Kerry’s elder statesmen need to prove their worth

It was supposed to be a festival of football, a celebration of our game played out amongst the best teams the competition has to offer in one of the finest stadiums in the world.

Kerry’s elder statesmen need to prove their worth

Unfortunately, that isn’t close to what we got.

From a Kerry perspective, there was no aspect of the weekend more unsatisfactory than the abject performance served up on Sunday afternoon, that saw Galway play only marginally better, but claim a comfortable three point win — their first over the Kingdom in Championship football for 53 years.

The atmosphere was eerily similar to another Kerry no-show against Down in the 2010 quarter-final.

The drizzle, the slippery surface, the silence in stands. A stadium in slumber.

Before the game began, one of the stewards down in front of me opened one of those gates to allow somebody to go from the stand to the pitch.

As the bolt slammed off the metal gate, the sound rang out and reverberated around the place as clear as day. It was like something out of a movie, a prison door slams shut, locking you in to serve your time. As it turned out, that’s exactly the way the afternoon felt.

This time last year, we had travelled for the quarter-final between the same two sides and watched Kerry cut Galway to ribbons on their way to racking up 1-18.

In 2014, Kerry put up 1-20, and in 2008 it was 1-21 on the scoreboard against the same opposition.

You get the picture.

Those games were manna for the traditionalists. Open, attacking, edge of your seat kind of stuff that showcased the best of Gaelic football.

The problem for Galway was they kept losing those shootouts. They needed to change tack.

Whatever about the aesthetics of their approach, you simply cannot argue with the effectiveness of their new identity.

Their coach Paddy Tally has come in this year and helped Kevin Walsh shape this team into the vastly improved defensive outfit we saw restrict this new-look Kerry attack to nearly 10 points fewer than they’ve averaged against Galway in Championship meetings in the past 10 years.

Kevin Walsh watches on as Galway defeated Kerry in the first round of the ’Super 8s’
Kevin Walsh watches on as Galway defeated Kerry in the first round of the ’Super 8s’

It’s difficult to know where to start breaking this one down. Kerry came into the game well rested and had plenty of time to prepare for what Galway were going to bring to the game, but they looked like the stadium felt… completely flat.

Outside of the quality of the opposition, there was none of the same energy, effort, or enthusiasm we had seen in the facile wins over Clare and Cork. In those games, the Kerry forwards were the first line of defence: They tackled high up the pitch and harassed their opponents into turnovers or at least rushed options.

Last Sunday, Éamonn Fitzmaurice and his management elected to go with a more conservative approach to try and match what Galway were going to do. Sit back and not get hit on the counter attack and hope that the forwards were good enough to pick off enough scores to get you through.

A sweeper for a sweeper. The plan didn’t work.

Peter Crowley spent much of his day sitting in front of Damien Comer and Ian Burke just out from the Kerry goal, and certainly negated some of their attacking influence, but with both teams employing a safety blanket, it allowed the game to descend into the lifeless procession of hand-passing as neither team were willing kick the ball directly to their full-forward line as it was a turnover just waiting to happen.

It also gave Ruari Lavelle in the Galway goal an opportunity to pick out a few handy targets from his kick-out when Kerry didn’t have time to squeeze up from the back.

Galway goalkeeper Ruairi Lavelle
Galway goalkeeper Ruairi Lavelle

When they were forced to go long, Galway set up base to their goalkeeper’s long left like you’d see in Aussie Rules with players swarming around their tall ruck-men for the tap down and they won more of those battles against a relatively ineffective Kerry middle eight.

It was a simple but effective tactic to put your two midfielders standing in close proximity to each other with another two of your bigger players forming a strong pocket that brought them joy and ensured there were always bodies around the primary jumper and the ball.

Where was the Kerry kick-out strategy? Shane Murphy didn’t have a great day off the tee but Galway were able to push up and apply pressure on most of his restarts, even forcing him to put it over the sideline on too many occasions.

When Kerry were able to secure a short one, it always seemed to be an isolated player under severe duress who was gathering it.

With the game still in the balance entering the final quarter, it was the Galway substitutes who made the most telling impacts.

Peter Cooke was very good around the middle, as was Adrian Varley who finished with two points off the bench while Patrick Sweeney who was on for Damien Comer bagged a vital goal at the second attempt. The Kerry substitutes either didn’t affect the game positively, or weren’t on long enough to get the opportunity.

Obviously the sending off didn’t help Kerry and I’m sure it impacted on Kieran Donaghy being left unused on the bench with Kerry down to 14 men. But I thought the game was crying out for him.

Even before the red card, considering what he had done to Galway as recently as last season, and with the way the Kerry attack was malfunctioning all day, his introduction could have given his team-mates and those in the stands a desperately needed injection of energy and life to make a final push for home. It was perplexing not to use him given the circumstances.

Ultimately, Kerry just didn’t play. It was a fact acknowledged by Éamonn Fitzmaurice in his comments after the game and that is the hugely frustrating aspect from his and the Kingdom’s perspective.

They are clearly not as good as they looked against Clare and Cork nor are they as poor as they did on Sunday. Like we saw over the course of the Allianz League, they are somewhere in the middle.

This was an inexperienced team with five starters playing only their third game of senior Championship football and their first in Croke Park at this level.

The management team will cop plenty of flak this week for their preparation and decision making and that comes with the territory, but the more experienced players in that Kerry dressing room will know what they delivered last Sunday was nowhere near good enough and now need to dig themselves out of the hole they’ve put themselves in above in Clones.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice will come under criticism this week in the Kingdom
Eamonn Fitzmaurice will come under criticism this week in the Kingdom

If they deliver a similar type of performance against Monaghan, the game against Kildare two weeks later will be of no consequence because they will be already out of the competition.

You’d imagine there will have to be a reaction from these Kerry players. This display will have stung a team that were being talked up as potential All-Ireland champions only a few short weeks ago.

Monaghan are coming off the back of a solid performance over Kildare and will know that a victory in their own backyard will eliminate Kerry from the Championship and propel themselves into the uncharted territory of an All-Ireland semi-final. Heady stuff for the Farney army.

Can Kerry go there and get a win? Absolutely.

Will they however, is another matter entirely.

If this was 12 months ago, Kerry would be licking their wounds on some high stool facing into a long winter of what if’s. The Super 8s offers them all a shot at redemption within seven days.

Clones will provide all the raucous atmosphere that an empty Croke Park could not, and with everything on the line for Kerry, it won’t be for the fainthearted.

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