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Mickey Harte's Tyrone men will have final say in All-Ireland semi-final

By Declan Bogue

Published 19/08/2015

Triple team: Tyrone’s Richie Donnelly, Ronan McNamee and Peter Harte tackle Conor McManus of Monaghan
Triple team: Tyrone’s Richie Donnelly, Ronan McNamee and Peter Harte tackle Conor McManus of Monaghan

When asked recently if his Tyrone side would be reminded of their proud tradition against Kerry in Croke Park, manager Mickey Harte opted to body swerve the question.

"I think that would be foolish to do. I always said that every day we played them, the result could have gone either way," he began.

"I won't be getting too carried away by that. This is a new ball game, they are in pole position and we have to be on top of our game to be in with a chance of taking this one."

This is the way of it when players and management come to talk about games. It's process and outcome. A game two years ago is pre-history, a game last year is ancient history.

But within their own confines and with some privacy, things are different.

Some 42 years had passed since Down had beaten Kerry in an All-Ireland final when they travelled to Croke Park to face them in a last-eight clash. James McCartan senior had a word with his son, Wee James, telling him as manager of the Down team to 'mind that old record' they had against the Kingdom.

Mind it he did as the Mournemen sensationally dumped the All-Ireland champions out.

Tyrone don't forget about the times they have lorded it over Kerry. They won't this time either.

If 'Rufflegate' has gifted Tyrone one thing, it has put the focus on their negativity and cynicism - rightly answered by a significant backlash - and taken away focus on the nuts and bolts of this weekend's All-Ireland semi-final.

After reviewing their progress throughout the last few years of transition (and let's not forget that one of the years, 2013, brought an All-Ireland semi-final), Harte has seen enough to realise that he couldn't consider employing an orthodox defence.

Kerry gave them their ultimate lesson in the league game in 2014, James O'Donoghue scoring three second-half goals to turn a 0-8 half-time draw into a 3-15 to 0-9 triumph.

From that day forward, Mattie Donnelly was planted into the centreback position as the first step in securing the rearguard.

Peter Harte had been playing there beforehand with the intention of launching attacks from deep, but has thrived in a looser role since, while Donnelly has been gradually released into a more offensive position and moved up to another level.

By the time Kerry came to Omagh for the last game of this year's league, they were faced with an entirely different defence. They scored 1-14 to draw and send Tyrone down.

With Kieran Donaghy in full-forward, attempts to reach him were stymied by his marker Justin McMahon.

Recognising this, the Kerry attack were able to make the necessary adjustments. Barry John Keane was replaced by the taller Paul Geaney to give Tyrone another aerial threat to deal with. Meanwhile, Bryan Sheehan made it rain with four sublime points, three from frees.

Donnelly and Tiernan McCann were the sweepers that day, but those roles will be filled by Ronan McNabb and Colm Cavanagh this weekend. Can Kerry get the ball through to Donaghy and Geaney in that situation, with pressure coming from the likes of Sean Cavanagh and Donnelly?

In the All-Ireland final last year, the Kerry forward line shot 13 wides. The dimensions of Croke Park can sometimes play tricks with the processes of a forward, as witnessed by O'Donoghue putting a chance from 20 yards wide to the right when he got his only chance of the game.

The goals they got that day were also sprinkled with fortune.

A Stephen O'Brien attempt for a point got a nick off Karl Lacey's hand and fell into the path of Geaney for the opener, before Paul Durcan gift-wrapped the second goal to Kieran Donaghy.

That Donegal defence may have been the meanest in the game, but Tyrone's is not far away. After conceding six goals in seven Division One games, they have managed a complete shut-out in their last five Championship games.

Offensively, we know what we will get. Their runners will come from deep and they have pace and power. Sean Cavanagh bought a free in the first minute of their quarter-final win and this method of scoring will be exploited.

In the inevitable event of a dogfight, Tyrone have all the bitterness and spite of the dispossessed following the treatment they feel they have received. When it comes down to that, and it will, then it's time to look forward to Tyrone in another All-Ireland final.

To win tickets for Sunday's mouth-watering All-Ireland semi-final clash at Croke Park, go to www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/sport/gaa

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