The climax to the second weekend of Super 8 football was needed to keep us interested. In truth, the other games disappointed in various ways.
Kerry and Donegal served up a real championship game, packed full of physicality and incident and in the end a draw was a fair result.
It’s the game of the season up to this point.
Both will benefit massively from such an intense duel and with a fortnight to recuperate the bodies they will be all the better for it with no downside.
It was important for Kerry not to lose this one. We have not won a game in Croke Park since the 2017 quarter-final and we have tended to struggle and underperform when the surface is wet. All of those little side issues have been well addressed. Group 1 is still wide open with Mayo lurking in the long grass as they continue to do enough. They will fancy the home game against Donegal in Castlebar.
The semi-final berths will be hard-earned.
I mentioned on Saturday that Kerry’s approach to Shaun Patton’s kickouts would be pivotal. I was looking forward to seeing Patton in the flesh for the first time and I wasn’t disappointed. He has a beautiful strike of the ball and like a good golfer he can control the trajectory as well as the distance (hat tip to Shane Lowry).
Losing David Moran to injury probably forced Kerry’s hand with regard to their approach. They gave Patton a lot of kickouts short and tackled like demons from there. It is a hugely demanding and attritional approach but it meant Kerry, minus their main midfielder, weren’t risking losing kickouts long and being open at the back.
At the opposite end of the field Shane Ryan did well also. However the value of going after the opposition kickouts was displayed late on as both teams went for the kill.
Donegal pressed Ryan after the penalty and won two in a row that appeared to shift the momentum to them. Kerry wobbled but rallied well which was great to see. They then forced Patton into his only bad decision of the day when he went long to an area overloaded with Kerry bodies and Paul Murphy’s point that looked like being the winner came directly from this.
While both teams conceded 1-20 there was some ferocious and committed defending on both sides. Stephen McMenamin and David Clifford had a great tussle but importantly for Kerry they defended well and in numbers again.
Tadhg Morley excelled for the third game in a row and led the way. While he is a natural centre back he is continuing to develop into a solid full back, an invaluable commodity. Two defenders, one on each side, had a big say in terms of attacking also. Ryan McHugh was a constant thorn in Kerry’s side as he repeatedly drove forward. He is extremely elusive.
He is very good at thundering into the game and then having a play or two off to recover and then returning with another significant intervention. On the Kerry side, Tom O’Sullivan had a great second half. It suited him when Jamie Brennan went out the field and brought Tom with him.
He exploded into the game and gave Kerry great go-forward momentum when they required it. Brennan was also chasing him down which blunted his attacking threat. Stephen O’Brien’s best season in a Kerry jersey continues. He is playing with his head up and his directness and pace is being rewarded with scores. He is selfless and works tirelessly up and down the field, the prototype wing forward.
The attritional nature of huge games, weekend after weekend, is evident in the way both teams had to dig deep into their squads. From a Kerry perspective players that hadn’t seen championship action yet this summer stepped up.
Killian Spillane had a great game, particularly in the second half, kicking some vital scores. It is great to see him starting to realise his potential.
Jonathan Lyne also impacted well when introduced and was available for a few crucial kickouts late on. This creates a positive atmosphere in the group as everyone realises they can get game time and have a role to play.
Scheduling wise, it would be better if there was a fortnight between games to allow a mateur players recover.
I feel we are really pushing the envelope in terms of what we expect from our players. Most of the players on display in Croke Park over the weekend are working this morning. One of the teams playing in Omagh in the last round of the Super 8s will be playing an All Ireland semi-final six days later. That turnaround is too quick for such a massive game.
A consideration perhaps when the Super 8s are being reviewed.
In Group 2, Dublin continue to impress and improve and are already into the All Ireland semi-final. I suggested here Saturday that Roscommon were going to be seriously out of their depth here and so it played out. When Conor Daly got irresponsibly sent off before half time, they might as well have been trying to keep the tide out after that.
Dublin impressed in most facets of the game but their conditioning jumped out at me. Physically they are coming to a head at the right time. The power, pace and agility of their players is second to none.
Con O’Callaghan displayed his power with the athletic leap he made for a dramatic catch and point after 10 minutes, Paul Mannion bounced up off the floor at another stage to leave three Roscommon backs — - who thought they had him ensnared — in his wake and Brian Howard glides across the pitch but has a change of gears also to break lines and punch holes.
Christy O’Connor wrote a piece last weekend for this newspaper on the crucial influencers in this decade of Gaelic Football. I felt he forgot a significant one. Bryan Cullen’s headhunting from Leinster Rugby and appointment by Dublin has been massively significant.
His work with the senior team is there for all to see and admire. Crucially he also ensures that joined-up thinking prevails with regard to the physical development of their up-and-coming players and when this is allied with top-class football coaching the conveyor belt keeps on rolling.
Dublin had a poor period midway through the second half when they got sloppy, getting turned over and kicking the ball into the goalkeeper’s hands. It looked to me as if they got bored for a spell but realising this Stephen Cluxton got visibly angry with his teammates and got them going again. As a manager it is fantastic to have an on field general like this, that identifies and solves problems, that sets the standards and leads by example.
Cluxton is as driven as ever and refuses to allow even the slightest drop-off in performance.
Cork once again played a lot of good football against Tyrone but ultimately came up short against the more streetwise team.
They have had a positive championship and are certainly in a better place than when they got relegated in March. Their young players have gained invaluable experience this year and will now appreciate the conditioning and decision-making required to survive at the highest level.
While the final game against Roscommon is a dead rubber in terms of the All Ireland championship, I doubt they will view it that way. It is their final game of the season, at home and if they win they will have won three and lost three in this year’s championship.
They will look to sign off with a win, the Under 20 team has a lot of good players coming through, and suddenly 2020 has a much nicer feel about it on Leeside.