Jim McGuinness: Kerry are tough, not nasty but they are tough

Mickey Harte’s side had their homework done but Kingdom’s self-belief saw them through

Tyrone’s Justin McMahon tussles with Kieran Donaghy. Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s dedcision to introduce Paul Geaney for Donaghy at half-time had the desired effect for Kerry. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Tyrone players will be thinking about Sunday's semi-final a lot in the months to come. They did so much right in Croke Park on Sunday and had a really good chance to extend their Indian sign over Kerry. But by the end, the balance of power had shifted south.

The quality of Tyrone's preparation was very evident on Sunday. Not many people felt that Tyrone were going to progress. From very early in the match you could see that Mickey Harte had done a lot of work on Kerry. It was particularly apparent in their defence. In the lead up to the game, I was talking about Colm Cooper, James O'Donoghue and Kieran Donaghy.

That trio was the obvious concern for the Tyrone back line. You have an unbelievable amount of skill in Cooper, height and physicality in Donaghy and then speed and agility in O’Donoghue: they have a bit of everything.

But the way Tyrone set up, with a man-to-man system and a sweeper and double-sweeper forced Kerry to play the game on their terms. Everything that came in high they dealt with very well and the sweepers knew exactly what they were doing. It was obvious the team was very well coached. Tyrone did well on the scoreboard in the first half but I felt that their attacks were laboured.


The normal off-the-shoulder support wasn’t there and there were several occasions when the Tyrone players became isolated. Had that support been more aggressive and powerful in the first half, they could have caused more problems. They reminded me of Monaghan against Tyrone in the first half.

What I was struggling to work out was that for the first Kerry kick-out, Tyrone pushed up and won it and were straight through for a goal chance. But from then on, they stepped off and conceded the short kick-out. I could see why they would do it in terms of getting 15 back and making Kerry break them down.

A platform

But whenever they did push up in the last 20 minutes of the match, the contest became a 50-50 lottery in terms of possession in the middle and that gave them a platform to attack. On a normal day Johnny Buckley, Anthony Maher and David Moran would present a big fetching threat but because it was so wet, any kind of touch or contact on the arm or shoulder would cause the ball to skate and slip.

And Tyrone come into their own on breaking ball. So I feel that was a significant aspect of the game.

Flip that around to Kerry. On Tyrone's kick-out, Kerry pushed 12 players up and left only a goalkeeper, a full back and a sweeper back. Opposition kick-outs have been the big new dimension in Gaelic football. It is an area all teams now target. Tyrone opted to concede them. Kerry decided to press Tyrone. In the first half, their goalkeeper Niall Morgan was trying to get the ball out very quickly.

If the short kick-out wasn’t on, they did really well in pulling Maher and Moran to one side of the pitch and they isolated Seán Cavanagh as a go-to option on the other. But that seemed to go out the window once Kerry squeezed up in the second half. There was a 15-minute period when Morgan’s head seemed to go, in many respects. He just ended up kicking the ball out anywhere. Looking on, it didn’t seem as if the Tyrone boys knew where the kick-out was going.

It ended up that Conor Meyler and Tiernan McCann and Mattie Donnelly – Tyrone's smaller players – contested for aerial ball against bigger Kerry men. And Kerry began to generate the scores that mattered during that stage. That had a knock-on effect for Tyrone at the other end of the field when they needed to convert three long-range frees when the game was up for grabs. It was very tough psychologically for Morgan to go up the field and nail those kicks after having such trouble finding his players with kick-outs.

But after that calamitous period Tyrone just threw the shackles off and ran directly at Kerry. Every time they did so, they seemed to create a scoring chance and they had four good goal chances, which is problematic for Kerry as they prepare for the All-Ireland final. The energy and work rate and structure was there for Tyrone and once they took their running game to Kerry, they came close to winning. Had they been a little more clinical in their shot conversion, they could have won.

Flashy scores

But Kerry showed all their patience and composure to prevail. These are traits they have in abundance. Their response to Tyrone’s goal was to engineer four unanswered points that came from good play and good decision-making.

One of those included a string of 24 passes when they were almost toying with Tyrone and drawing them out and then the ball was finally flicked inside for Colm Cooper, resulting in a free and the black card for Ronan McNamee. I didn’t think that it should have been a black card but Kerry’s precise play there was faultless.

