Stick or twist: The conundrum facing Rochford and Fitzmaurice

What is it with Mayo and their management? They continue to display an incredible propensity for making things as difficult as they can for themselves.

Stick or twist: The conundrum facing Rochford and Fitzmaurice

Last week, all the media wanted to talk about was the resurrection of Kieran Donaghy. It was as though he had come down from the cross to save Kerry and Gaelic football with his first-half display against Galway in the quarter-final.

He was good the same day, very good in fact, as I said the following Tuesday in these pages, but it wasn’t as though Kerry were going to live or die and by lamping high ball on top of Donaghy for the remainder of the year.

I assumed the media’s infatuation with the second or third coming of Donaghy, was just that, the media looking for the most colourful angle to repackage a story about a guy who’s been doing it for the past 11 seasons. Clearly though, I was mistaken.

And I’ll be honest, when I heard David Brady float a kite on Newstalklast week about the possibility of Mayo playing Aidan O’Shea at full-back to mark Donaghy I actually laughed out loud. I thought it was a ridiculous suggestion, and not something Rochford and his selectors would give any serious consideration to.

Fair enough, if Mayo were up three or four points in the last few minutes, put him back there and put him on the big fella. But to leave Mayo’s best attacking player at full-back for virtually the entire game (until Bryan Sheehan replaced Donaghy), remains a ridiculous notion, in my opinion.

If Éamonn Fitzmaurice and the Kerry management group had their choice of 14 outfield positions they’d like to play Aidan O’Shea to try and minimise his impact on the game, they’d put him full-back all day long. As far away from the opposition goals as possible.

Despite Mayo doing all they could to hurt themselves by playing their two key men (O’Shea and Lee Keegan) out of their best positions, they will surely feel they left Sunday’s semi-final behind them.

They had the better performers all over the field and looked every inch a team on a long run of games.

Andy Moran, Cillian O’Connor, and Jason Doherty terrorised the Kerry full-back line throughout and there was a discernible panic every time the ball went anywhere near the Kerry goal. Mark Griffin got the hook at half-time after looking all at sea in the first half.

In fairness to him and the rest of that full-back line, Kerry defended man-on-man like it was 1997, and were provided with very little by way of any meaningful protection inside.

Once Mayo got through the glut of Kerry defenders between the two 65’s, it was nothing but open country ahead with two Mayo forwards being marked by two Kerry backs.

Kicking 2-13 from their finishing total of 2-14 from play is impressive shooting for anybody, but particularly given the perception that exists of Mayo’s lack of attacking ruthlessness.

Andy Moran was electric, his movement and score-taking absolutely top-class against an All-Star calibre corner-back in Shane Enright. Killian Young competed much better with Cillian O’Connor but still, the Mayo man probably won the battle and added another three from play.

While Kerry’s defensive fragility was obvious for all to see, they haven’t seemed to learn or change strategy following the goal chances coughed up most recently against Galway, but previously to Cork and Clare. Kerry were wide open and it’s an area of huge concern for next Saturday’s replay.

The optimism from the league final victory over Dublin and the emergence of young promise like Ronan Shanahan, Gavin Crowley, Kevin McCarthy, Jack Barry, and Jack Savage has been tempered somewhat by the fact none of those guys started the game Sunday.

Fair enough, the two Jacks came on and did well, but another two weren’t even on the panel. Not quite the regeneration Kerry were hoping for, particularly defensively.

Further up the field, I thought Kerry’s half-forward line never functioned at a level needed to win the game. Sure, you can credit Mayo for that, their work-rate, physicality, and tackling had a really destructive effect on Kerry’s kicking game and forced them to take the ball into the tackle, turn back and completely slow down the attack to allow Keith Higgins take up sentry duties on top of the D.

In terms of the match-ups, by Chris Barrett picking up James O’Donoghue and Keith Higgins effectively moving to wing-back to sit off Mikey Geaney, it allowed him to act as a shield for his inside defenders. Once Jack Savage was brought on, Higgins was kept a little more honest, but still played the role of protector quite efficiently.

Countless times though, David Moran or Paul Murphy or one of the other Kerry ball players were breaking out of defence with their head up looking to move the ball on to the next line with a controlled 30-40 yard kick pass. Too often they were forced to take the ball into contact because there just wasn’t an obvious target to give it to.

Kerry were really missing Donnacha Walsh’s hard running across that line to offer a consistent outlet for a kick pass from his team-mates coming out with the ball. That pass quickens up the whole attack and without it, Kerry looked decidedly pedestrian at times when transitioning from defence to attack. If his hamstring injury wasn’t a bad one, Kerry will need him to start next weekend. If he can’t go, they must find another link man in that line to help join the dots between the Kerry defence and attack.

From Mayo’s perspective, they too have scope for improvement, maybe not as much as Kerry, and probably played closer to their potential than their Munster rivals, but they’ll have identified the success Kerry had from kick-outs and target that to balance the books come next weekend. By my numbers, Kerry won 15 of the 22 first half kick-outs. That’s complete domination in any language but they were unable to translate it into scores.

They’ll surely release Aidan O’Shea from the shackles of full-back, where he was largely ineffective in trying to curb Donaghy’s influence.

Playing him further out the field would kill two birds with one stone. In the middle, his ball-winning and ball-carrying would obviously allow him to affect the kick-out numbers, impact the game more and inspire his team-mates the way he has all summer.

Perhaps they might look at the positioning of Lee Keegan and wonder did they get the most out of the footballer of the year as a half forward for most of the game, or did Paul Murphy have him defending more than attacking?

As always, replays are won by the team and management that can evaluate everything that happened, try to make sense of the chaos, and put the right adjustments in place to improve the performance for the next day out.

Kerry may have just needed that exposure to the real cutting-edge intensity of championship football to shake them out of their comfort zone. It was their first proper contest since they played Dublin in that league final back in April, only their fourth championship game against Mayo’s eighth in the same period of time. They’ve ambled their way through Clare, Cork, and Galway and while winning those games comfortably, each opponent highlighted a more than hospitable Kerry defence which Mayo were more than willing to further scrutinise.

To what degree Kerry can improve defensively, both individually and structurally for the replay will obviously have a huge bearing on the outcome.

But by playing Aidan O’Shea at full-back Sunday, I felt Stephen Rochford sent out a message to his own players and everybody watching, Mayo were setting up to try and not lose that game, and not going out trying to win it. Ultimately, that’s exactly what they did, but where do they go from here with their new full-back: Stick or twist?

Having now seen Mayo at close quarters, and performed as poorly as they did, Kerry will come up to Croke Park next weekend confident a more cohesive team performance should still be enough to see them home. But only just.

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