The day Tyrone decided to gatecrash Kerry’s football world

Manner of the seminal 2003 semi-final victory established a keen rivalry that would last a decade

Certain cinema scenes remain imperishable: the shark fin coming out of the summer waters in Amity; the extra-terrestrial in the bicycle basket; Henry Hill taking Karen to the Copacabana, Brett and Scarlett facing off – and half a dozen demonic Tyrone men marauding through Kerry dreams in that infamous All-Ireland semi-final of some 16 summers ago.

It has almost been forgotten that the last decade of football was defined by several parallel rivalries. The austere Armagh-Tyrone arm-wrestle for Ulster dominion was an entertainment in its own right. But the ongoing theme was the claims of both Kerry and Tyrone to the unofficial title of team of the decade. Both arguments were convincing.

Kerry won four All-Ireland titles and appeared in seven finals. Those teams were sprinkled with classy footballers and teak-tough defenders. In most decades, that would mean case closed.

To outside observers, there seemed to be a touch of the nightclub about Tyrone

But Tyrone, in lifting three Sam Maguires, beat Kerry in that 2003 semi-final and repeated the dose in the All-Ireland finals of 2005 and 2008. Tyrone were mercurial, unreadable and, in those definitive games, unbeatable. The sight of those colours mingling on Sunday in Croke Park will provoke a lot of sharply contrasting memories for supporters of both counties.


Colm Cooper said this week that the intensity of that rivalry has diminished because Mickey Harte is the only figure from that 2003 game still involved. He reckons the younger Kerry brigade won't feel any of the psychological pressure that those white and red jerseys once reflected.

"I don't think any of the Kerry players carry the baggage that we had before we left" he told RTÉ.

“Is bitterness too strong a word?” he wondered of that time.

“No”, is almost certainly the answer. There was fear and loathing on both sides. But it could be that Kerry football people misunderstood where Tyrone’s venom and attitude stemmed from. It wasn’t because they disrespected Kerry. It was because they had the utmost respect.

What Tyrone did in 2003 wouldn’t work today. They whipped themselves into a welter of energy and fury and blindly crowded whatever player in green and gold happened to have the football. There’s a famous scene in which a series of Kerry men are engulfed by red and white shirts and try to shake them off as though they were attacked by a swarm of wasps.

It was a blitz and a trap and had Kerry been ready for it, they could, of course, have exploited the vast areas of the pitch Tyrone had left unguarded by rushing the ball in the manner that they did. But in the moment, the tactic was daring and outrageous and to Kerry football people, it must have appeared as an act of insolence and insult.

‘Puke football’

The moment was immortalised in Pat Spillane’s stricken post-match expression and his verdict that the land had witnessed “puke football”. But slow the sequence down now and set it to Albinoni’s Adagio and it could pass for a piece of modern art.

In 2003, Kerry were still nursing their wounds from Armagh’s nerveless second half-comeback in the 2002 final to win their first ever All-Ireland title. That had been quite enough nightmare material for one decade in the Kingdom.

So to be confronted with a different Ulster pest the following summer must have felt, to Kerry supporters accustomed to a certain order and decorum – and final score – on All-Ireland semi-final days, like the end of civilization itself.

But think about the place Tyrone were coming from at that time. No senior All-Ireland ever. Heartbreaking defeats in the final of 1995 and, prior to that, the 1986 final when they worked up an eight-point lead against the great Kerry team before becoming dazzled by where they found themselves and ultimately losing by eight.

In 2002, Tyrone had been beaten by Sligo – specifically by a supernova turn from Eamonn O'Hara in the All-Ireland qualifiers – and then watched silently on as Armagh made history and joy. This was a golden Tyrone generation but they were unproven and callow. To outside observers, there seemed to be a touch of the nightclub about them. So they had to make it count. They had to forget their place. They had to storm the palace.

That’s what was occurring that afternoon in 2003.

Afterwards, a local crowd waited to applaud Mickey Harte and his team from the changing room to the bus

If Tyrone had turned up and respectfully went toe to toe with the Kerry men in a conventional football match, then they probably would have lost. And had they lost that afternoon, then it is easy to speculate that it would have been a decade in which they won no All-Ireland.

You watch that old footage now and it’s tempting to see not a Tyrone team attacking Kerry shirts but attacking themselves – provoking themselves into the state of fearlessness and imagination required to go and actually slay the big beast of the championship plains.

All of the bells and whistles – the sledging, the verbals, the dragging, the smiling, the talking, the belligerence – all of that was to help themselves as much as it was designed to throw Kerry out of synchronicity. It worked and it set the tone for what was a compelling eight years of North and South.

Dara Ó Cinnéide, always one of the most scrupulous observers of the Kerry teams on which he starred, is unapologetic in his view that he didn’t like the way Tyrone played football in 2003. But he liked what he saw in 2005, even if he and his teams were the ultimate victims.

Local crowd

Before that afternoon, Tyrone were just another county to Kerry: just another Ulster team to be taken care of. And that was the very thing that Ryan McMenamin and Brian Dooher and Conor Gormley and company raged against. It was a scream to be noticed, a demand for respect.

That respect arguably came much more quickly from the Kerry players of that period than it did from some of the Kingdom's public. But the era had its fitting grace note the day in 2012 when Kerry at last beat the remnants of Tyrone's great team in a qualifying game in Killarney. Now, it was Kerry's turn to storm the barricades: now it was Kerry screaming for notice.

Afterwards, a local crowd waited to applaud Mickey Harte and his team from the changing room to the bus.

In his biography, Seán Cavanagh, who was injured that evening, described the scene as “ a wee bit patronising.” He is entitled to his interpretation, of course but the emotion etched on Paul Galvin’s face and in his voice in his post-match interview was hardly patronising. The admission that Kerry had been carrying “ a lot of hurt for the past eight or 10 years” was hardly patronising.

A Kerry friend of mine who was among those applauding said he waited there out of respect for everything Tyrone had meant to Kerry – a monumental thorn in the ass – over the previous decade.

That day marked the end of the affair. But tomorrow it’s still Kerry and still Tyrone. Just because it’s over doesn’t mean the feelings have gone away.