In the distant future, they will be embarrassed by what went on that day, but back then the rivalry was spilling into hatred territory. Actions occurred and words were said. In the heat of the moment, nobody was going to pull them up on it.
It was February 15, 2009 when Kerry were in Omagh for a repeat of the previous September’s All-Ireland final. They were 2-8 to 0-3 up by half-time.
In the dressing room, the story goes that Mickey Harte instructed Tyrone’s players to remove their jerseys and throw them in a skip. The previous 35 minutes had not been worthy of the colours, so they wore a new set for the second half.
Although new rules regarding third-man tackles, intentional fouls and verbal abuse were introduced that winter, they were ignored as Tyrone went about reeling in the lead.
On the final whistle, Marc ÓSé, Declan O’Sullivan and Ryan McMenamin all got involved in a flare-up, Kerry boss Jack O’Connor had to be held back as he sought confrontation, and we witnessed a Tyrone backroom member pumping his fist to an already over-stimulated crowd.
Later that season, Tyrone were on the attack in the All-Ireland semi against Cork when the referee blew for half-time. The resultant fuss led to a temporary rule for the next National League stating the ball had to go dead before a referee could end a half. In a twist of fate, it helped Tyrone beat Kerry in March 2010. With time over, Tyrone were seeking a late goal. Kerry mistakenly never hoofed into ‘row z’ and a dipping ball was met by Colm Cavanagh’s fist and they took the points.
And that was the last time they met. Tyrone dropped a division, and that final blockbuster, winner-takes-all Championship match we yearned for to settle the ‘Team of the Decade’ argument never materialised. That’s why, when they were paired off on Monday it relit a flame for old times.
While the relationship between the pair had grown toxic by 2009, there were earlier signs of what could unfold. In his season diary of 2003, after that infamous All-Ireland semi-final, Mickey Harte wrote: “People are going on as if it’s the end of Gaelic football as we know it. I’m disappointed at the Kerry chairman Sean Walsh suggesting that we might have to introduce the mark and change the rules.”
In his autobiography, Jack O’Connor slammed the success of Armagh and Tyrone: “They’re flash and nouveau riche and full of it. Northern teams talk about how they did it, they go on about this theory and that practice, as if they’d just split the atom. They build up a mythology about themselves.”
As for ‘Team of the Decade’?
The case for Kerry is that they always presented themselves for battle. In the 2004 final, they massacred Mayo who had beaten Tyrone in the quarters. In 2006, they again lifted Sam as Tyrone lost to Laois. A year later they retained it as Meath shredded Tyrone in the quarters.
Jack left the post, citing he ‘couldn’t wait around for Tyrone to show up’. In a way he was right, but then Kerry’s evolution was not as difficult as Tyrone’s. The untimely death of Cormac McAnallen prevented a possible domination and it took a couple of years for Tyrone to re-calibrate their attack after the retirement of Peter Canavan.
But what Tyrone have is that incredible record. Three games and three wins over Kerry. They’ll sell seats alright, but you’ll only need the edge of them.