The problem with this Kerry team is that they have always failed when it has really been put up to them.
Pat Spillane is very keen to point out that in the numbers game, they have more All-Irelands than Tyrone. But this disguises the reality that deep down in their bones, Kerry folk have always had doubts about this group. They are of course fine footballers and will retire with trophy cabinets sagging under the weight of gold. But at the very highest level, against serious opposition, they have always wilted. The first hint that they were not on a par with the Golden Years crop came in 2003 when they collapsed entirely in the face of Tyrone’s furious indignation.
“Sweet mother of Mikey Sheehy,” they wailed in the Kingdom. “They’re tackling Darragh O’Se.” As the game wore on and it became plain that this particular Tyrone team was not going to succumb to stage fright in the face of the green and gold jerseys, it was the Kerry men who gave up. It was a surrender that would have been unthinkable for O’Dwyer’s crew. For the record, Kerry scored a miserable six points and lost by seven.
In 2004, the Team of the Decade beat up a Conor Mortimer inspired Mayo in the final, spraying champagne midway through the first half after Colm Cooper scored a delightful goal having soloed through untouched by human hand. Funny thing, I haven’t seen Colm scoring a delightful goal against Tyrone in Croke Park, or any sort of goal. Which brings me to another subject that I have been reflecting upon anxiously over the last six months: Is Colm as great as I once thought he was? The skills are of course peerless. He is magnificent when the Kingdom are beating up on Mayo or the old Cork team. But I am beginning to have my doubts. I watched him closely in this year’s club semi-final against Crossmaglen. Crokes went seven points up. He had not contributed. Then, Crossmaglen - against all the odds - began their comeback. Now, I thought to myself, now Cooper will lead them home. I waited, and waited, and waited. In the face of Crossmaglen’s furious indignation, the golden boy disappeared. Jamie Morgan, an aggressive, tight marking and hugely competitive corner back with no county experience and aged just 21, utterly dominated him. An American tourist would never have believed it if you’d told him The Gooch was one of the greats. If however you’d told him he was a choker, he would have agreed, since that is what Colm did against Cross. As their key man floundered, so did his team mates. When you think about it, there is a pattern. When Tyrone put it up to him in 2005 and 2008 he failed. When Dublin put it up to him in last year’s final, he failed, leaving it to Donaghy to lead the attack. Think on the other hand of how many times Mikey Sheehy, ‘Bomber’ Liston or my good friend Pat turned games on their head. No quitters on that team.
In 2003, Tyrone put it up to them and Kerry wilted. The next year, the ‘Green and Gold’ were back to beat up Mayo in a one sided cakewalk. Let’s be fair about it, they could have thrown their jerseys onto the field and Mayo would have surrendered. In 2005, Tyrone put it up to them again and again the Kingdom quit after a great start saw them surge clear. It is typical of bullies that when a strong start doesn’t deter the opponent, they begin to doubt themselves.
In 2006, hip hip hooray, it was Mayo again. Oh how they laughed in the Kingdom when the news came through on the wireless. Come the day of the final, John Morrison’s prediction that Mayo would be Brazil against Kerry’s England prompted a new entry in Private Eye’s ‘Coleman Balls’. The game was over after 15 minutes, which is just the way Kerry like it. Star and Gooch ran riot and Pat put another notch in his bed post. A 13-point margin. In 2007 it was Cork. Again, game over after ten minutes and a cushty 10 point win. In 2008, Tyrone again. Kerry huffed and puffed for a good while that day. Like the Big Bad Wolf they threatened to blow down the Tyrone house. But like the Big Bad Wolf, they chickened out at the finale. With four minutes to go it was a draw. In the RTE soft seats though, we knew what was coming. I nudged Patrick with my elbow and said, “Hard luck.” “F*** off” he said. Tyrone duly reeled off five unanswered points.
In 2009, hip hip hooray, it was Cork again and another one sided canter. By God, the Kerry men were throwing their weight about that day. “Fair play to you, Tadgh.” they roared in the Kingdom. Why didn’t they do that the previous year? In 2010, Kerry were fazed by the fact that Down were totally unfazed. It was the referee’s fault don’t you know. Last year, they were fazed by the fact that Gilroy had discarded the startled earwigs and replaced them with an army of worker ants. Dublin stuck with them for 60 minutes. Again, the bullies yielded.
On Saturday, everything is stacked in the Kingdom’s favour. Home venue, everyone fully fit, their destroyer in chief Sean Cavanagh injured and a Tyrone team not at the level of its predecessors. Yet Tyrone don’t give a damn about their green and gold. If Kerry can finally stand up and by that I mean all of them, not just Tomas and Marc O’Se, then this could be the path to another All-Ireland. But far more importantly, it will be the path to self respect. Something Tyrone have never had to worry about....