In what has been a roller-coaster summer for Gaelic Football purists, it is comforting to see two traditional powers face off in the All Ireland final, writes Brian Carty.
While globally, the Olympics and Euro 2008 kept the armchair-sports fan entertained throughout the summer, so too did the Gaelic football championship bring an air of enjoyment to its followers, lighting up a wet summer.
It brought with it its usual cocktail of drama, tension, and excitement, not to mention its fair share of controversy.
From Dublin’s by now annual failure to reach the grandest stage of all, after being blown away by a Tyrone storm, to Wexford’s fairytale season, which included a ten-point come-back against Meath and a famous victory against Armagh, 2008 was not without its talking points.
It remains fitting then that this century’s two most successful Gaelic football teams, Tyrone and Kerry will contest what should be a classic All-Ireland final on September 21st.
Critics would argue that in terms of the overall quality of football on show that this year’s championship has been of a low standard; for instance, Wexford’s reaching of the All Ireland final, while the Dublin side that drubbed them by a massive 23 point margin failed to progress beyond the quarter-final hurdle.
That is the glory of modern Gaelic football – with the introduction of the Qualifiers in 2001 and with increased professionalism being practiced; the game has evolved from being predictable to becoming a lottery in terms of guessing who will reach the latter stages of the championship.
The stories of Kerry and Tyrones’ championships are similar in that both teams have mixed the good with the bad in their paths to the final. Tyrone fell at the first hurdle in Ulster, beaten by a point by Down after a replay and extra-time, and looked somewhat like a team in transition in three subsequent Qualifier victories against Louth (1-18 to 1-10), Westmeath (0-14 to 1-7) and Mayo (0-13 to 1-9).
However, they saved their best performance since 2005 for their quarter-final demolition of fancied Leinster champions Dublin, with Brian Dooher inspiring a 3-14 to 1-8 victory.
Hence, they went into their semi-final against surprise-packages Wexford as favourites and justified these claims with a fairly comfortable 0-23 to 1-14 victory, despite never delivering the same high-octane performance they showed against Dublin.
Their opponents, Kerry began their defence of Sam with an infamous win over Clare, overshadowed by captain Paul Galvin’s antics and subsequent ban, only to squander an eight point lead in the Munster final to Cork only to lose heavily.
Kerry appeared vulnerable in their 1-13 to 0-13 Qualifier victory against Monaghan, before putting in a vintage display in the final fifteen minutes to dispose of a resolute Galway side in one of the summer’s classic ties.
That sense of vulnerability showed again in their semi-final clash with Cork where they again squandered an eight point lead with three minutes of normal time remaining only to earn a draw, with a late Gooch Cooper goal eventually putting yet another sterling Cork come-back to bed in the replay seven days later.
With both teams showing a Jekyll and Hyde character en-route to September 21, the final is therefore difficult to call.
Kerry’s “twin-towers” of Walsh and Donaghy act as a useful foil to the speed and trickery of Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan
In a strange way, Paul Galvin’s impetuous, un-sporting behaviour towards referee Paddy Russell in their opening match against Clare, and his ban, combined with their second half collapse against Cork in the Munster Final, and the sending off of the talismanic Darragh O’Sé in the drawn semi-final, all seemed to have galvinised Kerry, and they appear to truly have the desire required to win a third All Ireland in a row.
Having introduced youngster Tommy Walsh into the attack this season, whose strength and physical presence have proved a revelation, along with the “twin towers” of Walsh and Donaghy acting as a useful foil to the speed and trickery of Colm Cooper and Declan O’Sullivan, Kerry have always possessed a potent goal threat.
With Seamus Scanlon coming into his own in midfield, and Tomás Ó’Sé remaining as influential as ever, they appear well equipped to emulate the great Kerry teams of old.
Mickey Harte has done well to replace such luminaries as Peter Canavan and Stephen O’Neill with exciting youngsters like Colm McCullagh and Tommy McGuigan, while he has also utilised the magnitude of talent that Sean Cavanagh possesses to great effect.
With Brian Dooher having one last hurrah for the Red Hand, and with such a determined and committed squad of players, Tyrone appear to have peaked at the right time and may well have the best defence around to cope with Walsh and Donaghy.
Both teams have amassed huge scoring tallies all year, so therefore the team with the tighter defence should prevail in what is sure to be a titanic struggle. Since Tyrone virtually created the blanket defence, a tactic Kerry have traditionally struggled against, the Ulster men are tipped to prevail, despite the best efforts of Darragh O’Sé in what may well be his swansong for the Kingdom.