Retired Kerry midfielder Darragh O’Se is fond of saying that such and such are “ a great team in the league.” It is a classic Kerry insult, on a par with the one that is often used in clubs and bars in the Kingdom of a Saturday night. “Go on you with your two All-Irelands.”
I recall a pre-Christmas national league game many years ago in Ballinascreen where the Golden Years boys arrived in leisurely mood. Dungiven’s Liam McElhinney had been picked at full-forward and there was a fair degree of excitement in the town. In the event, he was superb, running riot against the legendary John O’Keefe, kicking five points from play in a most entertaining Derry victory. Afterwards, a broadly smiling Micko was fulsome in his praise.
“I would say that your full forward is currently the best in the country,” he told the press, “We’ll be seeing a lot more of him.” He finished by saying that, “Derry will have a big say in this year’s championship” before flashing that ultra bright smile and boarding the coach. With that, the bus set off, carrying its golden cargo back to the home of football. In those days, they could afford to patronise the rest of us. Not any more.
On Sunday, they came to Omagh desperate to avoid relegation, having been trampled underfoot in their first series of games by teams that were once their underlings. That master/servant relationship has changed, particularly since Tyrone began doing a number on them in the new millennium. Suddenly, the rest, even the Dubs, realised they were mortal and began to get stuck in. In 2010, the Bomber Liston casually remarked that, “the last time the Dubs beat us in Croke Park, Elvis was still alive.” Well, he wasn’t alive in 2011, unless I am sorely mistaken.
Sunday’s game was a symbol of the new order. For Kerry, the aim was not simply to avoid relegation, but more importantly to restore some self respect and confirm the stability of their new regime. After last summer’s bitter humiliation in Killarney, I expected Tyrone to be in a state of high alert at the throw in, but nothing could have been further from the case. Victory was not critical for them, which is the only explanation I can think of for their amazingly lacklustre first half showing when they did the precise thing that they had taught the rest of us not to do: They stood back and admired Kerry. So, for a while, it was back to the future, as the Kerry men roamed freely round the pitch, playing some utterly delightful football.
There has been an agonised debate in Kerry for years as to whether Colm Cooper should play his county football in his favoured position of No. 11. The argument against this has always been that it would force him to defend too much in his own half, particularly against high voltage attacking half-backs like Lacey. On Sunday, in the first half, he destroyed Tyrone with a performance of the utmost elegance. Short of wearing a tuxedo and sipping a vodka martini while he played, he couldn’t have looked any smoother. Forty-four touches he had, which is reminiscent of the eye watering stats Brian McGuigan used to rack up in his pomp. With those touches, he provided beauty in abundance, stroking passes effortlessly off either foot and with the hand, timing each one to perfection.
Meanwhile, Tyrone had simply forgotten that Tomas O’Se is in fact one of the O’Se family. The Rolls Royce of half-backs. Paidi’s nephew, brother of Marc and Darragh. The greatest wing back of the last 25 years. They were made pay for this half hour of amnesia, Tomas giving us a glimpse of what Gaelic football might be like if we could stop the fouling.
Kerry also proved that they now can defend in the modern way, glueing up Tyrone in a most Tyrone like manner. But it was Cooper and the attack formation adopted by Eamonn Fitzmaurice that threatened to blast Tyrone out of it. Eleven points up they were at half-time and it could have been 20. At halftime, I tweeted that we would see whether Kerry had the bottle now. We got our answer. An accusation of a lack of moral courage has never been levelled at Tyrone teams under Mickey Harte. Once again on Sunday, against seemingly impossible odds, they played to the bitter end, almost forcing an amazing victory. In fact, as the second half wore on, and particularly with the introduction of Conor Gormley, Tyrone rose to greater and greater heights. But for Justin McMahon’s rash foul on Cooper in the 62nd minute, which wasted two valuable minutes and totally disrupted Tyrone’s momentum, Tyrone would have beaten them.
As for Kerry, as has been the case now since 2003, they collapsed again under the strain of a relentless opponent. The questions I have been asking about them for some years now remain unanswered. Mind you, they’ve a right good team in the league...