Tyrone dig down deep to see off Kerry and set up final showdown with Mayo

Ulster champions find the net three times as Kerry’s vaunted attack lose their way to goal

Tyrone’s Conor McKenna celebrates scoring his side’s third goal of the game during the  All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Tyrone’s Conor McKenna celebrates scoring his side’s third goal of the game during the All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

Tyrone 3-14 Kerry 0-22 (aet)

An All-Ireland semi-final that was already extraordinary before a ball was thrown in, erupted into sensation at Croke Park this evening, as Tyrone arose from their sick beds to slug it out with Kerry in a riveting match that went all the way to the last kick of extra-time.

Tommy Walsh’s tired attempt at an equaliser – forced by the pressure of referee David Coldrick’s imminent whistle – drifted wide to leave the Ulster champions winners by a point and triggered tumultuous acclaim from the Tyrone support.

With all of their Covid-related problems, the last thing Tyrone needed was additional labour but they had to cope with both extra-time and two sin-binnings, for Niall Sludden and Darren McCurry.

This was on top of an exhausting game plan, with runners unleashed from the back all afternoon. Aside from raw expenditure of effort, they deserved the win because they fulfilled the basic requirement of any contest: restricting your opponents to a smaller total that you score.

Using a couple of alternating sweepers they made the approach to goal tricky and Kerry’s lack of composure in either over-running the ball and losing possession or getting isolated with the certainty that such errors would be punished by having the ball stripped.

You could only admire Tyrone’s energy and commitment. They put in more tackles, made considerably more turnovers and struck for three goals – against none for their vaunted opponents’ attack.

They rode their luck a bit in that Kerry couldn’t complete promising attacking plays by registering the goals needed to take their total to a winning mark. They resisted mightily when faced with the horrific reality that they were half way through the first period of extra-time and losing by five after Cathal McShane’s goal.

That deficit came down to three by the break after points by Paul Murphy, Diarmuid O’Connor and a Seán O’Shea free – punctuated by a brilliant point from McShane, who demonstrated off the bench that his top form of two years ago was back after injury and some tentative displays since.

Extra-time is always a bit of a lottery. Limbs are tired and judgment frayed and in the frantic end-to-end exchanges, missed opportunities threatened calamity as soon as the ball moved in the other direction.

Kerry stitched together a barnstorming move that saw the ball flashed over the bar by Paudie Clifford. Paul Geaney added a point – the margin was down to the minimum. A menacing ball into attack was cut out by Kieran McGeary, somehow finding the energy to intervene and shortly afterwards put in a punishing run down the right to bring the fight back to the Munster champions.

David Clifford goes down with cramp during the semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
David Clifford goes down with cramp during the semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The matches that defined this rivalry were a long time ago. Only David Moran and Walsh of this afternoon’s teams survived from the 2008 All-Ireland final but the terms of engagement haven’t softened.

Tyrone once again showed the priceless ability to spook fancied Kerry teams, as surely as they had done in the 2000s.

Coming into this semi-final the big question marks over Kerry were the extent to which they had shored up a vulnerable defence and how their highly regarded forwards would function in their biggest challenge of the year.

The much scrutinised full-back line didn’t do badly in the first half. Tom O’Sullivan cleaned out McCurry in successive balls whereas apart from Matthew Donnelly’s mark and point, the Tyrone players weren’t getting much traction.

That changed in the 25th minute when a run by Sludden opened up a gap in the Kerry defence and put Conor McKenna in for a well-taken goal and a three-point lead, 1-5 to 0-5. The facility with which they managed that proved an omen and any team that concedes three and scores none is in trouble.

Kerry will be aghast at how many goal chances they spurned, most obviously when Stephen O’Brien’s 22nd-minute goal was disallowed after the build-up was penalised for his being in the square ahead of Geaney’s pass, which opened up an empty goal.

