By Niall Gartland
TYRONE had the temerity to crush the mighty Kingdom’s All-Ireland ambitions on three separate occasions during the noughties, and Ronan McNabb is conscious they have been paying the price for their apparent impudence ever since.
The Red Hands take on Kerry in the spectacular vista of Killarney’s Fitzgerald Stadium this Sunday knowing their ambitions of reaching a first Division One final since 2003 hang by a thread after back-to-back defeats to Donegal and Mayo.
Other results will also come into play in determining their final league standing, but a rare win over the Kingdom in their own backyard would be a considerable confidence-booster heading into the championship.
The last time Tyrone defeated Kerry was in a crucial league clash back in 2010 when Colm Cavanagh fisted home a last-ditch goal to usurp Jack O’Connor’s side in their penultimate Division One match.
A fired-up Kerry gained revenge for the sins of 2003, 2005 and 2008 in a qualifier-clash in 2012 and have pummelled home their advantage ever since, winning two league clashes, drawing another, and overcoming Mickey Harte’s men in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final.
McNabb has been on the senior intercounty scene since 2010 and is conscious that Tyrone always seem to bring out the best in a Kerry side whoÂ still have a wafer-thin chance of being relegated should they lose.
“ Kerry always raise their game for Tyrone over the last couple of years with the history between the teams from ’03, ’05 and ’08. Definitely whenever they see Tyrone they raise their game. We’ve had two bad results so we’ll be coming down with the bit between our teeth as well. Hopefully it’ll make for a good game.”
Tyrone won’t need reminding of the last time they made the long trek to Fitzgerald Stadium. Kerry outscored Tyrone by 3-7 to 0-1 in the closing 35 minutes on their way to registering the worst result of Mickey Harte’s tenure- a 3-15 to 0-9 league defeat back in 2014.
Sunday’s match is another acid test for a Tyrone side who have come in for some flack for their recent league performances, but McNabb claims that they have still made significant improvements in the past few seasons.
“ It was very disappointing last time down in Killarney. We were going well until half-time and then the floodgates opened. I think we’ve improved a lot since then.
“ Kerry’s bleeding in a lot of young boys and there’s a lot of new faces in our team as well. It’s two different teams more or less, obviously Kerry have that history and tradition and won’t want to be beaten in Killarney on the last day of the league.”
In a recent article on RTE.ie, four-time All-Star Philip Jordan suggested that Colm Cooper is the greatest player he’s ever witnessed “ even better than his old teammate Peter Canavan. The Gooch is still mulling over whether to commit to Kerry for another year, but McNabb says it isn’t particularly important whether Kerry are at full-strength.
Instead, he says, it’s up to Tyrone to get their tactics right on the day and in doing so end their six-year hoodoo against the Kingdom.
“ At the end of the day, whoever is on the pitch, we will have own plan and tactics and it’s up to us to put in a good performance. Hopefully we’ll get a win, we’ve a chance to get to the league final and we’d really like that. Whatever happens we’ll be making the most of it and putting in a good gameplan to come out with the win.
The Dromore man sat out the early part of the league with a lingering hip injury. He made an earlier-than-expected return in Tyrone’s one-point defeat to Mayo at the weekend and hopes it will ‘stand him in good stead’ as he aims to put his injury woes behind him for good.
“ It was a couple of frustrating weeks with injury. It’s nice to get back but it’s just disappointing with the result [against Mayo].
“ The first half was played at championship pace. The second-half was much the same and I kind of struggled as I’m not used to it over the past couple of weeks. Hopefully it’ll stand me in good stead for the rest of the season. It’s good to get back and get a bit of game time and hopefully that’ll be the end of the injuries.”