OpinionPat Spillane

Kerry knew how to eke out win over Tyrone

Mattie Donnelly (right) was shadowed by David Moran
Mattie Donnelly (right) was shadowed by David Moran

PURISTS might argue that last Sunday’s semi-final wasn’t a classic. I disagree!

It was a top-class match which proves that contests, in which defensive-possession tactics are used, can still be entertaining and produce quality football.

Furthermore, it was served up by footballers who are most certainly fitter and probably more skilful than the stars of previous gener­ations.

Kerry were deserving winners. In­deed, they never looked like losing de­spite the closeness of the exchanges.

Sure, they will be concerned with aspects of their performance such as their slow ponderous first-half play when they were caught in possession too often.

They failed to create a single goal-scor­ing chance and, most worryingly, their defence was repeatedly opened up when Tyrone ran at them down the centre.

Ultimately it was a case of the old dog for the hard road. They have become experts in eking out results in tight contests as evident by their performances in two All-Ireland semi-finals last year; the drawn Mun­ster final and again last Sunday.

It was a great afternoon all round for Kerry. After their quarter-final mismatch against Kildare they were severely tested.

They got the Tyrone ‘monkey’ off their back and they won the game in the best way imaginable – grinding out a result without hitting top form.

Here’s a quick guide as to why they won. They pressed up on Niall Mor­gan’s kick outs; got the match-ups on Tyrone’s three key players, Sean Cavanagh (Peter Crowley), Mattie Donnelly (Anthony Maher) and Pe­ter Harte (Jonathan Lyne) spot on and moved the ball quicker in the second half.

The match statistics back up the latter point: after being turned over 13 times in possession in the first half, Kerry were turned over on just three occasions after the break.

The bottom line is that ultimately Kerry can adapt to any particular style – be it the use of the handpass by Antrim in the 1940s; Down’s tactical approach in the ’60s; Dublin’s fitness levels in the ’70s or the defensive sys­tems devised by Armagh, Tyrone and Donegal in the last 12 years.

Finally, the most important piece in the Kerry jigsaw is Eamonn Fitz­maurice. All great teams need a great manager and Fitzmaurice has all the qualities required to be a great man­ager. He’s ruthless but fair – players are picked on form not reputation.

Interestingly, during his 16-match championship reign no player has fea­tured in all games and Kerry have lost only one championship game since he took over – against Dublin in the epic 2013 All-Ireland semi-final.

He is analytical and doesn’t crave to be the centre of attention. Now he’s one win away from becoming the first Kerry manager since Mick O’Dwyer to win back-to-back All-Irelands.

Tyrone will take a lot of heart from reaching the last four. They gave Kerry one hell of a game.

However, they would be foolish to believe that because they reached the last four they are close to reaching the Promised Land again. They’re not!

Though their defensive system is first class, it still requires tweaking. The decision to concede kick-outs to Kerry – given their ability on the ball – was kamikaze and significantly the winners got the bulk of their scores from the optimum scoring zone.

But it is the overall philosophy which I would question. Deploying a defensive system makes a team competitive but forwards win matches.

Too often last Sunday Tyrone had only one player in the Kerry half and inevitably he became isolated.

Furthermore, because Tyrone fa­vour moving the ball via the hand rather the foot they expend huge amounts of energy, which makes it difficult to sustain their effort over an entire match.

The scoring statistics of the four semi-finalists says it all. Dublin have averaged 29 points a game; Mayo 26; Kerry 22 and Tyrone 17. I rest my case.

When a team only scores 1-2 in the last 31 minutes of an All-Ireland semi-final, they have fundamental issues to address.

So it was problems up front rather than refereeing decisions that cost them the game.

Mickey Harte deserves to be kept on as team boss, having rebuilt Tyrone for a third time. He faces a major hurdle next year, however, as his team will be operating in Division 2.

It was Mickey himself who said a team cannot win an All-Ireland from Division 2. But he needs to be more pro-active in generating positive publicity for the county.

Lifting his self-imposed ban on speaking to RTE would represent a positive start. The ban is doing a disservice to his players, supporters, County Board and sponsors. Now is the time for a fresh start.