And then there were three. Whoever wins next Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final between ourselves and Dublin will have to face defending champions Kerry in next month’s decider. Kerry didn’t have things all their own way at a rain-soaked Croke Park this afternoon but they showed plenty of guts and determination to fend off Tyrone’s late burst and grab the late scores they needed to book their place in the final.
I’m not sure how bad the conditions looked on TV but in the flesh, even from our vantage position up in the back row of the Upper Cusack, it appeared that the going underfoot down on the pitch was somewhere between tricky and treacherous. The atrocious weather meant that there was more loose ball flying around – due to all the slipping and sliding – than you’d normally expect to see in an All-Ireland semi-final but it probably made for a more compelling contest and, almost certainly, a closer finish than would otherwise have been the case.
In my facetheball prediction, I put Kerry down for a four-point win (I’ve pulled a bit further ahead in the mini-league because of this) but I didn’t make my prediction until last night, by which time today’s forecast for day-long rain was pretty much a certainty to happen, figuring that the rain would give Tyrone a better chance of staying with Kerry. I think that was a factor today, though Kerry’s overly cautious approach – with their slow, laboured build-up and their inability to punch holes in Tyrone’s deep-lying defence – was surely a significant reason why Tyrone went in at the break only a point in arrears.
Mickey Harte’s men looked to have more purpose about them at that stage. They started well, scoring the game’s first two points, and they should have done better with an early goal chance too, with their strong running through the middle exposing the champions’ backline.
Kerry’s loss of Marc Ó Sé to a deserved black card (I really thought Maurice Deegan would bottle that decision but in fairness he didn’t), following which Morgan hoisted over a monster of a free-kick, could have rattled them but having a sub of Fionn Fitzgerald’s calibre to bring on meant that he wasn’t really missed.
Ó Sé wasn’t the only elder statesman who struggled on the heavy surface today. Donaghy never really got going at all, his main (and final) contribution the half’s final score which sent Kerry in a point to the good, and Gooch was a total bystander in that first half, though he did exert more influence on proceedings after the break. Tyrone’s senior citizen, Sean Cavanagh, also had one of the least productive seventy minutes he’s ever put in at HQ.
Tyrone got to the half-way stage of the contest having adopted an approach of ceding almost two-thirds of the pitch to Kerry for large stretches of the first half, relying on swift breakouts and efficiency in their shooting to keep them in the hunt. It was always an unlikely strategy to win the game and the question was what would they try to do differently after the break.
It was Kerry, though, who showed a bit more enterprise after the restart. They pushed up higher on Tyrone’s kickouts and when Morgan’s restarts began to go awry – Tyrone lost something like four or five kickouts in a row – Kerry were able to punish them on the scoreboard, at last opening up a bit of daylight between the sides. The gap stretched to five with fifteen minutes left on the clock.
Kerry were, though, riding their luck a bit at this stage. Mark Bradley was probably a bit too far out when he shot for goal, Brendan Kealy parrying his effort away, while Tiernan McCann came close to goaling as well. The Kingdom also had Maurice Deegan to thank for two bad decisions, when he first incorrectly black-carded Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and then failed to dole out the same punishment to Kerry’s serial fouler Shane Enright.
Four points down with ten minutes to go (two too many to be in arrears at that stage, according to the O’Neill County man sitting beside me in the Upper Cusack) Tyrone at last made their move. Barry Tierney burst into the square and hit the deck fairly theatrically, Deegan predictably buying the dive and spreading his arms wide for the penalty. Peter Harte buried it and when Bradley swung over the equaliser soon after it looked as if Tyrone now had the momentum to carry them over the line.
Instead, a point from Anthony Maher – from a super ball in over the cover – restored Kerry’s lead but the next Tyrone attack should have yielded them a second penalty. They had a far stronger shout for this one, with Aidan O’Mahony wrapping his arms around McNulty and dragging him to the floor but not only did Deegan fail to award the spot-kick, he booked the Tyrone sub for diving. The Tyrone lads were well hacked off at this but they did recognise that neither penalty decision had been correct.
With Tyrone still chasing the game, that left them open at the other end. Kerry’s bench – in the form of Geaney and Keane – were given the time and space to get the vital scores, enabling the Kingdom to close out a deserved four-point win.
So, once again, Kerry can plan for September. While today’s performance wasn’t the kind of display to leave either ourselves or Dublin quaking, it was more than enough to secure the result they came to Croke Park for today. Kerry will be better in the final – as they invariably are – and, on today’s evidence, they’re a more formidable team than they were twelve months ago. Whoever wins through next weekend will, for sure, have their hands full in next month’s decider.