3 crucial plays when Tyrone turned over Kerry and caused havoc on the counter

We assess how Tyrone used a narrow defence and fast transition game to upset the Kingdom in the All-Ireland semi-final.

HOW DID TYRONE manage to pull off a 17-point turnaround against Kerry in the space of 10 weeks? 

conor-meyler-padraig-hamspey-ronan-mcnamee-and-michael-mckernan-tackle-adrian-spillane Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Saturday was their first championship victory over Kerry, Dublin or Mayo since 2008, when they were last crowned All-Ireland champions. 

Kerry had bagged 21 goals their previous seven competitive outings, including six against the Red Hand during that June encounter in Killarney. Tyrone, on the other hand, had just four goals to their name before they rattled in three when it really counted. 

It was a victory built on defensive solidity. Tyrone’s defence improved enormously since they last faced Kerry. They got the big match-ups right, with Padraig Hampsey, Michael McKernan and Conor Meyler doing excellent jobs on Sean O’Shea, Paul Geaney and Paudie Clifford respectively.

Their hard-running, counter-attacking game ripped Peter Keane’s side open for two of their three goals.

2-7 – or 65% of their total scores – arrived from Kerry turnovers, including Tyrone’s first five scores of the game. In total Tyrone forced an incredible 35 turnovers over the entire game. 

Kerry may have possessed the greater individual talent, but Tyrone were the better team with a superior strategy. Michael O’Neill dropped back as a spare body in defence and Frank Burns acted a sweeper which cut out the option of an early delivery into the Kerry full-forward line.

Tyrone tackled furiously, forcing Kerry down blind alleys and doubling up brilliantly once the ball carrier was slowed up. 

They effectively closed off space down the middle channels when Kerry attacked, forcing them to the flanks. But Kerry lacked the sort of width that a team like Dublin would have employed against such a system. 

Still, the Kingdom were left to rue four missed goal chances and the injury to David Clifford that ruled him out for extra-time. Their failure to put away a team that played with 14 men for 20-odd minutes summed up their attacking struggles.

Tyrone tackled with discipline and constantly forced Kerry players into over carrying the ball. Kerry converted 73% of their shots and scored all 11 of their placed balls, but a tally of 0-11 from play indicates a lack of cohesion in attack.

“The boys worked hard today,” said Brian Dooher. “They talk about defensive systems, the tackling out the field, I suppose, is the first line. We had some super last-ditch defending from our full-back line, who were phenomenal out there. Probably too much last-ditch defending if you ask me, but so be it.

“We were just glad to keep a clean sheet, as it gives you a chance. If you are conceding big scores to Kerry, you will have problems and we knew that we had enough to work on. But you give the players credit there. They put in a big shift in adversity, with the last three weeks or so.”

Tyrone’s defensive structure 

From early on Tyrone’s plan was clear: pack the middle channel with bodies and force Kerry to the wings, using the sideline as an extra defender.

Rather than dropping bodies back inside their own 65m line, Tyrone defended man-on-man with each player responsible for his own marker. 

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They recognised that in the Munster final, the vast majority of Kerry scores arrived in the zone around the D.

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So Tyrone crowded out that area with bodies, forcing Kerry to shoot from uncomfortable positions. 

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Once the ball carrier was slowed down, Tyrone were quick to double and triple up on him.

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Below, Dara Moynihan receives the ball in the opening play and immediately Frank Burns offers him the sideline with his out-stretched arm. 

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Moynihan is forced out over the line and Tyrone win the sideline ball. 

In the 10th minute, Kieran McGeary’s body shape is offering Gavin White the flank as a point of attack…

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…when White cuts inside, Tyrone have a spare defender who immediately doubles up on the wing-back. 

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Kerry retain possession but their attack is far too narrow. A sloppy handpass goes to ground and is gobbled up by the Tyrone rearguard.

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A swift counter-attack leaves to a lovely Michael McKernan point. 

3 key turnovers that led to Tyrone scores 

On a number of occasions, Kerry attackers failed to track their runners on the counter-attack and it allowed Tyrone’s transition game create scoring chances. The Red Hand’s entire full-back line kicked points inside the opening 15 minutes.

Conor Meyler was allowed speed forward by Dara Moynihan and Paul Geaney on different occasions as Tyrone showed a greater willingness to make the hard runs in the middle third. 

In the 24th minute, a poor solo by David Clifford allows Brian Kennedy steal the ball away from him. Kieran McGeary, one of Tyrone’s stars on the day, starts the move as his team-mates come alive and drive forward ahead of the ball. 

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Kerry fail to recognise the danger is coming on the right side of their defence, where Tyrone create an overlap for Niall Sludden. David Moran needs to filter across into the middle here, as Jason Foley is already tracking Mattie Donnelly. 

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As the play develops, Paul Murphy is drawn towards Sludden but Moran can’t get back in time to cut out the pass into Conor McKenna. 

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It results in the former Essendon Bomber stroking in Tyrone’s first goal. A look from behind the goals shows that Kerry have plenty of bodies back, but still McKenna is criminally left unmarked 10 metres out from goal.

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It sums up their discomfort when Kerry are ran at from deep.

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Tyrone’s second key turnover arrived in the fourth minute of extra-time. Mattie Donnelly does exceptionally well to read Murphy’s pass across to Jack Barry and clatters into the Kingdom midfielder. 

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Donnelly comes up with the ball and again, Tyrone commit numbers to the fast break. 

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Cathal McShane is slipped the pass and he pops it over to edge them two in front. 

The most important score of the game arrives a minute laterwhich pushes Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan’s team five clear. 

Meyler, who had an excellent outing on Paudie Clifford, shows his man the sideline knowing the Fossa man wants to cut inside on his left foot.

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When the forward is slowed down, McKernan doubles up and the loose handpass is intercepted by McGeary.


Tyrone recognise Kerry have left themselves open at the back and swarm forward, showing remarkable fitness levels at this stage of the game.

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If Ben McDonnell slips a pass to Tiernan McCann on his right, Tyrone are in for a goal. 


Conor McKenna starts his run from inside his own 65 but is eventually rewarded for his lung-bursting scramble forward.

McGeary’s shot drops short, but McCann – who also drove forward from well inside his own half – pressurises Jack Barry into kicking it straight out to McKenna. 

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The English star rifles it past Shane Ryan and while Tyrone had a few hairy moments in the finale, it was enough to win them the game. 

It’s unfair to call it a Tyrone ambush as Kerry had a very good idea what was coming. Their defence has been questioned all season but it was their failure to track runners from deep and continually running into contact that cost Keane’s men on Saturday.

Kerry played into Tyrone’s hands and on a day where just a single point spectated the teams, it proved costly. 

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About the author:

Kevin O'Brien

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