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Tyrone set for semi-final agony against Kerry

By Niall McCoy

TWO months and 16 days on, the question for Tyrone when they meet Kerry on Saturday in this twice delayed All-Ireland semi-final is can they turn around the 16-point hammering that they suffered at the hands of the Kingdom back in June?

Such situations do not usually occur in high-end sport, but there are an abundance of asterisks beside that result which ensure that it is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility in a match that has been a long time coming – and at one stage looked like it would never happen.

For one it was the league and while it is increasingly becoming a premier competition, it still doesn’t hold a candle to an All-Ireland semi-final at Croke Park. Secondly, it was in Killarney, no easy place to go for anyone.

Thirdly, and most importantly of all, Tyrone are now set up completely differently from that day down in the Kingdom. While it has been suggested that new managers Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher opted for an almost man-to-man approach, it was actually more about flooding the middle sector. The flood became a deluge though, and left other areas exposed.

The main issue was that those numbers in the middle were squeezed into a very tight area. For three of the six goals – including the move that led to the Kerry penalty – an easy and quick transition up the field saw seven or eight Tyrone bodies left redundant in the middle sector, the players pushed too far forward to get back and provide adequate cover.

Incredibly for Kerry’s fifth goal, six Tyrone players get drawn towards the ball on the edge of the D in a 15-yard central area. A simple first pass from David Clifford took them out of the equation and sent goal-scorer Paul Geaney through on Niall Morgan. That is easily remedied through better concentration and communication.

In the Ulster Championship, the Tyrone tended to commit five or six players past the defensive 45 and into the midfield war zone. During the National League the number was more like five or six. Frank Burns has become a more dedicated sweeper and although it was rotated due to his absence in the Ulster final against Monaghan, we can expect him to be stationed fairly deep this weekend.

Add into that, Morgan will almost certainly be given permission to roam and pose a distracting body when Kerry look up for kick-out options or while the Munster side are breaking and looking for a long pass into attack. The role he plays is unlikely to be as manic as his duel with Monaghan’s Rory Beggan in the provincial final at the Dublin venue, but it’s an effective weapon to shut out the illusion of space.

For all those safety bolts screwed into their defence over the course of their successful provincial campaign, it’s the Red Hand attack that can lead them victory at Croke Park.

They seem to have the good mix of style and substance up there now, with former manager Mickey Harte accused of focussing too much on the latter in his final few years in charge.

In terms of the graft, Conor Meyler and Kieran McGeary are selfless, tireless and pretty much irreplaceable. Meyler in particular doesn’t make headline news but the Omagh man is a necessity for Tyrone’s system as he breaks lines, tracks runners and acts as a link man.

A look at the rest of the potential attack provides plenty of scoring threat. Darragh Canavan and Cathal McShane both came off the bench against Monaghan and will likely play a bigger part here having earned an unexpected extra two weeks while Darren McCurry is one of the most in-form forwards in the country.

Conor McKenna has produced some magic moments and if he can stretch that influence across a longer period then he could have a major say in proceedings. Mark Bradley and Paul Donaghy may not have been used much during the championship, but they remain two good scoring options.

Kerry, of course, will feel that they can more than match not only Tyrone’s attack, but any forward line in the country. They will post a high score, hence the earlier claim that it’s the Red Hand attack that will win this game rather than a shut-out at the back.

David Clifford is their marquee man but, for many, Seán O’Shea is the real star up front. Either way, they’re both previous Young Footballers of the Year and already have three All-Stars between them despite their youthfulness so neither are to be underestimated.

Clifford will also be out to respond to the – as they say in the industry – stinker he had in the Munster final win against Cork.

A man who usually looks like he could walk on water, he simply could do nothing right and his shooting and handling were way off his usual high standard.

His contribution of just one pointed free was almost unheard of. And without his usual massive scoring threat Peter Keane’s side still hit 4-22.

So much of their good attacking play did actually come through Clifford, but it was older brother Paudie who was the best player on the pitch against the Rebels.

In recent seasons he has caught the eye as East Kerry claimed back-to-back county titles, and he has finally gotten his shot with the Kingdom this season. And how he has taken it. An All-Star looks nailed on and the wide open spaces of Croke Park appear to be perfect for his direct running and sharp link-up play. Logan and Dooher will have to appoint a direct man-marker here, and McGeary looks a good option.

This will be Tyrone’s sixth All-Ireland semi-final appearance in the last 10 seasons. The rest of Ulster have four semi-finals between them in that period.

The issue is that whereas Donegal’s two semi-final appearances have led to a pair of wins and one All-Ireland, Tyrone have only converted one of the six games into a final spot.

It is abundantly clear that this is the step that they have struggled to take, and for it to happen here McShane, McKenna, McCurry and Canavan must take apart a Kingdom full-back line that has still not convinced all watchers.

The Tyrone mindset will be an interesting aspect given the to-ing and fro-ing that went on during their Covid problems and the game of poker they played by saying they would withdraw if they didn’t get an extra week to recover.

The fact that it’s Mayo, not Dublin, waiting in the All-Ireland final should sharpen Tyrone minds further.

However, even if the Red Hands manage to raise a green flag or two, it just seems nigh on impossible that Kerry can be kept to a total that won’t allow them to progress. Kerry by six.

Verdict: Kerry

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