A very funny thing happened on the way to this year’s inevitable Dublin/Kerry final.
Indeed, of all the strange things in this weirdest of Championship years was how, once we’d felled the Dubs, Kerry became unbackable favourites to land Sam. Priced at 1/2 to win the thing out before they’d even made the final never made any sense at all and the utter ludicrousness of this situation was laid bare for all to see by a ravenous Tyrone team at Croke Park this afternoon.
I decided very late in the day to look for tickets for this game and it was from my vantage point in the Lower Davin where, along with Rob Murphy, I watched what was ultimately a compelling contest unfold this afternoon. For long stretches, this was a match of poor enough quality but it was rarely less than absorbing.
Early on, Kerry always seemed on the cusp of cutting loose but a mad six-point swing ten minutes before the break provided the first hint that this game might be about to develop an altogether different narrative. Kerry broke through for a clear goal chance, with Paul Geaney rounding the ‘keeper and squaring to Stephen O’Brien who, instead of swinging a boot at it, dived at the ball. I’m not sure if he was penalised for a square ball or for touching it on the ground but either way the goal was ruled out.
Two minutes later, Conor McKenna had the ball in the net down the Davin end. David Clifford had coughed up possession and a rapid downfield thrust, with Peter Harte and Niall Sludden to the fore, created the chance that McKenna finished with aplomb.
Niall Morgan’s monstrous free from just short of half-way put Tyrone one in front at the break. Before then Kerry had fought back well from three down to level the game and they still looked the likelier winners then.
Two black cards for Tyrone meant that they played much of the second half with fourteen players. Kerry were unable to profit from this double setback, though, as their much-vaunted forward line failed to click.
By the time Sludden came back on, with twenty minutes to go, Kerry had only managed to push a single point clear. They were two up at the second water break and with time running out, Darren McCurry now kicking his heels in the sin bin, that was still the margin between the teams.
Then Tyrone broke through for a second goal, flicked to the net by Cathal McShane after Darragh Canavan’s initial effort was saved. It all got a bit frantic then, with nine minutes of injury time played, and both sides had chances to snatch the win at the death but it finished all-square.
When the play restarted in extra-time, David Clifford had departed the fray. Never running properly all day, he’d cramped up late in normal time and could only hobble about after that, though he did land the final crucial score for Kerry – from a free – which ultimately sent the contest into extra-time.
A bit like us against Dublin, it was Tyrone who seized the game by the throat in extra-time. 1-2 without reply saw them shoot five clear and now Kerry’s goose looked well cooked.
To their credit, however, they then enjoyed their best spell of the day, shooting five of the game’s final six points. Crucially, though, they never managed to get back on terms as Tyrone hung on grimly to win by a point.
So, after all the chat on here and elsewhere since we downed the Dubs about how we’d cope with the threats Kerry were likely to pose in the final, our focus must instead shift northwards towards Tyrone.
They last contested a final as recently as 2018, losing tamely enough to Dublin after enjoying a bright opening quarter, but it will, of course, be the first time we’ve met in a decider. We did, though, meet at the semi-final stage in 2013 and in the quarters three years later, both of which encounters we won.
We’ve been installed as narrow favourites to win on 11th September, the first final since ’89 that we’re set to go into as the team fancied to win. But such tags mean nothing – as both Dublin and Kerry are now able to attest – and this has the look of a final that could go either way.
What today showed is that Tyrone, under Brian Dooher and Fergal Logan, are back in a serious way. In 2008, they beat ourselves, Dublin and Kerry on the way to Sam but until today they’d failed to best any of the three of us in the Championship since them.
Like our win over Dublin, today’s victory over Kerry will give Tyrone huge confidence as they head into the final in a fortnight’s time. Their win also poses a set of new and wholly different challenges for us, compared to what we might have expected Kerry to bring to the table.
Ultimately, Kerry’s limitations – for all the world, today they resembled Galway decked in Green and Gold – did for them against a hugely committed Tyrone team today. We can expect the same kind of obdurate approach from the O’Neill County in a fortnight’s time and while we’ve every right to head into the final with confidence, we’ll also need to produce our best performance of 2021 if this really is going to be the year when we finally get across the line.