Tyrone must stall Kerry’s forwards early on and create a whisper of doubt

All this season Kerry have looked like All-Ireland champions in waiting

Kerry’s Paul Geaney and Padraig Hampsey of Tyrone in the  Football League Division 1 semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, on August 6th. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kerry’s Paul Geaney and Padraig Hampsey of Tyrone in the Football League Division 1 semi-final at Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney, on August 6th. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

All-Ireland SFC semi-final

Kerry v Tyrone, Croke Park, 3.30pm

Live on RTÉ 2 and Sky Sports Arena

The latest chapter in the tangled relations between Kerry and Tyrone this century has featured a longer preamble than anyone was expecting a month ago. There’s not much to add beyond what’s already in the public arena, but the postponement of this match because of a Covid-19 outbreak in the Ulster champions’ camp has complicated the task for both teams.

Tyrone can’t be sure how their affected players will have recovered, and even if there won’t be risk-taking in that regard the whole business is a problem that could not have been foreseen.

Kerry’s views on the interval since their last match, five weeks ago, are well known simply because of the reaction of David Moran after the Munster final defeat of Cork when he declared “two weeks absolutely ideal” and “four weeks the worst in the world”.

Five weeks later the match finally arrives.

There is more to trouble Kerry than the length of time they have been waiting, although in the carefully-calibrated preparations of modern football that is an issue. There is also the unintended impression of them appearing to insist on the match going ahead because they needed practice before the final.

More to the point, how long since Kerry were actually in a match worthy of the name?

Their Munster campaign showed a credit of 50 points, spread generously over three matches. The by now notorious last match of the league was a six-goal thumping of this weekend’s opponents – by consensus not particularly relevant – and the only problem-solving they had to do was in the drawn encounter with Dublin in Thurles three months ago.

Tyrone since then have put together a creditable Ulster campaign, building on a strong finish in the Cavan quarter-final, riding their luck a bit against 14-man Donegal, and finally, when deprived of players in the first Covid outbreak, defeating Monaghan in an interesting contest.

For much of the Ulster final they looked impressive but came under pressure in the third quarter to lose the initiative before recovering. It was a more testing route than Kerry’s but did it feature higher performance?

Top forwards

All this season Peter Keane’s team have looked like All-Ireland champions in waiting. Their attack features some of the top forwards in the game – David Clifford, albeit man-marked into submission the last day, which Tyrone will have noted, his reborn brother Paudie and Seán O’Shea.

Centre-field is anchored by David Moran, a veteran big match player and a willing outlet if Shane Ryan needs to go long.

Tyrone’s pairing is built with the future more in mind, but Brian Kennedy and Conn Kilpatrick give the Ulster champions a heftier presence in the area than for a long time.

Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have managed to reorientate Tyrone’s approach in a remarkably short space of time into something more forward looking. Whereas at first this expressed itself in the desire to boot ball forward regardless of option, it has eventually settled into a more measured attacking approach or “theme,” as Logan put it earlier in the season.

An All-Star two years ago, Cathal McShane’s form has not been great since he returned from injury, but he is said to be playing far better in training. Darragh Canavan will probably, if he follows his father’s trajectory, take a bit of time to blossom at senior level but, more importantly, he is already a serious talent.

Conor McKenna is experiencing a difficult second album after his extraordinary return from AFL last year. The view is that it is just taking time for him to learn to read forward play when he hasn’t the ball, as opposed to the rampaging form of last year.

Defensive focus

Keane’s defensive focus (if not obsession) this year has yielded generally improved concession rates. Apart from Dublin no one managed to score more than a goal against them, and Tyrone have not been prolific in that regard – one goal to date in the championship and another three in their four league matches; Kerry have 21.

It’s likely that the taste for champagne football hasn’t intoxicated Tyrone to the point that they won’t set up on their own 45 for the first quarter anyway.

To have a chance they need to stall Kerry’s forwards early on and begin to revive ghastly memories of past encounters as well as creating a whisper of doubt.

Niall Morgan’s creative goalkeeping has gone hand in hand with greater reliability in his kicking. It’s an area where the Ulster champions have an advantage of experience and proven craft.

What is likely to happen?

The first phase will be about “settling” for both teams given the lack of match practice and associated issues, but to date Kerry have played at a higher tempo, albeit against lower-ranked opposition, and on a predicted fine day that won’t change.

Their forwards have been scoring all season, and that, whereas more difficult, is unlikely to be dialled back to where Tyrone have a target they can work with. They will contest and hustle and make nothing easy, but two years ago at the same stage Kerry managed to overcome a four-point half-time deficit with an impressively sustained response.

They look better now, and that, given Tyrone’s circumstances, should be enough.

Referee: David Coldrick (Meath)

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