Two and half months after losing by 16 points in the Allianz League semi-finals to Kerry in Killarney, Tyrone celebrated a truly incredible transformation in Croke Park yesterday to reach their first All-Ireland final against the most prohibitive odds. In the final seconds, Tommy Walsh had the ball in his hand but under fierce pressure from Ronan McNamee he shot to the left of the goal and the ball went dead. David Coldrick was about to blow his whistle at the end of an extraordinary day.
xtraordinary because Kerry, who scored 21 goals between league and championship this year, and six goals in that league meeting with Tyrone, failed to raise a green flag. Extraordinary because Tyrone, who had scored only one in winning the Ulster Championship, hit three. Against a backdrop of managerial transition, the move from the era-ending departure of Mickey Harte, Tyrone have conjured up a stunning season’s achievement in reaching the final day.
Kerry must face a torturous winter, much worse than the last. The management team headed by Peter Keane looks unsustainable after this crushing loss, even though there are mitigating factors. The five-week gap since they won the Munster final is one thing. The distraction over Tyrone’s Covid episode and the lack of clarity over whether there would even be a semi-final hardly helped either.
The absence of hard competition also told. Tyrone had Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan in their path; they were able to draw on all of that. Kerry’s last true test was probably against Dublin in the league in Thurles in late May.
All those dark Kerry suspicions over what Tyrone might bring were borne out, in a revisiting of the horrors which were once the hallmark of their matches with the Red Hand. They were drawn into a slugging match. The team that had been playing champagne football suddenly found that the usual avenues to goal were crowded. That territory was being disputed with typical Tyrone obduracy.
But the most brutal impact on Kerry and probably the difference between winning and losing came down to the untimely loss of David Clifford (pictured). Their top scorer had provided 0-8 and was fouled for another 0-3 but had to be taken off injured at the end of normal time. He had been their only real threat from open play. His brother Paudie was chased around by an immense Conor Meyler and had none of the room he had become accustomed to in the more compliant playground of Munster, though his game picked up in extra time when Kerry were fighting for their lives.
All the misgivings Kerry had over the five-week gap and the absence of any serious challeng e came home to roost. They were hit hard and often. They were turned over time and time again. They couldn’t find any degree of lasting fluency to unlock the game which had blitzed teams on the way to here.
And in extra time Tyrone must have sensed that this was their opportunity. Six minutes into the first period, having scored the opening two points courtesy of a highly influential Cathal McShane, they stunned Kerry with a third goal, and a second for Conor McKenna. The goal was made worse for Kerry by careless defending, with Jack Barry throwing a leg at a dropping ball and directing it unintentionally into McKenna’s grateful path.
Driven by a powerful display from Kieran McGeary, who ha s been having a phenomenal year, Tyrone’s achievement in taking the game to extra time was made more impressive by having to play 20 minutes of the second half with 14 men, after back card dismissals for Niall Sludden, in the 44th minute, and their best points finisher, Darren McCurry, in the 59th. Over the first period, Kerry outscored Tyrone 0-2 to 0-1. During the period that McCurry was off, Kerry were outscored by Tyrone 1-0 to 0-1. The goal came in the last minute of normal time, McShane finishing after Darragh Canavan’s shot was parried by Shane Ryan.
In injury time after normal time, it could have gone either way. David Clifford won a free which allowed Seán O’Shea to tie up the teams in the first minute of the added time. McCurry scored his second from play in the sixth of the nine added minutes for stoppages before Clifford levelled in the 77th minute after he won the free.
But with Clifford unable to start extra time, they were vulnerable. Those fears were soon realised, Tyrone hitting Kerry for 1-2 without reply, hurting them on the counter attack. Five points down, Kerry weren’t done. Paudie Clifford pointed after a brilliant move and Paul Geaney had his first score after 16 minutes of extra time. That left only a point in it, after earlier scores from Paul Murphy, O’Shea and Diarmuid O’Connor. But they couldn’t get the score to take it to penalties. And, truth be told, they didn’t deserve to.
There were no obvious signs that Tyrone were unduly constrained by the impact of the recent cases of Covid in the county which had caused the semi-final to be postponed twice over. After a slow start they grew in confidence and belief. Tyrone’s first goal had an additionally damning aspect for Kerry, coming from an unforced error by David Clifford, harsh given that he was their greatest leader in times of troubl e.
Peter Harte worked the ball under no real pressure to Niall Sludden and he threaded it across the Kerry goal to McKenna. The Eglish man was calmness personified in sidestepping to his right and sliding the ball to the net. Nothing made sense. Five of Tyrone’s seven first-half points were shared between their goalkeeper and the three members of the full-back line. Each of the defensive trio scored a point for play, each one a fine strike too.
And then Niall Morgan closed the first half with probably the point of the game, a huge free kick from a couple of yards inside his own half of the field. The ball dropped on to the back of the net and the umpire seemed to hesitate as if startled by what he had seen. That monster kick summed up Tyrone’s — and Kerry’s — day.
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