To be successful against this Dublin team, nearly everything has to work for nearly the entire game.
It is all about winning.
It is all about the here and now. These might seem like obvious statements, but there is a train of thought that Kerry have a shot to nothing this weekend.
While regardless of the result, Kerry will be in a stronger position facing into 2020, there is no such thing as a shot to nothing in an All-Ireland final.
When we won in 2014 and lost the 2015 final, we expected to be back in the final every year, challenging and winning. It didn’t work out like that which is why Kerry will be approaching this Sunday like there is no tomorrow — and certainly no next year.
There are no guarantees in life or in sport and when a team gets down to the last two, it is all about cashing in.
Losing big games in Croke Park is zero fun. When the final whistle went after losing to Dublin in Croke Park it was always the same habits for me.
Move up the line past the tunnel towards Jim Gavin, shake hands, congratulate him and his team and disappear down the tunnel into the bowels of the stadium as fast as I could.
I was never one — either as a manager or a player — for hanging around and trying to show publicly how disappointed I was. We were always in the Canal End dressing-rooms so it was a sharp left for me, then right and through the door into the warm-up area, through a door in the far side and into a room where the management changed.
I would sit there with my thoughts and wait for the others to come in. The management would filter in one by one and angry or consoling words were sometimes spoken. Often, we just sat in silence and waited for the players.
When everyone was in, I would convene the players for the last time that season, thank them for their effort, and assure them Kerry would be back as Kerry always come back. The captain usually thanked us for our contribution on behalf of the players and that was that.
It is the polar opposite of what a winning dressing room is like — particularly an All-Ireland winning dressing room. The energy and atmosphere of that space is special. It is to be savoured.
Those few minutes together are unique and joyous before the mayhem begins. Oftentimes it is the final time that group will be together in its entirety which adds a poignant feel to things. The tv adds talks about that one day — it could even be narrowed down to those few moments.
Regrettably, during my tenure, we never got the better of Dublin in the championship, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort.
We did manage to turn them over once in a league final which was satisfying but obviously no substitute for the real thing. In each one of those games, we tried different approaches and with that in mind, I will look back to look forward and will detail a couple of things that worked for us in different games — but never all together.
In the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final, we targeted the Dublin backs and felt with pace, movement, and accuracy there was goals there for us. Colm Cooper had been repositioned to centre-forward to pull the strings and create.
The Dublin backs at that stage of their development were not as good in one-on-one situations as they are now.
Systematically they were still gung-ho — their Donegal Waterloo was still a year in the future so there wasn’t as much defensive structure or help.
Those precious one-on-one situations were easier to fashion. It worked perfectly in the first half for us when we got three goals and put ourselves in a good position. We didn’t see it out as mistakes crept into our game in the second half and the Dublin bench had a more significant impact than ours.
For Sunday’s game, Kerry will need to score goals to win. Dublin have been solid at the back all year and have only conceded one goal so far but if anyone can bag a few it is this Kerry forward line.
In 2016 we got a lot right. Our 12-man press on the Dublin kickout is well documented and worked well in the first half, causing panic in the Dublin rank before half time.
They don’t do panic normally, but we had them on the run. As is their wont, they corrected at the interval and went on to win. A further strategy for that game was to play with a sweeper — Aidan O’Mahony — to stop them scoring goals as we felt this was our best chance of winning.
We succeeded in keeping out the goal.
O’Mahony was also there to release our other half-backs up the pitch when we were in possession. Of course, this led to the Peter Crowley incident as he attacked from half back towards the end of the match.
At that stage in 2016, Cian O’Sullivan had his sweeper role perfected. To counteract this, we played Kieran Donaghy as a target man, but situated him much further out than normal, as an ‘11 and a half’ at the top of the ‘D’.
The idea was to occupy O’Sullivan and leave space in behind for Colm Cooper and Paul Geaney. We rehearsed night after night hitting those two with long diagonal balls, bypassing Kieran, his marker and the sweeper. We got some joy from it but not as much as we would have hoped for.
Our accuracy wasn’t where it could have been on the day.
For Sunday, the lesson Kerry can take from this is to have a surprise or two up their sleeve, preferably keeping one for the second half to rob Dublin a chance of fixing it at the interval.
The first big takeaway from the league final in 2017 that is still relevant now is to target a key Dublin player or two, win that battle and disrupt the rhythm of the team.
Hammer the hammers.
Dublin have so many hammers that it is difficult to figure out who to prioritise.
In that league final we set out to negate Brian Fenton and Ciarán Kilkenny in particular. Jack Barry handled Fenton and Tadhg Morley did a job on Kilkenny.
On Sunday, I feel Fenton is still priority number one. If Kerry can stop him influencing and winning ball suddenly the threat of Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan is irrelevant – or at least sporadic.
James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey are defending as opposed to constantly attacking and the inside backs are being tested. For similar reasons I think Brian Howard is the second player Kerry have to target, to reduce his influence. He has been immense this summer.
Kerry can’t allow him play the game on his terms. He can’t be allowed to win kickouts and get them going forward; When he is operating as a forward he needs to be nailed down, when he slips back to sweep Kerry need to get a forward on him and force him to defend rather than sit and protect.
The second important feature of that game was how we adopted a measured approach when in possession. We put very little ball up for grabs but still maintained forward momentum.
Paul Murphy played as a sweeper for us but when we were in possession he repeatedly got forward and assisted in attack.
We ran the ball more and played popped passes inside rather than being as direct as we can be.
It robbed Dublin of the turnovers they thrive on. If Kerry can minimise the turnovers Sunday, and react as a team when they do occur, they can shut down an important scoring avenue for Dublin, as we saw in the semi-final when both of Con O’Callaghan’s goals came from turnovers.
One thing I have learned about this Dublin team is that they will never hand you anything on a plate.
To win you have to earn it, you have to take it off them, and to do that you have to get nearly everything right.