In contrast to the McNamee decision, everyone in the stadium knew Shane Enright's subsequent foul on Peter Harte should have been a black card and how that wasn't given only one person knows. I also felt Pádraig McNulty's penalty shout was valid but instead, he was booked for diving. I feel that was a residue from the Tiernan McCann issue in the quarter-final. Whatever about getting the penalty, McNulty would have been booked if that had not been such a talked-about issue. Those were tough calls on Tyrone.

The decision to substitute Donaghy for Paul Geaney swung the game in Kerry's favour. Kerry have a fantastic squad of players that gives them flexibility but Eamonn Fitzmaurice still has to make these decisions. Kieran Donaghy is the captain and had just kicked a point and the manager took him off.

It was a brave decision. That is when the thing became very fluid and in-the-moment in terms of the coaching. Up to that point, Tyrone absolutely had their homework done on Kerry. But when Geaney came on, it was a different dynamic which filtered through the Kerry attack and it created a situation where all the hours Tyrone had spent studying and practicing for the Donaghy factor no longer applied.

Instinctive forwards

They had to play it as they saw it and that suits Kerry because of their surfeit of intelligent, instinctive forwards. And as new players were introduced, the less relevant Tyrone’s original game plan became. It was now a matter of trying to manage a way through the remainder of the match.

In a way, I felt Connor McAliskey's goal chance was a defining moment. He did so much brilliantly; reading the pass from Paul Murphy and just moving away at speed from the Kerry defenders and taking a good line towards goal. I spoke a few weeks ago here about Mickey Linden's pass to James McCartan in the 1994 All-Ireland final and this was a replica of that move. In fact, the Kerry minors finished a similar move in their semi-final.

Had the pass been made, it was a certain goal for Darren McCurry. But McAliskey decided to back himself instead of the team and it was a tough lesson for him. It was a tight, cagey first half and it was a game of margins so a goal would have been a massive score in the game. Had Tyrone got a goal and led at the break it would have been hugely significant.

You could sense in Croke Park that the weight of history was sitting very heavily on the Kerry crowd. They were nervous and subdued for a lot of the match and a goal at that stage would have heightened that mood. Particularly after Tyrone scored the penalty, you could feel that hoodoo about the place. The sense that Kerry just couldn’t shake them off was part of the match. Had Tyrone won this, they could have become an even bigger psychological problem for Kerry in future matches. Now that Kerry have beaten Tyrone, all of that vanishes.

It was like a hold that Mickey Harte had on Kerry and it no longer exists. Given the momentum-shift generated by Tyrone’s penalty, the Kerry response was even more impressive. It was then that their self-belief shone through.

Huge part

They just have it through the team. In fact, it seems to pass through Kerry teams regardless of who leaves the scene and who comes in. There is a constant stream of players going and coming through.

Their style doesn’t change from minor, under-21 through to senior so they are all thinking the same way anyhow. They never lose a team and have to rebuild from scratch. The replacements are fairly seamless. You could even see that yesterday when the lost a big player in Marc Ó Sé to a black card and just got on with it.

They expect to win. They have a huge number of talented players. Look at their midfield strength and their forward options. Their defenders are ball players. They do not give the ball away easily and make good, simple decisions consistently. This is a huge part of their game. There is toughness in them; it is not nastiness but they are tough.

The only chink in this team is that when players attack them directly, they can look vulnerable. Tyrone did that in the second half and were rewarded with goal chances. Both Mayo and Dublin tend to attack like that naturally so it is an issue for Kerry. They have a month to try and rectify that.

Tyrone lost despite doing a lot of things very well . The decision to concede the kick out might be something they would change in retrospect, particularly given the weather. It was really a battle of mobility against physicality and height and I felt they could have exploited their mobility a bit more. But they were so well coached to win the game and I imagine that Mickey Harte will be happy that they have made significant progression from the opening game against Donegal. It does seem as if their younger players have developed this summer and they will be better players on the back of two tough, big games in Croke Park. They will genuinely feel they are Ulster championship contenders in 2016. They may feel they have edged in front of Monaghan and Donegal now. But Kerry are precisely where they planned to be.

Jim McGuinness

Jim McGuinness

Jim McGuinness is an All-Ireland-winning former Gaelic footballer and manager, and a contributor to The Irish Times