Sunday, September 21, 2008

Red Right Hand

Tyrone 1-15
Kerry 0-14

What if the breath that kindled those grim fires,
Awaked, should blow them into sevenfold rage,
And plunge us in the flames; or from above
Should intermitted vengeance arm again
His red right hand to plague us?

John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book II.

The ornate and magnificent verse of John Milton seems the only fitting accompaniment to today’s wonderful All-Ireland final, the best in ten years, as Tyrone won their third title in five years and emphatically answered the question about who are the team of the decade.

It’s astonishing now, as Tyrone stand as a super-power of the game and Mickey Harte stands as one of its great tactical geniuses, to think of what went before for Tyrone. Being seven or eight points up against Kerry in 1986 and still getting beaten out the gate. Losing the 1989 semi-final against Mayo. Losing the 1995 final to Dublin on an extraordinary refereeing decision. Being boxed and belted out of it by Meath in the semi-final of 1996. Losing to Sligo in 2002. None of those looked like steps on the road to Earthly Delight.

And yet that’s exactly what they are. The 2008 All-Ireland final was another reminder that heart counts, that desire and will can do great things, and that All-Irelands are played on the pitch, not on paper.

On paper, Kerry have the best individual players in the country. There’s no question about that. There are no bums on that team, and there are several players that would do credit to any Kerry team of any era. But they were out-foxed, out-fought and out-played today by a team that would not countenance defeat, and who were under the stewardship of the greatest manager of Gaelic football since Eugene McGee.

Kerry let themselves get distracted by sideshows over Paul Galvin, over Aiden O’Mahony and over Dara Ó Sé, which isn’t something that should be happening in a county with thirty-five senior titles, and more to come. One of Kerry’s strengths always has been their ability to take the big picture into account, and this was something that they lost this summer, even though they were blessed their team of all talents. Hearing the baying of the Kerry support every time Paul Galvin was shown warming up on the TV screen showed an unusual and sad distraction in the Kerry psyche. Kerry developed a victim complex; at a time when the western economic world teeters on the brink of collapse, the Irish nation doesn’t really have time to form campaigns to victimise the Finuge One.

Not that Kerry couldn’t have won it, of course. Had Pascal O’Connell not made some super saves, like the one from the feet of Tommy Walsh in the first half, Kerry could have won pulling up. Kerry remain, like the All-Blacks in rugby, the gold standard, the blue chip of football excellence. But tonight, it’s Tyrone that hold Sam and Kerry that are drinking the bitter cup, and football justice is served.

In saying that Tyrone won soley because they were better organised and showed more heart and bite, it would be an injustice, for Tyrone have their superstars too. No system will win without men to work it and, even though Brian Dooher, the sawn-off sledgehammer, is the epitome of Tyrone in modern times, the performance of Sean Cavanagh today was heroic in a way that would do justice to the old tales of the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights, those men who would slay seven times seventy warriors and not think it to many.

Bulls in china shops are as butterflies in steelworks compared to Sean Cavanagh in Croke Park today. The extraordinary strength of the man in bursting through tackles, setting up plays, or cracking points over the bar himself was imperial in its majesty, and it was a privilege to see him play.

All-Ireland final Sunday is one of the saddest days of the year because the great pageant is finished for another year (the disgraceful sham of International Rules do not count, of course), but what a marvellous Championship it has been, crowned with a superb final. Weep not for Kerry, for they will return, as they do, but fill a flowing bumper for Tyrone, who proved once more that none are so lowly that they cannot rise if they want it badly enough. The minor replay remains the only unfinished business of the Championship – more on that in the Mayo News tomorrow.

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