Jack must now look to his spiritual home
By Paddy Heaney
RTÉ pundit Kevin McStay carries his anti-northern baggage much more lightly than some of his other colleagues on The Sunday Game.
While not as blatantly obvious as Pat Spillane, the Mayo man peddles many of the same stereotypes and clichés.
Like many southerners, McStay clings tightly to the age-old view that Ulster is the home of negative, spiteful, rough-house tactics — the type of ugly stuff you see when Mayo and Meath contest an All-Ireland final.
It needs to be stressed that McStay doesn’t have an agenda, he just can’t suppress the decades of propaganda.
For instance, on last weekend’s The Sunday Game, McStay felt compelled to express his relief that the match between Armagh and Tyrone had passed off without any ambulances or riot police being called.
Evidently, McStay was surprised both teams managed to serve up a thrilling spectacle devoid of any hint of thuggery or nastiness.
Fair enough. But did it escape McStay’s attention that the two counties met in a qualifier game last year which was also played in a spirited but sporting manner? Of course, we nordies are well-accustomed to encountering this deeply-ingrained prejudice.
Relief is voiced that no blood was spilt in the Athletic Grounds while little mention is made of the niggle and malice which was in constant supply in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
While the Armagh and Tyrone players produced a more open and flowing game of football, their style of play simply reflected the mindset of their respective managers.
Mickey Harte’s game plan was particularly fascinating, all the more so because it was in such stark contrast to the blueprint Jack O’Connor has devised for Kerry. An examination of the tactics employed by Harte and O’Connor at the weekend exposes the impulses and fears which control their decision-making processes. Pitted against an Armagh side that had one incredibly gifted forward, Harte might have been tempted to use some of his tried and tested methods on Jamie Clarke. In the past, he used a sweeper on Colm Cooper while Paddy Bradley was double-teamed. But, on Sunday, Harte went man-to-man. Rather than taking Armagh on in a war of attrition, he decided that Tyrone’s best chances of victory lay in a shoot-out.
Harte placed his trust in his players to produce the necessary scores, and they did as Tyrone kicked a massive 0-19 to win by three.
Harte has decided Tyrone can’t win a grinding match. He has no top quality man-markers. Conor Gormley and Ryan McMenamin are no longer suited to the role, while Aidan McCrory is in his first year as a regular starter. Rather than trying to force Tyrone to be something that they’re not, Harte is focusing on his squad’s strengths. He has a large spread of fast footballers who can all take a score, and he has built his team accordingly.
While most managers nowadays are obsessed with stopping the opposition and avoiding defeat, Tyrone went out to beat Armagh by scoring more than them.
There is a monumental difference in those respective mindsets.
Harte is trying to win games by getting the maximum return from his assets rather than limiting the damage caused by his liabilities.
While Jack O’Connor is in a similar situation to Harte, his response has been somewhat different.
Kerry have an embarrassment of riches in attack, but they’re not exactly watertight in defence.
But rather than trying to impose his glittering forwards on the opposition, O’Connor’s innate caution has got the better of him.
I’ve always maintained that O’Connor is an Ulster man trapped in a Kerry man’s body (note the persecution complex, paranoia and permanent sense of grievance), and he manages like one too.
O’Connor’s fears about his defence have convinced him it needs constant support from Paul Galvin, Declan O’Sullivan andDarran O’Sullivan.
The problem with dragging these stellar forwards into the Kerry defence is that it is compromising the team’s scoring power. It also creates a vast gap to the full-forward line of Kieran Donaghy and Colm Cooper.
O’Connor is in charge of one of the most gifted forward divisions in the history of the game. But in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, Donaghy was held scoreless and Cooper did well to kick 0-2 as Kerry managed the very modest tally of 0-12. Still, it must be acknowledged that Kerry were playing the All-Ireland favourites. They were without their ace free-taker Bryan Sheehan, and they missed three decent goal chances.
All that proves is that Kerry could still be contenders. They can be much better.
The pressing question is whether O’Connor can get this team to
realise its potential.
Much will depend on the extent to which O’Connor is willing to override his natural instincts and his fear of defeat (remember, he’s a nordie in disguise). But think of it this way: if the current Kerry players were managed by Mickey Harte, would they have left Páirc Uí Chaoimh with just a dozen points on the scoreboard? If Kerry are to progress, they need to be fearless, they need to be bold, they need to concentrate on attack. And for inspiration, they must look to the north — the new home of ‘positive’ football.
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