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There is no doubt: It's the Kingdom's game to lose

By Peter Canavan

I have no doubt that Eamonn Fitzmaurice and a lot of the Kerry players have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of playing Tyrone.

If you were to speak to Kieran Donaghy, Paul Galvin, Bryan Sheehan or Marc Ó Sé - considering they have only a year or two left in their sporting careers - to beat Tyrone in an All-Ireland final or semi-final would be very high on their wishlist.

Although they have been gracious in defeat to Tyrone in the past, they don't like losing. They might not admit it, but you only have to look at the reaction of Paul Galvin in Killarney in 2012 when they beat Tyrone in a round three qualifier to see what it meant to them.

There is a certain amount of redemption in this game for them. It's perfectly set up from that point of view and it is the one game this year that has caught the imagination of the public in a somewhat lacklustre Championship season.

Hurling experienced something similar until the meeting of Tipperary and Galway last weekend, so I think this match will have a real edge and that's going to add to the spectacle.

Tyrone will have the utmost respect for Kerry. They always have, but they will relish going in as underdogs and they will not be carrying any fear going down to Croke Park.

In the build-up, they have had to cope with an unprecedented level of criticism, some of this frenzied from sources that should know better. Clearly, there is selective amnesia among some commentators when it comes to their principles now.

It's been a distraction in so many ways, in that it's the only topic of conversation in Tyrone. You might say it will galvanise the team, but once the ball is thrown up it will have no impact on the field of play.

Maurice Deegan is an experienced enough referee to not be influenced by what is going on in the press.

From a tactical perspective, Tyrone will look to their running game to penetrate the Kerry defence. They will gain hope from noting the two games against Cork, when their rivals were able to run through the heart of the Kingdom defence and score.

They can also use examples from last year when Mayo created plenty of goal-scoring opportunities.

Tyrone will believe that if they can play at pace and with a high intensity, their angled support runs will break Kerry down and there will be opportunities to hurt their opponents.

Most critically, they will also believe they are the hungrier side.

This is not a hunger that is manufactured. Kerry are the team defending the All-Ireland crown.

They showed a ferocious appetite last season, but that type of hunger is hard to generate for a second consecutive year, simply because they have freshly-minted Celtic Crosses in their back pockets.

When Kerry players step out of their house, they don't have to go too far to find someone to heap praise on them, or receive a pat on the back.

However, when a Tyrone player opens their door nowadays, they face animosity and ridicule. In terms of motivation, it would be easy to train this Red Hands team.

Their success through the back door route has been built on a rock-solid defence.

Any team that Tyrone have faced this season have struggled to get quality ball to their inside forwards. Kieran Hughes was a peripheral figure in the quarter-final and became visibly frustrated, while Conor McManus was given a torrid time and was kept as quiet on the scoreboard as is possible nowadays.

The two sweepers take charge of either flank and give plenty of protection to the man-markers in the full-back line. It prevents quality ball played in low and in front of the forward, but it can't stop long, diagonal balls going over the top.

This is a tactic that I expect Kerry to deploy.

In the league game in Omagh, this was used to good effect with Kieran Donaghy on the edge of the square.

I would say now that because Joe McMahon is not going to be fit, it could well be Ronan McNabb and Colm Cavanagh as sweepers, with Justin McMahon going in to mark Donaghy.

Despite the fact that Colm Cooper only came on for the last 10 minutes in that league game, he made a difference.

He is adept at finding space in the pocket, he can drag the sweepers out of position, he can score and he is a brilliant creator. The quality of his passes makes him an excellent playmaker.

And if Donaghy is not exactly on his game, or even if they need more presence, Fitzmaurice may call Tommy Walsh from the bench.

While his game may need another season of training in this group to reach the customary finesse expected of a Kerry footballer, Walsh pulled off a few spectacular catches in midfield when introduced against Kildare.

Kerry have options for every line on the pitch. Sheehan can play at midfield, wing-half forward or centre-forward. They have a fleet of forwards that would start on any other team in Ireland.

Another weapon they had in Omagh is their ability to kick points from distance. David Moran, Johnny Buckley, Sheehan and even Paul Murphy, coming from wing-back, can all score from distance.

Tyrone can force most teams to take shots outside the 'D', but against Kerry, they can't give them that same space on the ball because of their ability to pick off scores from long range.

My own county have a million reasons to win this game and they will bring plenty of fire to proceedings. I just wonder if they are still in a developmental stage in terms of delivering the sustained concentration to produce the performance it takes.

Kerry's strength in depth means that Fitzmaurice has a stronger hand to play with.

For me, it's Kerry's semi-final to lose.

Belfast Telegraph


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