero, how many songs before he ceases to be unsung? These are the sort of deep philosophical questions that only the Kerry half-forward line can inspire.

The performances of Donnchadh Walsh, Johnny Buckley and Stephen O'Brien won Kerry the game. They had the most difficult job of any line in the team, the most arduous workload, the least amount of time for a breather. Between the three of them, they thought their way through a game that tested their brains as much as it did their bodies.

Blanket defence

For Kerry to win, they had to find a way to kick points against the championship’s best blanket defence. The pat theory is that you do this by kicking long-range scores but that wasn’t Kerry’s approach here. They ended the day with 18 points and apart from a couple of

James O'Donoghue


placed balls from the 45, you wouldn’t say that a single one of them was kicked from great distance.

Long-range points are great and everything but there can be an element of cop out to them too. Monaghan scored two early points from the ends of the earth against Tyrone in the quarter-final but that well ran dry in a hurry. Against a defence as well-organised as Tyrone's, the hard thing is to wait for another pass, to keep your eyes up and try to find a bit more space closer in.

Buckley finished the game with three points, O’Brien with two, Walsh with one. But the bald numbers aren’t the thing. It’s more how they got them and where they got them from. Tyrone set you a simple puzzle: can you find yourself more than a phonebox of space in which to operate? And can you perform in it?

For long stretches here, very few Kerry players could. With half-time approaching, a snapshot of exquisite choreography shone through the gloaming. As Kerry loped out with possession in their own time, another kick-out having been readily conceded, your eyes were drawn to the Tyrone 45.

Strung along it, in a line so regimented it could have been the trooping of the colour we were watching, were five Tyrone players – in sequence, Mark Bradley, Conor Meyler, Connor McAliskey, Tiernan McCann and Aidan McCrory.

Freeze the frame. If you wanted to nutshell Kerry’s task for the day, that was it. That area between midfield and the Tyrone 45 was the situation room, the spot where anything of consequence was to be decided. One of three things would happen in there: (a) Kerry would either breached the line and get a shot away, (b) they would be repelled but would keep possession or (c) Tyrone would turn the ball over and set off on attack of their own.

On this occasion, it was Door Number Three. The ball found Colm Cooper out under the Cusack Stand, inching towards the 45, itching to get into the game. No dice, Gooch. He was set upon, stripped and left clutching air as McAliskey set off, the ball eventually finding Mattie Donnelly for a score that drew Tyrone level at 0-7 apiece and shook the stadium.

That’s what the Kerry half-forward line were up against. In soccer, they purr over those players who can pop up between the lines to affect the game. Walsh, O’Brien and Buckley did it constantly here, forever shifting into space to pull someone out of the Tyrone line. Buckley had three points on the board inside the opening 10 minutes, each a tribute to intelligence rather than any great flash of skill.

For the first, he sold a couple of dummies to shoot from just inside the D. For the second, he took a Cooper pass after Marc Ó Sé pushed up on a Tyrone kick-out. For the third, he lolloped through and fisted over after a quick O’Donoghue free. O’Brien stuck a couple of his own by creating and then taking advantage of one-on-ones, the second time shooting off balance from 30 metres out.

The key unifying trend across them all was that there wasn’t a potshot between them. In a game where the inside forwards were always going to be trading in pennies, they were exactly what Kerry needed.

‘Knee injuries’

“It was great to see,” said Éamonn Fitzmaurice. “Stephen had a great game against Kildare too. We can see the form lines in training. When they are going well with training, they generally do bring it to the pitch.

“Johnny, earlier in the summer, he had knee injuries. He had a complication with his knee which was affecting his form and might have been affecting his confidence. Physically he’s perfect now. He’s been playing well the last couple of weeks and he’s brought that form to Croke Park which was great to see.”

And as for the unsung heroes’ unsung hero, Walsh was yet again in the Man of the Match conversation. On top of all his usual ground covering (faint praise par excellence, there) his point in the 48th minute was a microcosm of how Kerry won the game.

A long knitted move of patient passing – including a kicked pass backwards of the type that in other games has drawn boos for Donegal – ended with Walsh eventually insinuating himself into a tiny pocket 35 metres out and turning to kick them into a three-point lead. It was a key score, coming so soon after Brendan Kealy’s brilliant save at the other end.

But then, so much of what he and Buckley and O’Brien did was key yesterday. So let that be the end of it. Consider them unsung no longer.