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Friday 2 December 2016

The Kingdom survive, shaken and stirred

Tyrone runners cut open a shaky Kerry defence only to be haunted by spurned goal chances

Kerry’s Jonathan Lyne battles for possession with Tyrone’s Conor Meyler
Kerry’s Jonathan Lyne battles for possession with Tyrone’s Conor Meyler
Tyrone’s Ronan McNamee and Colm Cavanagh show their dejection following their defeat to Kerry

In the end, Kerry did what Kerry had to do ... with yesterday's semi-final balanced on a precarious knife-edge, the sides level but Tyrone possessing all the momentum, the holders steadied and kicked the last four points.

Typical Kerry. Doing enough to make it back to September.

Yet that climax doesn't tell the full story of this fascinating battle. When you score 18 times to your opponents' 12, it's difficult to argue with the outcome - and we're not about to start.

Rivals

But they could, just as easily, have lost. Their Red Hand rivals created a handful of presentable goal chances and managed to take just the one; we're struggling to recall one clearcut opening at the far end.

As Éamonn Fitzmaurice turns his thoughts to Dublin or Mayo, he cannot ignore the propensity for his central defensive channel to cough up goal chances when teams run hard at them.

Several of those openings stemmed from turnovers - Jonathan Lyne and Anthony Maher were among the guilty parties - but the favourites survived partially because what transpired yesterday was Tyrone's season in microcosm: desperately difficult to breach but lacking sufficient cutting edge to kill off heavyweight opposition.

Kerry's blank here means Tyrone depart the championship having leaked just one goal in seven outings - to Donegal back in May. But they have only scored four goals in the process, and while Peter Harte's clinical penalty on the hour set up a pulsating finale, they needed at least one more green flag to crack the code.

Afterwards, Mickey Harte was inclined to blame Tyrone's late freetaking woes from distance (Niall Morgan and Darren McCurry sharing the misses) for their 0-18 to 1-14 defeat. Yet, when he takes time to dissect the DVD, he might have greater reason to lament those other goal chances that came and went.

They could have struck as early as the second minute, Marc Ó Sé executing a flying block on Connor McAliskey only for Darren McCurry to score in the follow-up - the only time that Tyrone enjoyed a two-point cushion.

Later in the first half, after 25 minutes, there was again the consolation of a McAliskey point - only this time, a glorious goal chance was spurned by the scorer's failure to spot the unmarked McCurry, waiting inside for a pass that never came.

We had more of the same in the third quarter, a period notable for the following: Kerry pushing up and putting the squeeze on Morgan's kickout (he lost three on the spin at one stage), Kerry advancing on the scoreboard (they hit six out of eight points in the first 20 minutes after half-time) ... and Tyrone missing more goal chances.

In fairness, Mark Bradley's 43rd minute piledriver forced an impressive save from Brendan Kealy, but it was still an opening. Likewise Tiernan McCann's 50th minute snap shot, pulling first time on a loose ball, that veered wide of the right post.

These accumulation of misses meant that Kerry, effectively, had the game won. And maybe they started to believe as much. James O'Donoghue, who overcame his latest shoulder woes to deliver as selfless link-man and freetaker, scored a tap-over free to push them 0-14 to 0-9 clear ... but then Tyrone went down the pitch for Colm Cavanagh to score.

Of far greater significance was Harte's 60th minute penalty, after Barry Tierney went flying under contact from Killian Young, albeit it looked a questionable call. When the lively Bradley equalised two minutes later, the ultimate green-and-gold nightmare - another defeat to their noughties nemesis - loomed large.

Hallmark

In fairness, Kerry's response carried the hallmark of champions - as distinct from Sam Maguire holders, who tend to falter in cliffhanger scenarios.

Donnchadh Walsh capped a towering second half with an excellent foot pass to the unmarked Anthony Maher, who duly pointed from the wing.

Still, even before Kerry kicked for home, we had the last of several key second half decisions that went their way: replays confirmed Pádraig McNulty was pulled by Aidan O'Mahony but Maurice Deegan was more convinced by his exaggerated response and, instead of awarding a second penalty in six minutes, booked the Tyrone sub for 'diving'.

What happened? Kerry went straight down the field for Paul Geaney to cap a soaring catch with a razor-sharp finish. Then the same sub tapped over a 13m free, awarded for a dangerous Ronan McNabb 'hit' on Colm Cooper as the Gooch fisted wide; and finally another Kerry sub, Barry John Keane, applied the injury-time coup de grace.

Second penalty apart, Tyrone had other reasons to carp about Deegan's second half performance. Specifically, under rule, Ronan McNamee's crunching 54th minute foul on Cooper looked an obvious booking rather than black; whereas Shane Enright's deliberate pull-down on the flying Harte, four minutes later, patently should have been black instead of yellow.

Still, it's hard to argue that - ultimately - Kerry were marginally deserving winners. It all means that, for the first time since 2008, the holders of Sam have made it back to September.

It also leaves Fitzmaurice just 70 minutes away from becoming the first manager since Cork's Billy Morgan, exactly a quarter-of-a-century ago, to deliver back-to-back titles, Kerry having swapped supremos between '06 and '07.

History beckons - again.

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