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25 September 2008 Edition

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More than a game BY MATT TREACY






Red Hand fells Kingdom to lift Sam

The most disappointed people I heard from after Tyrone’s win on Sunday were not Kerry people but chaps from Derry and Armagh, one of whom said that he wouldn’t be able to go back to South Derry until Christmas until after the neighbours’ celebrations had hopefully died down. So much for the great Ulster love-in!
Fermanagh and Monaghan people did seem genuinely pleased but then again they are a bit like the little boys looking over the wall into the orchard at the unknown and probably unknowable fruit. Tyrone’s northern and eastern neighbours have already been over the wall, tasted the apples, found them to be to their liking and were not shy about reminding the Tyrone ones who had been there when they had not. And before them. Such things come back to haunt you.
All changed utterly now of course. Tyrone’s third title places them closer to the elite of Cavan and Down, with five All Ireland wins apiece, and they now share with Down the distinction of having won three titles in the one decade. Indeed a distinction only ever accomplished by five teams including Dublin, Kerry and Galway. So they are staking a claim to a place in the overall, as opposed to the provincial, elite.
Sunday’s showdown was between by far the two most successful teams of the noughties, indeed of the past 20 years. Kerry with four titles since 2000 are ahead of Tyrone with three but there are those who would argue that the Tyrone team of 2003 - 2008, with nine of the 2003 side making an appearance last Sunday compared to just two of Kerry’s 2000 team, are at least as entitled to claim continuity over those years as Kerry. Interestingly Tyrone have also won three Ulsters since 2001 but only one of them, in 2003, was in the same year as they went on to win the All Ireland.
Indeed the fact that the two teams contesting the final this year failed to win their province, and that only one of the four semi-finalists was a provincial winner, calls into question the validity of those series and indeed their value to whoever wins. For a good team, one that is confident in their own capabilities and planning to peak later rather than earlier, the qualifiers may in fact be the optimum route. That doesn’t mean going out to be deliberately beaten in the first round but it does mean that you don’t have to be at your best and that if you do get beaten you get your next chance against a team unlikely to be as good as any you will meet in the Provincial final.
Certainly from Tyrone’s perspective the back door probably proved to be a less demanding route than facing Armagh at a time when they had yet to find their strongest combination and before they had fully recovered from injury hangovers and ensured that key players were coming back to their prime. They also had more leisure to experiment against Louth and Westmeath, rather than meeting Armagh in the Ulster semi final.

Tyrone’s progress since the defeat by Down is a tribute to the team and to Mickey Harte, who has proven himself to be by far the most astute county manager since the heyday of the likes of O’Dwyer and Heffernan and Boylan. Few, including their own supporters had any faith in them repeating the feats of 2003 and 2005. Those supporters stayed away in droves from most of their matches; there were less than 8,000 in Omagh for the Westmeath game and well less than that came to Dublin for the quarter final.
Harte however did not lose faith and knew that he had the raw material at hand to be moulded into a side that could genuinely challenge for honours. In doing so he seemed to have breathed new life into old hands like Sean Cavanagh, Ryan McMenamin and Brian Dooher with the latter in particular fulfiling radically new roles, with McMenamin coming forward far more than he was accustomed to in the past and Cavanagh metamorphosing into a full forward, albeit one who could also fall back into his old midfield berth when required.
Dooher gave all the appearance of a chap who is getting more rather than less fit with advancing years and only small minded and petty begrudgers would quibble at his sometimes dramatic reactions to seemingly innocuous tackles. Some may also describe Tyrone’s use of even slight injuries to run down the clock and break up the opposition’s momentum as cynicism but in an era where on average the ball is in play for less than half the allotted 70 minutes plus injury time – just over 30 minutes last Sunday which was a lot longer than in many other games particularly in Ulster – it is the team who can best adapt themselves and capitalise on these factors who will win most times.
Mickey Harte and Tyrone have shown themselves to be masters of the modern game, indeed they claim much credit for having shaped it, and it would be a rash prophet who would write off their chances of coming back next year and winning again. They are currently priced up at around 7/2 by most bookmakers to do that with Kerry at 13/8 which seems a bit short.
Much will depend of course on the draw in Ulster but given recent history even another early exit by Tyrone would register as no more than a minor blip in their preparations. Were Tyrone and Kerry both to win their provinces and then quarter finals next year they would face one another in the semi final. Even at this stage such a likely meeting stands out as the defining fixture of next year’s championship.

An Phoblacht Magazine


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