Brendan O Sullivan

Kerry and Tyrone - An Intense Rivalry

June 29th, 2011
by Brendan O Sullivan

Two counties dominated gaelic football in the first decade of the 21st century. For seven years in a row, the All-Ireland was won by either Kerry or Tyrone---4 to Kerry, 3 to Tyrone. Kerry are ahead in terms of titles won but what upsets most Kerry football people is that Tyrone won on the three occasions they met in the All-Ireland series.

There was no history of rivalry between the two counties. They had met in the 1986 All-Ireland Final which Kerry won comfortably after a scare. When they were scheduled to meet in the 2003 semi-final, the game was eagerly awaited by both sets of followers and by all neutrals who expected a feast of attacking football. But, on a sun-soaked August day, the attacking football was played by one team only-in the first half, Tyrone blitzed a clearly shaken Kerry side which seemed psychologically unprepared for the onslaught. A succession of well-worked points left Tyrone leading by 0-6 to 0-0 at one stage and by 0-9 to 0-2 at half-time. Tyrone became more defensive in the second half, some of their tactics may have been questionable, but Kerry never looked like cutting the deficit and Tyrone were easy and deserving winners. It was the third year in a row for Kerry to suffer a traumatic defeat in Croke Park while Tyrone went on to win their first All-Ireland.

The next chapter in the rivalry occurred in 2005. Kerry, with a new management team led by Jack O'Connor, had won in 2004; Tyrone, devastated by the sudden death of Cormac McAnallen earlier that year, had been eliminated at the quarter final stage. So, there was a lot at stake and a tremendous build-up to the 2005 final which featured the All-Ireland champions of the previous two years.

Kerry started well and a Dara O'Cinneide goal put them into a three-point lead but a mysterious off-the-ball injury to Colm Cooper led to a loss of momentum. The pendulum swung towards Tyrone and a magnificent goal by Peter Canavan, set up by Eoin Mulligan, left them in the lead at half-time. In a thrilling second half, Tyrone edged further ahead until Tomas O'Se, up from half back, scored a goal to reduce the margin to a point. Canavan, who had stayed on the subs' bench after half time, reappeared and kicked a remarkable point from the sideline and Tyrone won by 4 points.

It might be small consolation for Kerry followers but this was the best final of the decade. Kerry played scintillating football in 3 of their victories but they were so superior to the opposition on each occasion that there was no contest. This was a match of equals, of superb football, the result in doubt until near the end.

Kerry regained the Sam Maguire in 2006 and under new management retained it in the following year. When they qualified to meet Tyrone in the 2008 final, there was an expectation in the county that this great team would achieve 3-in-a-row and to achieve it at the expense of Tyrone would balance the history books.

But it was not to be. Kerry were dominant in the first half but only led by a point at half-time. The Twin Towers strategy, featuring Kieran Donaghy and Tommy Walsh, was nullified by Mickey Harte's placing of both McMahon brothers in the full back line. Kerry didn't seem to have another strategy and a Tyrone goal from the second half throw-in left Kerry chasing the game, as in 2005. They fought back to take the lead at one stage but Tyrone soon equalised and pulled away with points in the final minutes.

This was Kerry's best chance of a championship victory over Tyrone. In 2003 Tyrone were clearly superior, in 2005 marginally superior but this was a match which could have gone either way. Kerry supporters were sore at losing an All-Ireland that could have been won, at losing the 3-in-a-row, and especially at losing to Tyrone.

In 2009 both qualified for the semi-finals. With Kerry favoured to beat Meath in the second, followers watched the first between Cork and Tyrone with interest, wanting Tyrone to win in the hope of finally meeting and beating them in an All-Ireland final. But, on the day, Cork were the better team and a second Kerry-Cork final in 3 years ensued, with Kerry winning their 36th All-Ireland.

Both counties lost on the same day in the 2010 quarter finals and 2011 will show if they are ageing teams in decline. The past is the past and cannot be changed but any desire for retribution in Kerry disappeared when unspeakable news came from a faraway island last January. The tragic death of Michaela, daughter of Mickey and Marian Harte, on honeymoon with her husband John, stunned the entire country. All football rivalries were meaningless. Michaela had been an integral part of the Tyrone backroom team and had a special connection with Kerry, as one of the Roses of Tralee in 2004.

The loss and pain will be with Michaela's family for ever and our thoughts are with them on the long road stretching ahead. And if Tyrone and Mickey Harte, who showed such dignity and heroism in those dark January days, can win the Sam Maguire in what would be a fitting and poignant end to 2011, even the most ardent Kerry follower will applaud.

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