Micí Ó Conchúir is one of the greatest players our club, An Ghaeltacht, ever produced. ‘Sticky’ Micí captained us from his corner-back spot to our first county title 12 years ago and now at the age of 43 he is part of a management team that has led our minors to their first county final.
When Micí was coming towards the end of his playing career we had a County League game over in Currow, always a tough spot to take two league points. Micí was detailed to pick up their liveliest forward, Jack ‘Flash’ Dennehy. Things didn’t look too promising when the first ball between the two was won by the youngster who turned on a sixpence and took off along the sideline in front of the home supporters.
“G’wan Jack boy! Burn him Jack! Burn him!” came the cry as the hare tore off on a solo run. Micí, however, put the head down, pumped the legs and, at the halfway point in his pursuit, through gritted teeth, uttered the immortal riposte: “He won’t f***in’ burn me at all”.
Within seconds the hare was ensnared, the ball was stripped, cleared upfield and the wily corner back had beaten his man.
The dignified defiance in Ó Conchúir’s words and actions was the example we all needed. Our captain was showing a hunger he had no right to have and everybody else rowed in behind him.
Dublin come to Croke Park, bringing with them a new vision of how Gaelic football should be played, and, if they play to form, they could proceed to burn Kerry.
Jack McCaffrey, James McCarthy, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion represent all that is good about Dublin under Jim Gavin — positive, expressive football played at a searing pace. But tomorrow for Kerry is going to be about tradition, experience, defiance and bull thickness. It’s going to be about refusing to acknowledge the obvious superiority of the Dublin team in terms of form, pace, strength in depth and sustained intensity.
That stubbornness might also extend to ignoring or defying the inevitable deficiencies in their own team brought about by age.
On the surface of it are any of Kerry’s veterans that played in the final of two years ago better players today? Are Marc or Tomás any tighter at the back? Is Paul Galvin more dynamic? Declan O’Sullivan more forceful? Darran O’Sullivan any faster? Even Colm Cooper, is he as dangerous? Everybody loses the thing that made them and nobody would blame them if they were to walk away from the challenge of their form to date and of the perception of them as a team waiting to be put out of their misery.
But these are brave men. If the flood-tide is coming in, they won’t run. They will stay and watch it happen.
In the days after Kerry’s sloppy victory over Cavan, there was an air of resignation among Kerry fans, but if you’re willing to look hard enough, a month is plenty of time to find reasons for optimism.
In recent weeks, the air of resignation has been replaced by a mood of defiance in the Kingdom. Kerry don’t go to Croke Park to keep the ball kicked out to anyone, least of all the Dubs. Those bookie’s odds? An insult to a proud history and some of the greatest players ever to play the game. Sure what would a bookie know about calling a game of football that they don’t know themselves? Despite that defiance, however, Kerry people must surely realise that a lot of the arguments for a Kerry win belong more to the realm of balladry than to any sober analysis of current form. As the waves of doubt crash over him, the Kerry supporter clings to the raft of tradition. After a month in which a battle between heart and head has engaged an entire county, for the first time in an age, Kerry folk will travel to an All-Ireland semi-final more in hope than expectation.
For once, the ‘yerra, I don’t know’ is sincere and the uncertainty is all the greater since the Kerry management closed the gates of Fitzgerald Stadium for training.
So with little else to go on, they have sustained themselves with the quiet belief that if any team can defy the cosy certainties of modern football, it’s this Kerry team.
After all, they’ve done it before. In the 2009 quarter-final, they made a mockery of the new obsession with following form-lines as the only means of determining the outcome of a game of football. Self-belief won’t be an issue on the training ground in Killarney, and you can be sure that the sense of defiance that has grown among supporters runs deeper still in the Kerry panel. They will need more than belief and a sense of grievance on Sunday, though. That famous 2009 quarter-final victory was built on a ruthless analysis of Dublin’s shortcomings rather than any desire on Kerry’s part to reassert the pre-eminence of their game in the face of the criticism that had rained down on them all summer. Crucially for their chances tomorrow, Kerry have a management team similarly capable of turning the logic of the bookies and the majority of experts on its head with some cold logical thinking of their own. Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his team will probably start with the opposition kick-out.
Bust Stephen Cluxton and the entire ecosystem from midfield back will get busted. Michael Darragh McAuley, Cian O’Sullivan and Paul Flynn are exceptional players, but what if Kerry’s concentration levels are at a season-high and those three are unable to get their hands on the ball? What if the Dublin game plan of having James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey carry the ball forward at pace never materialises because they can’t win primary possession?
The physical toll of keeping the ball out of Dublin hands could take an awful lot out of players in the middle third for Kerry and it may mean that they have to go to the bench earlier than they would like. Dublin, as advertised, have most of the conventional advantages here, too, but in Kieran Donaghy, David Moran, Eoin Brosnan, Aidan O’Mahony and Bryan Sheehan, Kerry have players of sufficient competence and presence of mind to be trusted to take stock and to do the right thing with the ball. That could be invaluable in the last ten minutes.
Much has been made of the amount of missed goal chances Dublin have had in their last two games, only converting three out of 13, or 23%. Little has been said of Cork’s six goal opportunities on the August weekend, none of which resulted in three points. Kerry are unlikely to be as profligate.
The stats from the Meath and Cork games also tell us Dublin are only converting 41% of their shots (15/37) from open play and that, in their last two games, Bernard Brogan has failed to score from any of his five attempts from play. Of course, if Dublin and Brogan, in particular, hit form and if the tide is blue and rising from an early stage, Kerry could struggle to keep their heads above water.
But I’ve got a feeling they ain’t going nowhere!