Martin Carney’s contention that last month’s defeat to Cork marked “the day the music died” for a generation of Kerry footballers will be tested for the first time in Mullingar tomorrow.
Carney later qualified his remarks, explaining his quote from American Pie really meant that he didn’t believe Kerry would win this year’s All-Ireland final.
He went on to wonder aloud whether Kerry might be thinking of bringing Tommy Walsh back from Australia for the latter stages of the championship.
These comments seemed to lack the sense of certainty and finality of his earlier evocation of the Don McLean standard.
Even in writing Kerry off, Carney appeared reluctant to write Kerry off. He was like a man beginning an obituary while checking the deceased for a pulse at the same time.
This Kerry team have already done enough encores to make us wary of assuming the show is finally over.
To be fair to Carney, there was plenty in Kerry’s meek exit from the Munster championship to suggest this was a team no longer capable of hitting the high notes, and many among the Kerry cognoscente would have shared his sense of gloom.
The mood has changed slightly in recent weeks with positive notices from training and a recent challenge game against Sligo hinting at a more expressive and less hesitant approach to solving the riddles of modern Gaelic football.
There is an overly simplistic view that all Jack O’Connor needs to do to put things right is to allow the soul of Kerry football to sing again. It might be easier, and more comforting, to put the loss to Cork down to an over-reliance on lateral hand-passing or a refusal to play quick, early ball, but such a view ignores the fact that in Páirc Uí Chaoimh Kerry also failed to display the selfless work-ethic demanded by the modern game.
O’Connor himself acknowledged last week that Kerry need to play to a game plan more suited to their natural strengths and talent. This should involve more kicking from far back the field, à la Crossmaglen. It could also see half-forwards engaging their men higher up the pitch, making lateral runs instead of coming down the field towards the man in possession looking for the ‘yeah, yeah yeah’ or ‘gimme, gimme’ ball. The net effect should be that forwards are receiving the ball half-turned and ready to go, a subtle but crucial departure.
The positioning of Colm Cooper at full-forward might be of significance, or it might not. The nature of the game on the inside line today means the numbers on the jerseys are irrelevant but the delicate tweaking might see Cooper dictate who runs where and when. It should also ask more questions of full-back John Gaffey than were asked of the Cork full-back line last month.
The dangers for Kerry tomorrow are clear: a partisan home crowd, not being allowed to establish their new-found game plan of kicking the ball and not being at the pitch required to engage in a scrap. Such was the poor quality of the fare produced in Westmeath’s win over Louth, that they could fall into the trap of basing tomorrow’s plan on Westmeath’s form of two weeks ago. It’s unlikely to happen but performance and aesthetics will be telling.
Kerry supporters want to see the ball being kicked tomorrow and so too, I imagine do their sideline. In reviving the traditional arts, however, the Kerry management will know that their team can’t afford to ignore modern values.
Beginning tomorrow, the qualifier route might just give some Kerry players the time to learn how to play like themselves again.
The music can and will go on for a while longer.
On the other side of Lough Ree in Hyde Park, Mayo will be attempting to put Connacht titles back to back for the first time since the 1996/97 teams that promised so much for James Horan as a player.
Now as manager he’s had to deal with more than his fair share of headaches ahead of a Connacht final that has become more awkward than it should be. Horan could have done without the timing of Conor Mortimer’s defection, coming as it did on the heels of Robert Hennelly’s decision to opt out for work reasons.
The statement that followed from the Mortimer family was even more bizarre and unhelpful to the cause of Mayo football. Nobody wants that type of attention before a big game.
Sligo are also above the radar after their second-half performance against Galway. That win was based on solid tactical judgement on Kevin Walsh’s part, on good use of the ball and on forwards knowing their limits and not shooting when the score wasn’t on into the Salthill breeze.
They may repeat the tactic of bringing out their half-forward line and crowding the middle sector tomorrow but you’d have to expect that Ger Cafferkey and Keith Higgins will cope better with the space afforded David Kelly and Adrian Marren than either Finian Hanley, Colin Forde or Keith Kelly did last month. Kevin Keane’s inexperience at this level for Mayo allows some scope for exploitation but he should be able to contain Mark Brehony.
Against the better teams, Sligo have a habit of running blindly into the tackles and losing the ball and, Alan Costello excepted, their kicking isn’t the best either when delivering ball into the inside line. The danger, therefore, is that they could revert to the safe hand-passing game when in possession around the middle and the abrasive Mayo half-back line of Lee Keegan, Donal Vaughan and Colm Boyle isn’t one that you can hand-pass your way through.
Barry Moran’s lack of mobility and Danny Geraghty’s lack of height present Sligo with some hope at midfield and the Tony Taylor, Shane McManus, Eugene Mullen axis might be asked to neglect some of the traditional midfield duties to concentrate on extra attacking or on the type of auxiliary defending Aidan Walsh does so successfully for Cork.
With a reasonably settled defence, the full-forward line will be the area of most interest for Mayo. There is still an unbalanced look about Varley, Moran and Doherty and I believe that the possibilities of having just two gunslingers, Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor isolated inside, with Dillon supplying the bullets, will become too difficult for Horan and his selectors to resist at some stage.
Provided they approach the game with same ruthless efficiency as they disposed of Leitrim, I’d take Mayo to win by four or five.
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