Ireland Correspondent: Race for cherished title nears full bloom

By Peter Lenaghan

It is an important time for the Irish community. Its fabled, passionately followed competition, celebrating a milestone this year, is reaching its annual climax. Months of hard work and preparation have been devoted to a shot at glory. Weaker challengers have fallen by the wayside. Bookmakers are setting odds and holding vast amounts of cash as the punters have their say. County Kerry is the centre of attention. Millions of people are expected to watch the closing stages on television. The contenders will need to show a combination of presence, ambition, talent, personality, poise and, um, dress sense to take the prize.

The Rose of Tralee, so the Irish say, is no mere beauty contest, but the glamorous looks to rival any movie star are a distinct advantage for a contestant. Sadly, for those of a more sporting disposition, attractive play appears to be out of fashion with those seeking victory on Ireland’s Gaelic football fields.

Tyrone – the defending All-Ireland football title-holder and a team renowned for its defensive, aggressive, and tough-tackling style – breezed through to the semi-finals this year. The Red Hands comfortably defeated Antrim in the Ulster province final last month. Tyrone then out-muscled Kildare to reach the championship’s last four. The smooth progress came as little surprise. Under the guidance of Mickey Harte, the county won its first ever senior All-Ireland title in 2003. Further titles in 2005 and last year confirmed the greatness of a generation of Tyrone footballers. Peter Canavan, Sean Cavanagh, Conor Gormley and, most particularly, Brian Dooher have been recognised as modern stars. Harte is regarded as a master tactician and many are trying to reproduce his winning formula.

The Red Hands went into Sunday’s semi-final against Cork at Croke Park as the experts’ pick to be the first team to reach this year’s All Ireland decider. Cork battled past Kerry and Limerick to win the Munster province title last month and dispatched a disappointing Donegal by 14 points in the All-Ireland quarter-finals.

The clash with Tyrone marks the fifth year in a row that Cork has made it to the All-Ireland football semi-finals. This is remarkable because early last year the Rebel County’s players were living up their team’s moniker, fighting against the appointment of Teddy Holland as manager and opposing how the team was being picked. A player strike ended when the county board sacked Holland and appointed Conor Counihan, an All-Ireland football title winner as a player with Cork. On Saturday, Vincent Hogan wrote in the Irish Independent that Counihan “inherited a position that demanded the diplomatic skills of a hostage negotiator”, and the Irish Times reported that the manager had played an important role in helping to rebuild the team’s morale and confidence.

Within a few seconds of Sunday’s semi-final beginning, that confidence is on display. Cork’s players are hunting in packs. The Rebels move the ball forward in the sunshine, but two early attempts to kick scores sail wide. Cavanagh is a late withdrawal from Tyrone’s starting line-up because of illness and his power and pace are being missed against what looks to be a bigger and faster opponent. Tyrone secures possession for the first time, Ryan McMenamin dashes away from defence and kicks the ball over the bar for the game’s opening score.

Cork still looks the stronger team and it gains an early advantage when Daniel Goulding gathers the ball and kicks it through a crowd of Tyrone defenders for a goal. Another two points are soon on the board for the Rebels. Refereeing decisions are going against the defending champion, which is struggling to deal with Cork’s tightly packed defence.  Another point to Cork’s young full forward, Colm O’Neill, extends the lead to eight points.

The referee, John Bannon, intervenes again after 28 minutes, but his decision threatens to undo all of Cork’s good work. A Rebels’ centre-fielder, Alan O’Connor, clips Tyrone’s Owen Mulligan and gets a second yellow card. He is sent off. The television commentators say the decision is very harsh. The dismissal proves an important moment, but Tyrone is not able to take the advantage. Cork’s dour defence remains on top, stifiling and smothering any attacks, blurring the lines between fair and foul play. It is ‘winning ugly’ as Tyrone itself has mastered. Cork’s John Miskella is lucky to stay on the field when he tangles with Brian McGuigan and whacks the Tyrone player across the back of the head. After a discussion with a goal umpire, Bannon flashes a yellow card at the Rebels’ half-back.

The game’s pivotal passage of play arrives during the second half as the Red Hands try to battle their way back in to the contest. Tyrone’s captain, Brian Dooher, picks up the ball on the wing and starts running towards half forward. History informs that Dooher will use his pace and strength to send his team deep in to attack. But soon he is surrounded by Cork’s midfield and defence.  The ball is stripped away and Dooher hits the Croke Park grass. The experts, and the referee, say that the 34-year-old was not fouled, and that his legs simply gave way. The champion is substituted minutes later. Dooher and his team are conquered. The final margin is a comfortable five points.

The pundits have been quick to debate whether the defeat signals the collapse of Tyrone’s empire. The first to declare the end was the Kerry legend Pat Spillane, who gleefully asserted within a few minutes of the final whistle on RTE television that the loss meant the Red Hands could no longer lay claim to the hypothetical crown of being the best team of the decade – the only other candidate being, of course, Pat’s own Kingdom. Sean Moran wrote in the Irish Times that “it looked as if the chasing pack has finally caught up with Mickey Harte’s formidable team”. Moran reckoned Cork was faster, stronger and hungrier. A former Tyrone manager, Art McRory, was quoted as saying it is time for Dooher to retire, but the team could continue to be a force. All have highlighted how critical the loss of Sean Cavanagh was to Tyrone’s hopes.

Cork needs to defeat the victor of this Sunday’s semi-final between Kerry and Meath to win its first All-Ireland football title since 1990, and to claim convincingly that it is Tyrone’s true heir. After its demolition of Dublin in the quarter-finals, Kerry is widely expected to easily account for Meath.

The bookies, at the time of writing, have installed a Kerry native as the favourite to be named the 50th Rose of Tralee. The winner will be announced in the city in the heart of County Kerry tonight.

An omen for the footballers, perhaps? Kerry, being no ugly duckling, does appear to be blooming at the right time of year, and those green and gold shirts are quite fetching.

Comments

  1. Nice write-up Peter. One of my (few) claims to fame is that back in 2000 I had the pleasure (and pain) of playing Gaelic football against Tyrone’s Owen/Eoin Mulligan in the Queensland Gaelic Football League while he was out here on holidays for a year. I still like to think that the day the Brisbane Lions scout came, watched and did not recruit Mulligan, was in part thanks to my good tagging. (That story grows nicely with age). I think Tyrone’s time has passed and indeed it may well be Kerry’s year. If so, it will make a nice story for Swan Tagh Keneally.

  2. pauldaffey says:

    Peter,

    Tyrone corner forward Peter Canavan was a player who inspired great admiration among AFL players during the international rules series of 1999. They had no idea how to curb him. In future series, as we know all too well, they tried to belt him out of the game.

  3. Peter Lenaghan says:

    Just to update this story, the Rose of Tralee was won last night by the London-based entrant, Charmaine Kenny.

    The 26-year-old was born in County Kildare and was something of a surprise winner, although apparently the bookies had shortened her odds of winning quite a bit in the lead up to last night’s ceremony down in Tralee.

    Just don’t ask me how this will affect this year’s hurling or football championships…

  4. Peter,

    What are the criteria for the Rose of Tralee?

    Does the winner do a lap in the back of a car before the All-Ireland final?

    I was listening to the Fureys last night. It was terrible.

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