The expected game of chess revealed itself and as well as might it be a fine game to play, watching it isn’t advised. We remember some years back when Channel 4 tried their might at selling us the English challenger Nigel Short against the Russian world champion Gary Kasparov. It didn’t work then and the GAA won’t be putting yesterday’s final in the shop window any time soon. This game on occasions was played at snail’s pace, each side conscientious to the point of conservative not to lose the ball. The basketball style tempo so impressively deployed by Donegal against Dublin was right up Kerry’s street when you consider so many of them have graced a court.
Did Kerry imitate? Hardly. When Donegal were beaten by Monaghan in last year’s Ulster final, it spawned the crude verb out Donegal, a variance of out Tyrone used in the Noughties. To apply it to this game is lazy analysis. Sure enough, no Kerry team has ever won an All-Ireland putting so many behind the ball but then they simply had to. It wasn’t as if this had come as any shock either. Go back to the Munster final and look at how vigorously Kerry had protected their ‘D’ with Declan O’Sullivan moving back. The lessons of Brian Hurley’s walk in Austin Stack Park three months earlier had taught them that harsh but valuable lesson.
Having seen Donegal massacre a jaunty Dublin half-back line, Eamonn Fitzmaurice wasn’t going to let the same happen to Kerry. “We were here three weeks ago when Donegal beat Dublin. We had a three-and-a-half hour drive home to discuss it. By the time we came in training on Tuesday night we were ready to go, we knew what we wanted.
“We knew the big thing with them was that we couldn’t leave ourselves open at the back because if you give them space they’re lethal going through the middle. We weren’t going to give them space, it was as simple as that. It was developing and tweaking our game-plan in training.”
If any team were reproducing it was Donegal. They were the reflection here — and what looked back at them was a poorer one of themselves. “We did a lot of work on how intensive we wanted to be to get at Kerry,” said Jim McGuinness. “We didn’t have the runners, we didn’t have the overlaps, we didn’t have the players getting ahead of the ball asking questions of them.
“Kerry set up the exact way we thought they were going to set up, they had eight or nine players on their own 45. They play a pressing game there and leave pockets in behind for their full backs to go man-to-man and you’ve got to keep the ball moving and recycling to find those pockets. Too many times we weren’t able to do that.”
The only thing that surprised Fitzmaurice somewhat was McGuinness’ late personnel change, swapping Darach O’Connor for Paddy McBrearty. But then he always sensed there were stuck in a gear after beating Dublin. “To be fair to Donegal, they can throw a curveball at you in terms of personnel,” he acknowledged. “Darach O’Connor starting, they can do something like that but they’re going to stay loyal to their game-plan and I think, as well, they probably had to show a lot of their hand to beat Dublin and there was an awful lot of learning in that Dublin-Donegal game for us.
“If you’re going to beat Dublin you’re going to have to leave everything hang out there. I think Donegal were outstanding that day, particularly in the second-half. But, you know, when they are so focused on their game plan they probably don’t have the flexibility to change it then massively in a short time. We knew there would be the odd curve ball but fundamentally we knew that it would be as expected.”