Tyrone aim to become kings of the third world
It has been billed as the match of the decade, a defining showdown, the ultimate shoot-out.
But whatever label you care to put on it, Sunday’s All Ireland football final between Tyrone and Kerry at Croke Park (3.30) is essentially about two teams anxious to prove that this is their year.
That’s why the respective managers Mickey Harte and Pat O’Shea are currently at pains to place past triumphs, statistics and, more pertinently, setbacks firmly on the back burner.
The Kingdom may be going for their third All Ireland title on the trot while Tyrone are fixing their sights on what would be a third coup in six years but such embellishments are viewed in both camps as very much secondary to winning on the day.
If Kilkenny have thrown down the gauntlet to the Kingdom by rampaging to their own treble triumph in spectacular style on the hurling front, the Red Hands can take their inspiraion from the not inconsiderable achievement of having won six of their last league and championship meetings against O’Shea’s men.
And, significantly, two of these victories came in the All Ireland semi-final of 2003 (0-13 to 0-6) and in the 2005 All Ireland final (1-16 to 2-10).
The landscape has not altered much since then, of course.
Kerry atoned for what they still regard as a bad day in the office in ‘05 by romping to All Ireland success in 2006 and again last year - Mayo and Cork were their hapless victims - but the carrot of overcoming Tyrone is such that they are now more fired up than ever.
The Kingdom , indeed, have developed something bordering on an obsession with lowering the Red Hands colours. They have been clearly uneasy in their more recent contests against them and that defeat in the ‘05 final subsequently prompted their then manager Jack O’Connor to claim that “losing to Tyrone is worse than losing to almost anyone else.”
O’Connor, indeed, went on to suggest: “There’s an arrogance in northern football that rubs people up the wrong way. They’re flash and noveau riche and full of it.”
Mickey Harte will be delighted to absorb that message again, of course, although he will settle for confidence rather than arrogance and hard-working as opposed to noveau riche.
It was after a stuttering start to their championship campaign against Down that Tyrone gradually found their rhythm and cohesion during an All Ireland qualifying itinerary that initially bred hope which quickly morphed into genuine optimism, especially after that stunning display against Dublin.
Now Harte is looking to his old hands like Brian Dooher, Conor Gormley, Brian McGuigan, Sean Cavanagh, Enda McGinley, Ryan McMenamin and others to set the tone against a Kerry side cossetted by their rich tradition but burdened to some extent by their obvious current defensive frailties.
While Colm Cooper, Kieran Donaghy, Declan O’Sullivan and Tommy Walsh in particular will bring their individual finely-honed skills to the table up front, Aidan O’Mahony and Marc O Se along with their defensive colleagues will hardly relish coping with the flambuoyant skills of Sean Cavanagh, Colm McCullagh and Brian Dooher.
But the Red Hands frontline will only flourish if their midfield gains parity of esteem - at least - against the formidable Seamus Scanlon-Dara O Se partnership.
And it’s the commanding O Se who could prove the key figure in the game.
He may be in his early 30’s and have amassed a shoal of honours yet his value to Kerry is now more pronounced than ever.
And seldom in their recent history will Kerry have depended more on the player regarded as the best midfielder of his generation more than they will on Sunday.
Enda McGinley and Colin Holmes will do their utmost to curb the Kerry engine-room. Should they succeed to any great extent, then they will lessen the load on their own defence in which Ryan McMenamin, Conor Gormley and the blossoming Justin McMahon will have key roles in erecting the barricades to keep the Kingdom sharpshooters at bay.
A fascinating tactical battle is in prospect - and don’t rule out the possibility that the teams may have to go into battle for a second time to determine just whose track record will be gloriously enhanced.