On the Friday before the 2003 All Ireland final, a friend and a business associate called into Peter Canavan's house. The career of the outstanding player of his generation was days from its climax and Canavan and his friend had a few plans to capitalise on his potential good fortune. One was to have posters of Canavan lifting Sam Maguire with the great man's autograph to go with it and the friend was now trying to arrange a possible window on the Monday for Canavan to give that coveted signature. Canavan said there was no need to wait until the Monday. Tyrone were going to beat Armagh and he might as well sign it there.
The friend expressed caution. Canavan's ankle wouldn't be able to stand up to 70 minutes. It possibly couldn't last seven. And wasn't he leaving himself open to being jinxed with such a brash act ahead of the fact itself? Canavan didn't even blink as he put pen to paper. "Tyrone, 2003 All Ireland champions, Peter Canavan." Mickey Harte had just been over to the house too, you see. They'd just come up with the rotating substitution strategy. Canavan wouldn't reveal to his friend there, but he did declare something else concerning Harte's genius. "As long as that man is Tyrone manager, we'll win three of the next five All Irelands."
Canavan has been slightly off in his prediction. Tyrone would win only two of the next five All Irelands on offer, Kerry snapping up the other three. But here Tyrone are, on the verge of winning a third All Ireland in five years. Last weekend on The Sunday Game Anthony Tohill forwarded the argument that if Tyrone pulled it off, they'd be the team of the decade. He's wrong on that. The team of the decade tag will only be decided if Kerry win today. A Tyrone win and that title and debate will extend into next year. What a Tyrone win would confirm though is Harte's status as the coach of the decade, a stunning achievement given how and that Kernan, O'Dwyer, O'Mahony and O'Connor graced the scene in that time. Kerry do not so much fear Tyrone as fear Harte. In the eight clashes between Kerry and Tyrone in either league or championship in Harte's time, the record stands Tyrone 5, Kerry 2, one draw. In Mickey Tyrone trust (well, for the time being) and in Harte, Kerry fear.
Kerry though are as fearsome as they are fearful. Today is their fifth All Ireland final on the trot. Not even Cody's Kilkenny have managed that. Of course, the system is skewed in their favour (just as it is in Kilkenny's). Of course there's something disconcerting with the fact they only had to beat Clare to play football into August, and while Marty McGrath was simultaneously moving mountains and fighting cancer in Ulster for such a privilege, the Gooch could saunter into Croke Park and at half-time in an All Ireland quarter-final clap hands and decide it was maybe time to play a bit of ball this year.
But to keep getting back to final after final, year after year? Tyrone, for one, have never managed to get to back-to-back finals, and to think Kerry risk being mocked tonight for reaching five? As Harte himself has pointed out, "Why blame Kerry for us not being there in '04 or '06 or '07? If other people, namely us, don't fulfil their obligation to stand in front of them, you can't diminish Kerry's achievements." In 2007 they beat a very good Dublin team at the peak of their game. In 2006 they beat a very, very good Armagh side. And in 2004 they demolished a Mayo side that had been too good only a month earlier for a Tyrone side that at the time the late great Eamonn Coleman among others was tipping to retain their All Ireland. It took a brilliant team to make a decent Mayo side look so bad in those two All Irelands. There was nothing soft about Kerry's four All Irelands this decade.
Of course, people who talk in terms of 'soft' All Irelands also talk about 'poor' and 'gloomy' football years, of which they'll number 2008 as one. You have to wonder though, are they tired of football when they should be tired yearning for a time that never existed. The GAA were never going to get away for a second year with Westmeath and Longford as a fitting curtain-raiser to the summer but too many experts-cynics got stuck in that moment.
Pity. They missed out on as satisfying an Ulster championship as the province has known. Leinster was ultimately a predictable procession for Dublin, but on the other side of the draw there were all kinds of spills and thrills, with Micko shocking his old friends in Kildare and Wexford's incredible comeback against Meath. Connacht was its least competitive in years yet produced its best final in years, while it's hard to recall a more eventful Munster championship, between Limerick's defiance against Cork, Cork's defiance against Kerry and Paul Galvin's defiance of Paddy Russell.
Of course, there were low points. The last-12 round weekend in Croke Park was often painful viewing but it didn't merit the tree-chopping and football-bashing it generated. Every era has bad weekends of football, the crap just wasn't televised. And how many of those critics slamming that August weekend pointed out how good last year's last-12 round games were? Football isn't yet as good as it can be but it's as good as it's ever been. Barry Owens' fist in the Omagh rain; Matty Forde and Jason Ryan pumping theirs in Carlow and Croke Park; Ian Ryan's hat-trick against Meath – and living to tell the tale; Banty getting jiggy with it on the line in Clones and Ballybofey; Kerry and Galway's glorious raindance; Cork's refusal to lose and to win; 2008, as Frank would say, was a very good, if not quite great, year.
The nadir was Galvin. For a while there it appeared as if the message was getting through and that Nickey Brennan was going to be the one president that had finally got a grip of that monster that is indiscipline. But then the alphabet gang overreached themselves, picking the wrong battle in Collie Moran and the wrong suspension in the case of Galvin, leaving them with no appetite to fight anymore. With the future of the DRA in disarray and the HDC proposals hanging in the balance, there's a danger Nickey's only legacy will have been to have introduced us to the existence that is Etihad Airways, with our abiding image of him handing over the association's most prized trophy to that same Mister Galvin.
Will it happen? It's a strange thing to say given Kerry didn't win a game this July while Tyrone won two, but if this game was two months ago, there wouldn't be a question as to who would win – Kerry. This isn't about who has been the year's best team though, as often as that is a predictor of All Ireland champions. It's about who is the best team in September, the best performers. There's a case that this game might have come a month or year too soon for Tyrone but to us they look like a side building up to a crescendo, an art Kerry have mastered through the years. Can Kerry hit that pitch, that peak, again? We wonder. Can they cope with that Tyrone tsunami coming at them? We wonder.
Anyone in this prediction game as long as we have will tell you that often what you predict in May holds true in September. But sometimes a team wins one game and just grows. In 2002 the Waterford hurlers squeezed past Cork to set up a Munster final clash with All Ireland champions Tipperary. Everyone fancied Tipp but Waterford fancied themselves; in those interim five weeks, Justin McCarthy would later say, his team "just took off". In 2004 Mayo instantly transformed from also-rans into contenders upon the return of Ciaran McDonald and David Brady. In 2006 Kerry took off after Longford and the Donaghy switch. Tyrone, we suspect, are in that groove. There's a freshness about them, while there's a certain fatigue to Kerry, manifested in their petulance this summer.
And, of course, they have Harte. Donaghy and Walsh will still score but they will be curbed. Kevin Hughes will play minutes that will upset Darragh Ó Sé. If any of Kerry's named full-back line take up Sean Cavanagh, he'll outmuscle them; if it's Tommy Griffin, he'll bring him out and outshake and outrun him. It'll be close, just like in '05, and we suspect, the same result as '05. Tyrone by a couple of Stephen O'Neill points.