GAA Championship, Week Ten: Tyrone’s ‘Remarkable’ Recovery

by | Sep 3, 2021

Last week, I wrote of Tyrone footballers’ well-documented, chaotic build-up to their All-Ireland semi-final with Kerry last Saturday that “Tyrone shouldn’t be near ‘full-strength’ in such circumstances, even with everyone nominally available. But…we’ll see.” We did. And though Tyrone were terrific in edging Kerry by a point after extra-time, despite the Covid outbreak which dismantled their preparation, not everyone was enamoured with that sight.

Having had no competitive football for five weeks, and none worthy of the name for months, Kerry had the fitness problems. The intense, dramatic, if mediocre-quality game, caused more Kerry cramp than Tyrone, arguably game-changingly in the case of David Clifford. The 22-year-old captain was nowhere near his mercurial best in the Munster championship. Last Saturday, he was very near to it indeed, until limping off at the end of normal time.

Tyrone won because their attitude, determination and timing of their goals was exemplary. As I have written before of others, Saturday’s referee David McGoldrick’s desire to ‘let the game flow’ involved only one foul in three being punished. Early on, this seemed to benefit Tyrone to the point where you jokingly wondered if money had changed hands.

However, even when McGoldrick left them a man short for half the second half, with three correct black-card decisions, Tyrone were strong. They made fewer errors and better decisions than Kerry. And, of course, they defended miles better than Kerry, especially effective in minimising the influence of the “other” Clifford, Paudie, who’d outshone his brother until Saturday.

Nevertheless, Tyrone’s durability raised as many post-match eyebrows as pre-match eyebrows about their “Covid crisis.” Many observers already believed that those inverted commas belonged around those words. And there was nothing about Saturday’s match to disabuse them of that notion. If Tyrone were physically incapable of mustering a competitive team at all, seven days earlier, where did THAT performance come from?

As Tyrone keeper Niall Morgan noted in an Irish News newspaper interview this week: “We’ll probably get another backlash because we actually looked the fitter team.” However, some GAA people have short-term memory issues if they can’t credit such a performance, six days after Limerick’s All-Ireland hurling final first half.

Even before the game, Tyrone resentment was obvious, oozing figuratively from every orifice of RTE pundit and ex-Tyrone star Sean Cavanagh, including his arse, alas, as he and fellow pundit ex-Kerry star Pat Spillane clashed pre-match on RTE. They often disagree about football on-camera. But this was personal.

Cavanagh, perceptive yet hopeless at hiding his Tyrone/Ulster allegiances, baulked at suggestions of Tyrone dishonesty, insisting that as “some of the guys work for me” at his modestly-titled Sean Cavanagh & Co chartered accountancy firm, he knew ”for a fact” that “at least seven or eight players had tested positive.” He especially resented Tyrone “being criticised” when “we can’t field a team because we’ve only 16 players in training,” having been asked “to respect the COVID guidelines.”

But his plot went missing when presenter Joanne Cantwell mentioned the talkative Morgan’s admission to the Irish Times newspaper that “half the team” had “‘a few beers’ after the Ulster final.” Cavanagh suggested that “any county teams…might have a few guys going out,” though not with Covid in the camp, context which he side-stepped. And he accused Kerry of letting the semi be delayed because “ach sure we need a game before the final but we know Tyrone has flaunted the rules.”

That helped. “Load of rubbish,” Spillane replied. He agreed with delaying the game two weeks. But then…FFS. He cited Kerry’s reputation as “cute hoors,” defined by Wikipedia as, get this, “a cultural concept in Ireland where a certain level of corruption is forgiven.” And he seemed upset that Tyrone had been “even better at it than us.” They’d “played an absolute blinder” when “they hurled the grenade in” (‘forfeiting’ the game if the original six-day delay wasn’t extended) and Kerry and the GAA “blinked.”

Most RTE viewers were probably blinking by now. But Spillane continued: “You talk about people not knowing facts. Of course people don’t know facts, because no-one has told us anything. When there’s a vacuum of information, into that vacuum comes misinformation, false narratives, innuendo. And that’s what you got.” He then addressed the key vacuum-fillers: “Why did so many people at the one time in the Tyrone camp get Covid? Did close contacts come to the Ulster final and go to this socialising event? Did Tyrone follow Covid protocols?”

The questions were unfair on Cavanagh, as a panel outsider. But his answers about players being “close together” in the Croke Park dressing-room pathetically dodged them. And it got worse when Spillane broached the subject of player vaccination, almost screaming by this stage about knowing “for a fact” that all the Kerry players were vaccinated. “And you know that Tyrone players aren’t?” Cavanagh asked, clean forgetting Logan’s unwiser-by-the-week admission that not all of them were.

It was lively telly. But as useful as a chocolate kettle in properly addressing the issues. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever for claims that the outbreak was anything other than exactly what Tyrone said it was, However, they have SERIOUS questions to answer about the very fact of it, including Spillane’s, which arguably should have been answered already.

Verified figures for Covid cases among 2021’s championship panels are unavailable. But for so many cases to emerge from one panel, even one from recognised Covid ‘hotspot’ mid-Ulster, raises a major, simple question. Why? Logic suggests that Tyrone’s virus protocols were either ineffective or breached. The matter-of-fact nature of Logan’s admission that the panel was not fully vaccinated suggests misplaced priorities.

And even looking “the fitter team” last Saturday poses a question. If their strength and conditioning work was that effective, how were they so much more susceptible to the virus than other inter-county panels? Tyrone may have done everything by what passes as the book on COVID. But they may be All-Ireland champions before that is confirmed, or otherwise. Which isn’t fair on anyone.

