The hype last week about the seven Championship debutants meant that there was a good buzz in the crowd with the natives hoping young David Clifford and Seanie O’Shea would take their first steps to becoming Kerry greats. As it transpired it was all too easy for them and for Kerry and it is a difficult task to highlight any major tactical changes implemented by management or identify any potential weaknesses which Cork may look to exploit in three weeks’ time.
Clare, like Tipperary last week, will be bitterly disappointed with their performance. Right from the start they couldn’t get to grips with Kerry’s class in attack. To Colm Collins’ credit he resisted the temptation of dropping massive numbers behind the ball and instead tried to apply pressure further out the field. Their efforts were futile as Kerry, with width and accurate foot passing, cut through them at will. The game was as good as over at half-time as Kerry powered 12 points ahead. A chastening experience for the Clare players but they are a group good enough to regroup and go on a run in the qualifiers.
Talk in recent seasons has been that Kerry have lacked the athleticism and intensity that teams like Mayo and Dublin play with. Yesterday, however, there was a freshness and an energy to the Kerry performance that will have greatly encouraged Éamonn Fitzmaurice. The Kerry forwards, in particular, sparkled in the Killarney sunshine. The movement and one-touch football was a joy to behold. Talk of Kerry adopting defensive tactics this year certainly didn’t appear to be true yesterday as they operated with the traditional six forwards most of the time.
Pace is what I would highlight as the main feature of Kerry’s play. Pace came in many forms; the explosive running of Gavin White and Stephen O’Brien, the lightning-fast hands of Paul Murphy and Micheál Burns but most importantly the absence of hopping and soloing in possession. Kerry’s use of the foot pass meant Clare couldn’t filter numbers back quickly enough. It is lazy analysis to say Kerry traditionally tend to kick the ball more but yesterday they certainly did it to great effect.
A couple of years ago Kerry surprised everyone with the aggressive way they defended Stephen Cluxton’s kickouts. It is clear they are working on something similar again this summer. Yesterday on Clare’s kickouts Kerry pushed four men into the full-forward line with another four operating across the half-forward line splitting the six-man Clare defence. These eight Kerry players could be seen waving their hands frantically and shouting loudly in an effort to disrupt Clare keeper Eamonn Tubridy. This level of pressure and attention to detail doesn’t happen by chance and it is these small details that the top teams are looking to perfect.
Kerry also had another line of four operating across midfield with the towering David Moran and Jack Barry covering the central berths. This high press forced Clare to go long to an aerial contest, where Moran and Barry dominated. Whether this was a tactic only used in the knowledge that Clare like to go short on kick-outs or a tactic that will be implemented again in the summer remains to be seen. It is a high-risk strategy, as Dublin found out to their cost against Donegal in 2014. Had Clare managed to win a higher percentage of their long kick-outs there were goals there for the taking.
Kerry didn’t appear to have any significant kick-out strategy of their own. Similar to Cork against Tipp, debutant Shane Murphy looked to go long more often than not. This should make for a fantastic aerial duel in Páirc Uí Chaoimh and ensure that one of the great features of Gaelic football, high fielding, takes centre stage. Too often in the modern game we are robbed of great midfield battles by sides being allowed short kick-outs.
Interestingly Kerry also pressed aggressively in open play leaving Jason Foley and Peter Crowley isolated two on two in their own full-back line. Clare found a bit of joy early on with long diagonal balls but weren’t able to capitalise enough to trouble Kerry. It was only in the second half when the game became ragged that Paul Murphy began to find himself operating as a sweeper. Ideally suited to this role given his engine and football ability, it is vital that Cork ensure he is occupied and not allowed to dictate the play as he did so brilliantly yesterday.
There has been a bit of talk recently about the presence of basketball coaches in football setups and James Weldon’s influence was perhaps evident in the way Kerry defended their scoring zone. As Clare attacked, Kerry’s defensive players tucked in centrally forcing Clare to shoot under little pressure from difficult angles. This tactic ensured that a Kerry defence that had been so porous in the National League rarely looked like conceding goal opportunities.
This virtuoso Kerry display will at least mean it will be impossible for our Kerry club-mates or the numerous and influential Kerry media pundits to portray the Munster final as a 50-50 clash.
Kerry should go in as overwhelming favourites and rightfully so. The impressive performances from both teams in dispatching their semi-final opponents and the lure of a visit to the new and improved Páirc Uí Chaoimh should ensure a bumper crowd on Leeside in three weeks’ time.
A Munster title and a place in the Super 8s are up for grabs, it has the potential to be a cracker.