Sunday draws ever closer. Slowly. Tantalisingly. Deep down, there is that spark of excitement. Anytime the thought crosses your mind, which is often these days. How it will pan out, we cannot be certain. And yet, we know. We know, it is time to crack the Kingdom.
There is a school of thought that Kerry beat Cork and Galway in second or third gear and that they’ll be bringing their A game against us on Sunday. I’m not too sure do I buy into that notion – aside from an increase in intensity and work rate, I don’t see how they can play much better than they already have. Eamonn Fitzmaurice has done exceptionally well to mould this team into an effective unit, marrying the Kerry swagger of old with a smattering of the modern defensive game.
Yet this is not the Kerry of old. The last time they won the All-Ireland was 5 years ago, and since then they have been shorn of Darragh Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Sé, Paul Galvin, Tommy Walsh, Diarmuid Murphy, Mike McCarthy, and for this season, Colm “The Knee” Cooper. Kieran Donaghy is an also-ran, Darran O’Sullivan has had hip surgeries and is not his former self, Marc Ó Sé and Declan O’Sullivan have moved on in years. The only player of that star quality that Kerry have taken on in the meantime is James O’Donoghue.
And getting the best out of O’Donoghue (and Geaney to a lesser extent) is the foundation upon which Fitzmaurice has built his team. All of the other players are effective, with no obvious weaknesses. But for the first time in recent championship history, we are going up against the Kingdom with, pound for pound, as good if not better players in many areas of the park. There should be respect. But not too much …
Kerry’s game plan is deceptively simple, difficult to execute unless you are Kerry, but after watching closely, is actually quite predictable. It all begins with the restarts.
On their own kickout, depending on whether it is centred or to the wing, the half back that is closest to it (6) rushes to the rear of the “dirty ball area”. The other two half-backs tuck in and close up the hole. Meanwhile, Declan O’Sullivan (14) loops all the way around the back of the area. The big Johnny Buckley (11) acts as a third midfielder while the other two half-forwards O’Brien (10) and Walsh (12) hover around the fringes ready to pick up the break or make a quick break.
In the event that Kerry don’t win the ball, everyone just retreats en masse to the ’45. How long does it take nine men to run 30 yards? That’s how long you have on the ball until Kerry have twelve men back in their own half. Don’t be fooled by any talk of them always playing attacking football – Kerry play the blanket strenuously 30-45 metres out.
In the event that Kerry win the initial break from a kickout, the ball is recycled quickly to O’Sullivan as the link man. Depending on the level of pressure he is under, he either has the freedom to pick out a rampaging half-forward with a trademark 25-yard Kerry kickpass, or if he is even luckier, a sweeping diagonal ball to the inside line – or else he handpasses it off quickly to a wing-back to do the same thing. There can no hanging about – they need to kick it in as quickly as possible while their two inside danger men are isolated.
On opposition kickouts, Kerry’s full-forwards closely mark man-to-man. Meanwhile their half-forwards, while staying close enough to their men, drop back five yards towards midfield. As soon as it is kicked, they turn around and race towards the middle. This has the effect of essentially ruling the opposition’s half-backs out of the breaking ball. If Kerry win the ball, they move it into the scoring area as quickly as possible, often resulting in a long range attempt. If they lose the opposition kickout, they retreat en masse to their ’45. They will throw in some token tackles and pressing, but turnovers are rare. They prefer to force the opposition into a mistake by getting close and not giving them space rather than heavy tackling – even within their own half.
And that is Kerry’s game in a nutshell. Not exactly rocket science, but they execute it well and to a high level. And O’Donoghue is the one they rely on to push them into unassailable positions. How has he scored the guts of 18 points in two matches? Again, his game is deceptively simple – almost a “two-trick-pony” you might say! His finishing off either side is superb – but then again there are many players who are good finishers. What separates O’Donoghue is what separates Messi in soccer – acceleration and even more crucially, deceleration. To give himself space, he can get the ball, run two yards, turn and have run the opposite direction while his marker is still going the other way.
But when he is tackled, he can cough up the ball quite easily. The trick is to have a man fast enough to keep up with him (Keith Higgins), slow him down, and have a second defender there to intercept and finish the job when he goes to solo (Caff). Stop him, or restrict him, and we’ll have won half the battle. Because while Kerry’s midfield and half-forward line can chip in with a point from distance, their back line don’t and they don’t get very much support into the full-forward line. Keeping O’Donoghue quiet is the difference between conceding 13-14 points and conceding goals and 18-20 points. I can’t see them playing high ball on our full-back line – that is not O’Donoghue or Geaney’s game. But who knows, perhaps they think it would be worth a shot to put David Moran or Johnny Buckley on the edge of the square for a bit? We need to anticipate this and have a plan ready to move seamlessly into it.
So where can we get them?
- They don’t defend the area around their goal well. They will go man to man and leave the full-back isolated if we pull forwards out. There isn’t a lot of height there either. Is this why we are hearing the Freeman rumours?
- Their defence is giving away plenty of frees, and can be quite undisciplined. Even Marc Ó Sé who was a bastion of discipline is tackling a bit tiredly.
- They can be ran through, particularly when they are in retreat after an attack breaks down. This plays well into our dynamic high-press and incisive running tactics.
- We can hold our own at midfield, and we have the mobility to vary our kickout tactics. We need to split their goal kicks and cover the space to enable us to bring an extra man back on O’Donoghue.
- Several of their players tire early – Ó Sé, O’Sullivan, Sheehan (the last two haven’t been named to start but are sure to feature at some stage). We should use our mobility to capitalise on that.
- They stick with their man, no matter where they go. Hence the last day we saw the number 3 Aidan O’Mahoney follow Conroy out the pitch. We can exploit this.
But Kerry’s approach will be to target us not only where we are weak but also where we are strong. They will be looking at Lee Keegan and the O’Sheas and saying how can we keep them out of the game? They will want Donnchadh Walsh to mark Keegan out of it, and will have noted how Dublin by-passed Aidan O’Shea last year. They will have spotted our full-back line’s struggles in recent matches. We need to anticipate what they will try to do to us – let’s get the tactical upper hand for once.
- Higgins and Cafferkey on O’Donoghue. I’m aware this will leave one of their defenders (Paul Murphy) free but it’s a risk we have to take.
- Cunniffe on Geaney.
- Vaughan on Buckley – we need to match his height, and use Vaughan’s mobility over him.
- Keegan on O’Sullivan (when he eventually appears, which he no doubt will) – man mark him no matter where he goes, press him even when he doesn’t have the ball. Then use Keegan’s pace to tire him out.
- Boyle on Walsh – let’s match their most intense grafter with our one.
- Gibbons (assuming he starts) on Moran, Seamie on Maher.
- Doherty/McLoughlin rotate on O’Brien. Let’s face it, they’ll both be around the middle, so we just need to pick him up from there.
- Doherty/McLoughlin rotate on Crowley, though, no doubt, he’ll be given an assignment to curtail Aidan O’Shea.
- Aidan O’Shea on O’Mahony – can draw frees and cards and takes care of their most physical defender.
- Dillon on O’Sé – their most experienced defender.
- O’Connor on Fitzgerald.
- Freeman/Moran on Enright – this depends on how we want to exploit the isolated full-back – high ball for Freeman to catch and turn, or Moran to play out in front and pass it off to our inrushing attackers. I don’t know which way I’m leaning at the moment!
If Mayo pull this off, it will be one of the sweetest victories we will have tasted in my lifetime. Horan has some tough decisions to make. There will be risks, and it will be heart-stopping. Because it is never a straightforward task to crack the Kingdom. Up Mayo!