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Stakes high for Tyrone and Kerry

By Declan Bogue

The lead-in to the 2008 All-Ireland football final was perfect for those that like their rivalries on the hectic, hysterical and heated side.

The public had an appetite to see the battle for the unofficial crown of 'Team of the Decade.' An All-Ireland became almost relegated to subtext of a far-wider reaching story arc.

Tyrone had two Sams and Kerry had four by that stage, but there lay a significant asterix beside Tyrone's win over Kerry in the 2003 All-Ireland semi-final.

It stung too that when Tyrone won it for the second time in 2005, it was against Kerry in a final that was brimming with positivity.

Back to 2008. Brian McGuigan sat at a table along with Mickey Harte and Brian Dooher – Sam Maguire secured and stationed before them.

Your thoughts on the 'Team Of The Decade' debate now Brian?

"I think that puts the tin hat on it there. I think Tyrone is the best team of the decade. There's no doubt about it."

Six seasons have gone by. Nine of the starting Tyrone team have retired and others such as the two McMahons, Conor Gormley and Martin Penrose have the status of veterans that are gently introduced to a season.

In Kerry, Aidan O'Mahony and Killian Young are in line for a role tomorrow, Bryan Sheehan is on his way back, Declan O'Sullivan should return in time for Championship and there are serious doubts over Kieran Donaghy. That's it though.

They are two different teams, but in the final throes of the last decade it became nasty.

The league game of mid-February, 2009, was utter poison. Paul Galvin was 'patted on the groin' by Ryan McMenamin, before accusations of spitting and Kerry manager Jack O'Connor making a go for Colm McCullagh.

Somehow all this drifted into the club scene with the sideline swinging match between Dromid Pearses and Derrytresk in the All-Ireland Junior series. One grade up, another spitting accusation occurred during Cookstown's win over Finuge last season.

In some ways, Kerry's emphatic win over Tyrone in the 2012 qualifiers was the start of the healing. Seasoned Kerry stars could tear the monkey of defeat from their backs while their supporters lovebombed Mickey Harte at the final whistle.

The Tyrone players? They looked like a squad that had grown fat on satisfaction.

The bus with the northern registration plates was cheered as it headed off. Owen Mulligan was fêted as he went for a couple of days diversion around Kerry, one supporter approaching him with a hotel keycard and telling him to stay as long as he wanted.

The relationship had changed but by the time Kerry came to Omagh last April, Tyrone held a gun to their temple. Already through to the league semi-finals, another win would have pushed Kerry out of the top division for the first time since Páidí ÓSé was manager.

Off the field, the gates of the gleaming new Garvaghey complex were thrown open and Kerryfolk invited to inspect the surroundings.

On the field, Tyrone took the boot off Kerry heads and allowed them to swim to the shore. Everybody happy, once again.

Until now. Defeat will not relegate Kerry on the day, but could inflict the fatal blow.

"Tyrone are probably going to meet their toughest test this weekend, because of that. Because of the Kerry desperation," is the view of Pascal McConnell, enjoying life as a retired Tyrone goalkeeper.

"They are Kerry, no matter when you play them and that aura just does not disappear.

"Tyrone are heading towards the semi-final of the league and Kerry need the two points. That could be the ideal situation in which they kick-start their season."

Last year, Kerry were being spoken about in roughly the same terms as they lost their first three games. The difference is that they have no Colm Cooper to parachute in and some of their other illustrious names are either careworn or retired.

And there are still vital points to contest for Tyrone. Sitting in that Omagh dressing room last year, McConnell admits that their already secured qualification to the league final was a comfort blanket.

"Pretty much at that stage we were coasting along. There might have been a little complacency, lying back on our laurels.

"Knowing Mickey, he won't stand for that this weekend. There will be added spice and you like to prevail in games like that, against the Kerry's and the Dublin's.

"There was a bit of complacency in that performance and the players did look at themselves afterwards."

When they are at their lowest ebb, Kerry manage to find something. In 2009, they blinded Tyrone so much with their football that Harte ordered his players to take off their jersies and replace them with a fresh one, to match their fresh attitude.

"The effort going in that day was a very tame one," McConnell still bristles.

The 11-point gap at half time was cut to three before all manner of stupidity broke out on the whistle.

Last year was remarkably similar, the same half time margin favouring Kerry at the same ground.

"In the first half they gave us an absolute lesson altogether in football," recalls McConnell.

"It was at half-time we woke up and started to see that we couldn't succumb in that way."

The Mickey Harte era began with a few noteworthy wins in his first league campaign, but none as worthy as a 1-13 to 0-14 win over Kerry on March 23, 2003.

'This could be important because if we're to get where we want to this summer, the chances are we are going to have to go through Kerry,' noted Harte at the time.

Now, his new team need a win like that.

What a scene, what a setting, what a scenario.

Belfast Telegraph

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