Parsing the Kerry playbook from last Sunday in MacHale Park for signs of what might happen in Fitzgerald Stadium tomorrow may be a pointless exercise, but that second half performance against Mayo revealed enough about the challenge facing Eamon Fitzmaurice and his management team this year.
Longford’s famous league victory over Kerry in Pearse Park nearly a decade ago has been resurrected this week with some sifting through the entrails to find similarities between the inauspicious start to the Jack O’Connor era and the beginning of Fitzmaurice’s reign.
Then, as now, Kerry were slightly rattled at the paucity of their second-half performance. The long trip home was taken largely in silence and players spent the following week facing up to their shortcomings.
There were plenty of shortcomings in evidence last week too and no doubt the self analysis will be just as gruelling. Apart from the obvious worry of going 42 minutes without a score, the most surprising aspect of Kerry’s play was the apparent reluctance of players to get stuck in. To put it bluntly, (and we’ll excuse the Killarney trio of Jonathan Lyne, Johnny Buckley and James O’Donoghue from this inquiry) too many players had the appearance of fellas who sat in the dressing room at half-time and decided today wasn’t going to be a day to chisel out two league points.
A brief first half cameo from Michael Conroy illuminates the central point. Mayo were two points adrift — 1-4 v 0-5 — shortly after James O’Donoghue’s goal. Playing against the wind and working the ball out of defence after dispossessing Mikey Geaney on the sideline, Mayo conspired to transfer the ball 15 times by hand before, 45 seconds later, Michael Conroy took the initiative and bombed a beautiful score from the left corner. The move was successful despite a reasonable amount of pressure being applied by Kerry players along the way.
Less than a minute and a half later, the same player kicks another beautiful point from the same corner after Michael O’Donoghue is dispossessed. This time the pressure on the ball from Kerry in the build-up is practically non-existent and Colm Boyle picks his final foot-pass with ease.
The late lamented Páidí often spoke of the difference between effective tackling by forwards and what he called ‘mar-dhea tackling’ or a forward giving all the appearances of tackling when in fact he is in what Lance Armstrong recently called CYA (cover your ass) mode.
The two Michaels at wing forward had their ‘welcome to National League’ moments last Sunday in Castlebar and they will learn from their initiation, but it was the lack of genuine fury among their colleagues at having been turned over that was surprising.
Other counties have surely realised by now that the energy teams like Donegal (and tomorrow’s opponents, Dublin) get from winning back possession is dependent on reacting with the same controlled fury when the ball is lost. Barcelona have proven it in soccer as have Kilkenny in hurling.
Kerry know full well that in today’s game success is built on a high-energy dispossession and quick counter-attack approach, but knowing it is not enough.
Although there has been minimal tinkering done with team selection, we can expect to see a different attitude from Kerry tomorrow. It would be a source of disappointment were the midfield pairing to get bullied about the place for the second game in succession. It would be even more disappointing were Kerry to concede territory on free kicks because of dissent as they did four times last weekend.
Dublin too will realise that tomorrow’s match represents a different challenge to what last Saturday night’s opener threw up. The fact that there wasn’t a single yellow card issued in Dublin’s game with Cork tells us all we need to know about the intensity there.
Much has been made of the new unit Dublin have put together in the half-back line. With Ger Brennan anchoring the centre and Johnny Cooper and Jack McCaffrey either side of him, the line has a lot going for it in terms of running and ball playing ability, but Kerry must ask themselves whether it is the sort of half-back line you’d be afraid to run at.
Darran O’Sullivan and James O’Donoghue will provide that test with the support of the ageless Tomás Ó Sé from deep, but elsewhere Patrick Curtin must put two limp performances behind him and get back to doing the simple things well. Going from trying to get through a full-back line containing resident All Star, Ger Cafferkey, to one containing the equally unflappable Rory O’ Carroll is a lot to ask of a man still trying to establish himself on a Kerry team but it’s a curve Curtin must climb in order to progress in the green and gold.
Apart from last season when they comprehensively beat tomorrow’s opponents, Kerry invariably tend to lose their opening round of the league, so perhaps last Sunday’s collapse isn’t as much of a concern as those outside the county would believe. Some commentators slightly lost the run of themselves last Sunday by making some excessively grave predictions about Kerry’s prospects in 2013. Within the county itself the year is not being written off just yet.
Were Kerry to lose tomorrow, however, it would place them in the difficult position of having to kickstart phase two of the campaign in March with a tricky away game to Kildare. Two points at home tomorrow would make the three-week training block that bit more bearable. But a Dublin win looks more likely.
Tonight’s game in Páirc Uí Rinn offers Kildare a chance to see how much they’ve closed the gap between themselves and Cork since they last met back in August. There were worrying signs last weekend, when Donegal started to run at Kildare, that they have learned nothing from the havoc caused by Aidan Walsh’s running game last August. They got their act together, though, and got over the line thanks to a lucky break and their superior conditioning for this time of year.
That head start in terms of preparation and the presence of a handful of promising new youngsters who have something to prove could be enough to overcome a Cork team who will need more than seven days to find the cutting edge that was lacking in their play last week.
The month of March could be very interesting for Munster’s big two.