All-Ireland Gaelic football semi-final preview: Kerry v Tyrone

Kerry and Tyrone will do battle again on Sunday
Kerry and Tyrone will do battle again on Sunday

The first All-Ireland football semi final is up for decision this weekend.

And it is a cracker, with old foes Kerry playing Tyrone at HQ.

All-Ireland SFC semi-final: Kerry v Tyrone, Croke Park, 3.30. Live on RTE and Sky Sport 5

No county has tortured Kerry as much as Tyrone. The three championship losses Kerry endured against Mickey Harte’s side in the noughties cut deeply into the Kingdom’s GAA psyche. There were all momentous in their own right.

The 2003 All-Ireland semi-loss not alone ended the managerial career of the late Páidí O Sé; it forced the Kingdom to fundamentally rethink how they played football.

Two years later they had altered their approach but still lost to Tyrone after an epic All-Ireland final while in 2008 Tyrone denied Kerry a coveted hat trick of All-Ireland wins.

Essentially Harte got the better tactically of three different Kerry football bosses, O Sé, Pat O’Shea and Jack O’Connor, though the latter did finally guide the Kingdom to a championship win over Tyrone in the 2012 qualifiers.

Kerry did end up winning one more All-Ireland title than Tyrone in the noughties to justify their claim to be the team of the decade, though their failure to beat Tyrone in two All-Ireland finals and one semi-final means that a large asterisk has to be placed after their 2006, 2007 and 2009 Sam Maguire successes.

So it is understandable that Kerry fans are apprehensive about this encounter. On all known form they ought to win - but they were tipped to win in ’03, ’05 and ’08 and failed to complete the deal.

Arguably Donegal did Tyrone a big favour to beating them in the preliminary round of the Ulster championship last May. It give Tyrone space to regroup away from the limelight. As happened in 2005 and 2008, a series of matches in the qualifiers against teams from the lower divisions allowed them to build momentum.

They got the rub of the green when drawn against Monaghan in the quarter final. Facing any of the other three provincial winners, Dublin, Kerry or Mayo would have been a far more difficult assignment.

Even though they lost to Monaghan in last year’s Ulster championship Tyrone always fancy their chances of beating them. The reality is from the moment Sean Cavanagh rounded Vinny Corey and won a close in free in the opening seconds of the contest they never really looked like losing.

But Tyrone must take another giant leap forward in order to reach their first final since 2008. Since 2011 four teams Dublin, Kerry, Donegal and Mayo have dominated the All-Ireland series. No other county has contested a final in that period. And Tyrone has never beaten any of these sides in championship football in this decade.

Two years ago in their last All-Ireland semi-final appearance, they were outclassed by Mayo who won by six points (1-16; 0-13). Admittedly they field a much changed side on this occasion. Seven of the 2013 side as well as Joe McMahon, who could yet feature even though he is not named after minor surgery – have been replaced.

Their game plan revolves around a shroud like defence marshalled by two sweepers. The probable absence of McMahon is a big blow as he was one of their twin pillars. The other is midfielder Colm Cavanagh. Watch him sprint back into position with his back to the ball any time Tyrone lose possession deep in the Kerry half.

At times Tyrone brings all their outfield players behind the ball and then break at speed with Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly, Ronan McNabb and Tiernan McCann spearheading these breakouts. The speed of their transition catches most opponents out. With two proven free takers in Darren McCurry and Conor McAliskey in their ranks their ability to win – or manufacture – close in frees is crucial to the success of their game plan.

Ultimately Sean Cavanagh remains their key player; when he plays well his colleagues respond. In the absence of Aidan O’Mahony – who got married in Portugal recently – Marc O Sé is likely to shadow Cavanagh all afternoon.

With the exception of the drawn Munster final, Eamon Fitzmaurice’s tactical nous has seen him outwit his opposite number. Mind you, his task is made a lot easier by the quality not alone of the first fifteen but his replacements as well.

As they did in the All-Ireland final against Donegal the Kerry defenders will keep their structure. The majority of the Kerry defenders will keep their positions and won’t follow the Tyrone forwards when they cross the half way line. There remains a suspicion, however, that they are vulnerable when run at – as Tyrone most assuredly will do.

Kerry will press up on Niall Morgan’s kick outs which will force him to go long with his re-starts which ought to give the Kingdom’s highly rated midfield partnership of David Moran and Anthony Maher an opportunity to exhibit their aerial prowess.

Monaghan played straight into Tyrone’s tactics with their slow, lateral build-ups. They moved the play from one side of the field to the other –mostly via the hand but failed to make telling insertions into the heart of the Tyrone defence.

It is unimaginable that Kerry will fall into the same trap. They will move the ball via the foot and the game is tailor made for Kerry captain Kieran Donaghy to make an impact on the edge of the square.

Another plus for Kerry is their goal scoring ability. Sure, they won’t score seven as they did against Kildare. But their forwards are more likely to find the net than their Tyrone counterparts who haven’t scored a goal since losing to Donegal in May.

Two other factors are worth noting. All teams at the highest level practice the black arts, though few do it to the same extent as Tyrone. They have taken the tactic of frustrating their opponents and drawing them into a battle of attrition to a fine art.

Tyrone will know they have won a crucial battle if they inveigle Kerry into the trenches.

Finally, although there is no evidence that Eamon Fitzmaurice is as superstitious as the late Páidí O Sé he will wonder about karma.

Since losing to Dublin in the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final Kerry has enjoyed an extraordinary run of good fortune in key games – right up to Colm O’Neill fluffing a 45 in the dying seconds of the drawn Munster final.

Even on the law of averages Kerry cannot expect the key breaks to continue to fall into their laps. Still, even if luck deserves them against Tyrone Kerry ought to reach their eleventh final since the turn of the century.

Verdict: Kerry.