Seán Moran: Tyrone have a golden opportunity to truly inspire

With Dublin-Kerry hegemony broken, All-Ireland final could be a ‘contest for the ball’

Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and David Clifford of Kerry in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final at  Croke Park last Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and David Clifford of Kerry in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship semi-final at Croke Park last Saturday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

It was Paul Earley who summarised the superior attractions of hurling when discussing the future of football on these pages three years ago.

“One of the reasons I believe is that there is a contest for the ball every 20 seconds and people love to watch the contest. None of us want to see the ball being moved side-to-side, over-and-back and over-and-back, let’s be honest.”

That desire for a contest can also be presented as a metaphor for the game in general at championship level. We want to see the All-Ireland contested, a spectacle that had been lost in Dublin’s historically long tenure as champions, and even with their obvious decline, few could see beyond Kerry as relief from the hegemony.

For whatever reason the modern age appears to favour successful counties. There are five permanent members of the elite: Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary in hurling and Dublin and Kerry in football.

So far this this century, they have between them won 31 of 44 All-Irelands, 70 per cent or well in advance of the 58 per cent norm.

In football it’s particularly striking as Dublin and Kerry have just about 50 per cent of all All-Irelands but so far this century it’s up at 70 per cent. In the past decade – and distorted by Dublin’s dominance – the counties have nine out of 10, an unprecedented haul.

So, no wonder the country at large was hopeful of a “contest for the ball” that didn’t just involve Kerry taking it from Dublin.

In dry historical terms – we’ll get onto the others in a minute – this year’s football final is a first between Mayo and Tyrone and only the sixth in the history of the GAA between Connacht and Ulster champions. The most recent, which saw Donegal beat Mayo, was the only one in the past 73 years.

There’s a story going around that at the start of the season you could have had 80/1 on a Mayo-Tyrone final.

Tyrone, with no top-level experience of freezing anyone out at Croke Park on big days (apart from Monaghan), were able to rise to the occasion in a way that Kerry couldn’t

Yet if Dublin and Kerry weren’t going to take home Sam Maguire, it wouldn’t have required powers of great prophecy to identify Mayo and Tyrone. This is the seventh successive year that the football final has featured – exclusively – two from Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Tyrone.

During those seven championships since 2014 the same counties have also occupied 23 of the 28 semi-final berths.

Chasing pack

Beyond statistical detail, the outcome of the 2021 semi-finals is good news for counties in the chasing pack. Arguably that inspiration comes more from Tyrone than Mayo, who to a greater degree than the Ulster champions have been regularly present when the silverware is given out over the past decade.

Tyrone’s defeat of Kerry was clear and deserved without being comprehensive. That pudding has been over-egged since Saturday.

Kerry kept in touch all the way until the end and their biggest disappointment, aside from how they failed to think their way out of what was being thrown at them, will be that with adequate time available they couldn’t create a point to draw the match and send it to penalties.

Kerry manager Peter Keane during the Kerry v Tyrone semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
The Kerry v Tyrone semi-final at Croke Park. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

A fit David Clifford might have made the difference, as might a David Moran sufficiently recharged to make an extra-time contribution.

Otherwise it was the usual amalgam of errors and misjudgment that contribute to all defeats.

An interesting historical echo came in the influence of the league meeting between the counties last June. Back in 2003, in the league match in Killarney, Tyrone gave a terrific display against Kerry in Fitzgerald Stadium, which must have given them great encouragement when a reprise in that year’s All-Ireland semi-final came around the following August.

This summer’s league fixture saw Kerry score six goals. Just as the prelude 18 years previously may have played a role in convincing Mickey Harte’s team that they could win in the summer, did this June suggest to Kerry, however subliminally, that they couldn’t lose?

Tyrone still had to plot their way to beating the clear All-Ireland favourites, whose apprenticeship had apparently been served in getting headed off by Dublin in the drawn All-Ireland final two years ago and whose fuel of bitter memories included the late, late calamity against Cork last November.

Kerry’s lack of conviction when matches are in the melting pot has cost them all the way back to their last All-Ireland in 2014. It meant that they didn’t have Dublin’s protection when it came to an easy provincial campaign – the theory and practice of taking teams to the closing minutes of a tight match and denying them a foothold.

In other words, Tyrone, with no top-level experience of freezing anyone out at Croke Park on big days (apart from Monaghan), were able to rise to the occasion in a way that Kerry couldn’t.

The inspiration this will have is based on the Ulster championship. Tyrone’s season up until Saturday last has been thoroughly provincial. Kerry is the only county outside of Ulster they’ve played all year.

Will the All-Ireland again be a better contest next year and in years to come? Or will Dublin and Kerry simply come back with glitches addressed?

Their league campaign with Armagh, Donegal and Monaghan was ridiculously tight. Seven points covered the entire scoring-difference spread between the four counties after all three matches. Donegal and Monaghan will have felt they had ample opportunity to end Tyrone’s championship.

Scrapes

As happened in the early 1990s when Down led the way, their passage out of Ulster featured enough scrapes and tight outcomes that, after they had won the All-Ireland, they had a host of neighbouring provincials shaking their heads and thinking that the new champions were “no better than us”.

A Mayo win would appeal to romantics (and humanitarians) but they have been to this mountaintop regularly, whereas a Tyrone win would demonstrate to others that if you get your house in order and engage smart management you can make the best of yourself.

There will be differences of opinion as to whether this will indeed turn out to be a transformative championship. Will the All-Ireland again be a better contest next year and in years to come? Or will Dublin and Kerry simply come back with glitches addressed?

It’s a relevant question because the GAA is getting ready to consider a new championship format. Different formats suit different levels of competitiveness. For instance the old and seemingly already outdated Super 8 idea would benefit from a more even spread of ability in the two groups, as shown in the hurling round robins.

The sense is that it will be back to the drawing board after the four eights (redistributed provincial alignment) and league-based championship formats are each considered.

But of all the contexts envisaged, it’s safe to speculate that Mayo or Tyrone as All-Ireland champions was nobody’s starting point.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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