We were all expecting to see a fast, end-to-end game of football from the current Connacht and Munster champions. Both teams were fresh and had weeks to prepare for this battle.
On yesterday’s evidence, Galway used their time the wisest and looked tactically far superior to Kerry. Kerry have only played twice this summer but for long parts of yesterday’s game, they looked like they’ve only trained twice together. I was most looking forward to seeing two of the best and most talented full-forward lines in the championship on view. The Galway full-forward line delivered because they had a plan.
The plan, like all good plans, was simple. Keep your dangerous forwards inside and close to goal. Feed them good quality ball. Win the ball, take on the opposition and engineer a score or a scoring pass or a scorable free. Galway did this for the majority of the game.
The dangerous Galway inside forwards were Damien Comer and Ian Burke and the quality passes were provided by numerous assistants. Paul Conroy kicks a 25-yard pass into Comer, an offload to Burke who wins a 21-yard free. Shane Walsh converts. Gareth Bradshaw delivers a 30-metre pass into Comer on the ‘D’, Ian Burke on the loop and a simple point. Paul Conroy punts a free into Johnny Heaney who offloads to Eamon Brannigan and back into Paul Conroy on the edge of the ‘D’. Simple point for Conroy, who unfortunately for himself and Galway, looks set to miss the rest of the championship.
The tigerish Eoin Keirns intercepts a potent-looking Kerry attack. He offloads to Paul Conroy’s replacement, Peter Cooke. Cooke to Comer to Burke. A simple yet effective Galway score. Galway could have had another six points on the board by half-time as Michael Daly, Eamon Brannigan, and Damien Comer had two scorable shots each that didn’t register on the scoreboard. Contrast this with Kerry’s full-forward line. What was their plan?
Kerry too kept two men inside, but only some of the time. Paul Geaney and David Clifford were the designated duo. It wasn’t as productive as the Tribe’s plan for two reasons. Firstly, the quality and quantity of the ball was poor and secondly when Clifford or Geaney did receive the pass they were, more often than not, left isolated. Geaney cut a dejected figure. On several occasions in the first half, I could hear him shout verbals at his comrades due to the above reasons. Hear him? Yes, I could hear him from the Davin Stand as you could hear a pin drop in the first half, such was the subdued atmosphere. He eventually gave up on their plan and wandered out to the middle third where he met his full-forward buddy, James O’Donoghue. It looked as if James was given a free role to be a playmaker but not for the first time this year the outstanding Keirns put the playmaker in his box.
Keirns is what every defence requires. A no-nonsense and uncompromising corner-back who loves marking their marquee forward. He’s now in the Jonny Cooper, Philly McMahon, Neil Magee, Cathal McCarron bracket. He plays on the edge, gets a hand in always and doesn’t fear for his own safety. Is this risky? Absolutely. Is it worth it? Absolutely. The Galway supporters love him, the opposing supporters hate him. He can play football too. He won a vital kickout under the Hogan Stand with less than 10 minutes left. Galway were leading 10-9. It’s Galway’s ‘game management’ phase of the game. He moves it quickly to Ian Burke. The Galway transition game kicks into full throttle. The ball moves swiftly through the hands of the Tribe’s three redheads, namely Cooke, Sean Andy, and ‘shooter’ Adrian Varley. He kicks a glorious point from distance and doubles his tally minutes later with another well-executed game-management move and score.
Galway looked so composed and assured. No panic or rash decision-making. Ruairi Lavelle set the tempo with his excellent kick-outs. He knew where he wanted the ball to go every time. More importantly so did the Galway players.
In contrast, Shane Murphy looked confused with his kickout strategy. The Kerry defenders bunched in the middle and sprinted to the sidelines looking for a short restart. On a wet day in Croke Park with a skiddy surface, this was always going to be risky. And so it proved as he kicked several restarts over the sideline. When he went long over the top and into space it proved more fruitful for the Kerry midfielders. His confidence was undoubtedly shaken as his free-taking duties didn’t go to plan either.
I don’t ever remember a Kerry goalkeeper coming out to take scorable frees. Something strange in the Kingdom when they don’t trust an outfield player with free-taking responsibilities. When Kerry got another long distance free late on, Murphy didn’t budge off his line. Instead, the otherwise excellent Fossa starling David Clifford miscued and hit an ‘up and under’ towards the Hogan Stand. Galway intercept and Eamon Brannigan sets the magical Shane Walsh on a trademark lung-bursting solo. Shane Walsh faces Shane Murphy but he surprised everyone and pops the ball to unmarked Galway substitute, Patrick Sweeney. Sweeney too is surprised and he takes two bites of the cherry to land the knockout blow.
Speaking of blows, the Kerry defenders were trying to land knockout blows through the second half. Brian O’Beaglaoich couldn’t handle Ian Burke. Tom O’Sullivan was introduced to quieten the Galway wizard. The umpires were busy getting updates from Russia as they failed to notice the man-handling job O’Sullivan was executing. Finally, France beating Croatia comfortably, the umpires re-engaged. Just in time to catch Killian Young land a knockout blow to Burke but ultimately handing Galway the initiative.
Galway had an extra man in the league final three months ago. They failed to see that game out. They got a second chance yesterday in Croke Park but they didn’t fail a second time.