A good indication of Kerry’s problems was the extent of the dependency on David Clifford and O’Shea, who provided 16 of the 22 scores and that was with Clifford gone for extra-time after injuring himself going for a high ball in front of goal. His brother Paudie, who had been topping the FOTY betting going into the match, had an industrious day but followed all over the pitch by Conor Meyler, was short on inspiration as opposed to perspiration.

Opening exchanges were predictably cagey but the pattern established saw Tyrone driving forward out of defence and finding support runners – to the extent that the whole full-back line, Pádraig Hampsey, NMichael McKernan and Ronan McNamee got on the scoreboard.

Kerry looked more dangerous at manoeuvering openings and O’Shea got in on goal after a one-two with David Clifford in the ninth minute but he took the point. In quick succession, in the 17th and 18th minutes both Geaney and David Clifford flashed the ball across goal – maybe hopeful of making contact with a team-mate rather than attempting to find the net – and chances came to nothing.

In the second half, Kerry also failed to capitalise on Sludden and McCurry getting black-carded for bringing down Paul Murphy and Gavin Crowley respectively in the 40th and 59th minutes.

They actually lost the second black-card period on the scoreboard largely because the path to goal opened up again in the 69th minute when Darragh Canavan was released in behind the defence.

His shot was hit a bit too close to Shane Ryan, who saved well but the deflection looped up for McShane to fist to the net and reclaim the lead, 2-10 to 0-15 with a minute of normal time remaining.

Nine minutes were added for injury-time and Kerry scrambled back on level terms, first with an O’Shea free and then after McCurry had edged Tyrone ahead after some composed interplay, David Clifford equalised with a free awarded for a foul on O’Shea by McNamee.

They also got little from their bench whereas Tyrone were able to bring on Canavan and McShane, the begetters of the vital second goal.

With David Clifford and Moran off the field in extra time, Kerry struggled and although it’s to their credit that they responded as doggedly, they never looked sufficiently composed to complete the comeback.

The hammer fell in the 76th minute when a McGeary shot looked to be going wide, fell short and was disastrously poked at by Jack Barry. It ran for McKenna who drilled it back into the net for a five point lead that Kerry could chase but never catch.

Mayo await in the final that hardly anyone foresaw a month ago let alone at the start of the season.

TYRONE: Niall Morgan (0-2, one free, one 45); Michael McKernan (0-1), Ronan McNamee (0-1), Pádraig Hampsey (0-1); Kieran McGeary, Frank Burns, Peter Harte (0-1); Brian Kennedy, Conn Kilpatrick; Conor Meyler, Michael O’Neill, Niall Sludden; Darren McCurry (0-4, two frees), Mattie Donnelly (0-1, mark), Conor McKenna (2-0).

Subs: Cathal McShane (1-3, one free) for Kennedy (44 mins); Tiernan McCann for O’Neill (55); Ben McDonnell for McCann (temp, 64-67); Darragh Canavan for Sludden (64); McDonnell for Kilpatrick (74); Mark Bradley for McCurry, Ronan O’Neill for Harte (both 76).

Sin-bin: Sludden (40-50 mins); McCurry (59-69).

KERRY: Shane Ryan; Brian Ó Beaglaoich, Jason Foley, Tom O’Sullivan (0-1); Michael Breen, Paul Murphy (0-1), Gavin White; David Moran, Jack Barry; Dara Moynihan, Seán O’Shea (0-8, six frees, one 45), Stephen O’Brien; David Clifford (0-8, two frees, two marks), Paul Geaney (0-1), Paudie Clifford (0-2).

Subs: Killian Spillane for Moynihan (half-time); Gavin Crowley for Breen (50 mins); Adrian Spillane for Geaney, Diarmuid O’Connor (0-1) for O’Brien (both 55); Tommy Walsh for Moran (60); Tadhg Morley for Ó Beaghlaoich, Geaney for D Clifford (both 71 mins); Jack Sherwood for Barry (77); Graham O’Sullivan for Foley (80); Micheál Burns for O’Sullivan (87).

Referee: David Coldrick (Meath).

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