Anyway, the match. It took 22 seconds for only slightly ageing boy wonder Clifford to land the first point, with the sweet left-foot strike when tightly marked which has become his signature score. And when he won and pointed a mark three minutes later, he had already outdone his Munster Championship display. Unfortunately, that was a day when he misfired while almost everyone else fired. On Saturday, the roles were reversed. Sean O’Shea, Kerry’s top scorer all season, powder-puffed the first of what would prove to be many Kerry goal chances/situations And Tyrone led, deservedly, by a point at the first-half water break.

The eight minutes around this break were crucial. Clifford could have set up his brother for a tap into the net but horribly sliced a shot instead. And they butchered an even better goal chance as spectacularly as humanly possible. O’Shea body-swerved Morgan as the goal almost audibly gaped and, for reasons known only to him and the shrink he’ll hire when this moment flashes back on him in later life, he passed to Stephen O’Brien, who possibly touched the ball on the ground as he shovelled it into the net and was certainly in the goalkeeper’s square before the ball was, Gaelic Football’s offside rule

It was to be a six-point turnaround. Clifford effed up a toe-to-hand like I used to when playing Gaelic Football with my cousins as a pre-teenager. And within 21 seconds of this gob-smacking error, the previously peripheral Connor McKenna found the net after a slick, four-pass move which contained no proverbial Kerry gloves being laid on any Tyrone shirt. Worse still for Kerry, Tyrone’s Kieran McGeary appeared to hop the ball twice at the start of the move but the referee missed it.

RTE’s pitchside pundit and former Kerry manager Eamon Fitzmaurice noted a little forlornly that the game was “being played on Tyrone’s terms.” Fitzmaurice sounds like the most boring bastard in broadcasting (he evens sounds dull in Irish, which is some feat). But he is among the most perceptive. And he was here. Still, Kerry drew level in stoppage-time, before Morgan landed the longest free I’ve ever seen scored in football, a 70-yarder which cleared the crossbar by another five and would only just have been a gimme in hurling. An inspirational score.

However, in the third quarter, Tyrone occasionally resembled a team just coming out of a debilitating health crisis. Kerry were two ahead by the water break, having squandered two more chances to score a remarkable 22nd league and championship goal in 2021. Although terrific Tyrone defending helped, sub Killian Spillane’s effort blocked by Peter Harte “putting his head where some wouldn’t put a shovel,” as RTE’s ‘Sunday Game’ twitter account noted, correctly. And they’d played 10 of the quarter’s 18 minutes a man short, after Niall Sludden’s video dictionary definition of a black-card offence; dragging Kerry’s Paul Murphy to the ground.

The scoring (ironically?) dried up after the water break. Tyrone had 14 men again after another black card, for Darren McCurry’s daft ‘third man tackle’ on Gavin Crowley. Kerry squandered ANOTHER goal chance; O’Shea misplacing a simple pass to Clifford, allowing the alert Morgan to clear a ball he had no right to be near. And with two minutes of normal time left and Kerry still two ahead, RTE commentator Ger Canning declared: “Tyrone need the next score, otherwise they are heading out of the Championship.” And Tyrone…got it, Cathal McShane netting the rebound from fellow sub Darragh Canavan’s saved shot.

There were nine minutes’ stoppage-time. Partly because Clifford injured his leg in the above challenge with Morgan and received lengthy treatment from an understandably worried Kerry medical team. He was patched up enough to get fouled and point the resultant free. But the stoppage-time let McCurry back into the fray after his sin-binning. And his point meant that Clifford’s score sent the game into extra-time, although brother Paudie nearly edged Kerry ahead again, punching his effort horribly wide like I used to when playing Gaelic Football…cousins…pre-teenager. Just as significantly, Clifford D was never to return.

Five minutes into extra-time, Canning exclaimed: “Its Tyrone suddenly full of life, full of energy, full of drive,” as Tyrone flew downfield, ‘suddenly’ not resembling a team just coming out of a debilitating health crisis. McGeary mishit an effort for a point, which Jack Barry mystifyingly volleyed…straight to McKenna, who avoided laughing long enough to net his second goal. And Tyrone were five ahead with 14 minutes left, in a game where no-one had previously led by more than two.

They needed all five. Kerry were three behind by half-time’s extra-time and were the lively, energetic drivers after it, running at Tyrone’s defence like, well, Tyrone. Tyrone didn’t score again. Kerry had the lead down to one with six minutes left. And penalties loomed large on the horizon, as the GAA norm of a second, five minutes each way, slab of extra-time was eschewed for the occasion. Then Tyrone remembered that defence had been their strength for years. And when Kerry sub Tommy Walsh missed a last-second shot from semi-distance, they were All-Ireland finalists again.

It’s a novel final pairing, despite Tyrone and Mayo reaching 11 finals since 2002. Mayo won a 2013 semi-final by six points, and edged a dire 2016 quarter-final by one. But it’s a popular pairing for not being Dublin/Kerry. And both will have ‘neutral’ support. Tyrone for their progression from ‘legendary’ former manager Mickey Harte’s cynically dour sides. Mayo for beating Dublin, and from those hoping to see an end to the morbid “curse” that Mayo won’t win another All-Ireland until every player who won their last title, in 1951, has died.

It is live in Britain on Sky Sports Arena, 4pm programme start time for a 5pm throw-in…or, better, in an Irish bar showing RTE’s coverage, Cavanagh/Spillane 2 not confirmed, or denied, yet.

Alas, some neutral perspectives may depend upon the truth behind Tyrone’s “Covid crisis,” whatever that is, whenever it is revealed.