Éamonn Fitzmaurice: The key factors that sent Sam back to Kerry

If David Clifford and Shane Walsh were on the X Factor TV show they would have cobbled them together as a boy band as their sensational All-Ireland final displays were inseparable
Éamonn Fitzmaurice: The key factors that sent Sam back to Kerry

TINY MARGINS: Stephen O'Brien of Kerry blocks a shot at goal by Johnny Heaney of Galway. Pic: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

Almost a week on from All-Ireland Sunday it is as good a time as any to cast an eye back at a fantastic final. The contest was designed by Jack O’Connor, decorated by Shane Walsh and decided by David Clifford. While the result means Kerry folk are bound to regard it as such, the quality of the football witnessed last Sunday has been widely acknowledged and appreciated this week. Compliments to the respective players and managements for going at it in the right way.

Read on for some of the key factors that sent Sam to the south west for the 38th time.

The Jack factor 

When Jack O’Connor took the Kerry job last autumn, he knew that there was no need to reinvent the wheel. The change in management did provide the electroshock to the group that they like to talk about in French sport. The squad was in place, and it was nip/tuck and a shot of botox that was required rather than open heart surgery. 

During his first stint, early in 2004 we were on a training camp in Club La Santa in Lanzarote. Jack did a video session on the Tyrone defeat from 2003 that made for uncomfortable viewing. Jack’s main aim that time was to equip us with the tools to deal with the swarm tackling, primarily by supporting the man in possession. 

Pat Flanagan’s new physical regime was refreshing and finally some vital personnel changes such as the promotion of Paul Galvin and Aidan O’Mahony to starting berths completed the picture. Nothing too complicated. This time around Jack identified a leaky defence and a suspect ability to deal with the pressure when it was at its greatest as the key factors that were hobbling Kerry. 

I attended their first McGrath Cup game, against Limerick, on a cold night in Tralee last January. It was evident from the off that they were well structured at the back. The appointment of Paddy Tally as his coach was obviously significant here. The weak side defence was constantly cheating in and Tadhg Morley was sitting in the middle of the ‘D’. 

They certainly weren’t going to be conceding goals through that middle channel, which had been an issue going back to my own time. Workrate was upped all over the field. Think of Stephen O Brien and Seánie O’Shea’s early block downs last Sunday or some of the vital turnovers forced as the game went on, none more important than Killian Spillane’s late tackle on John Daly. 

I have mentioned before that the great Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini said “defending is about being passionate - but not emotional”, which epitomised Kerry this year as they conceded just one goal in the entire championship.

Jack also brought Tony Griffin with him from Kildare. It is clear that the players have huge regard for the Clare man and crucially Jack had worked with him in Kildare previously. The dynamic of the relationship was established and they understood each other. Jack has a great ability of keeping it simple, which is so effective. Work hard for each other, keep it tight at the back, kick the ball up the field when possible and get the ball to the danger men ASAP, in particular into David Clifford’s hands. 

None of this is rocket science but consistently applied it made them very hard to beat. He also has an uncanny ability to enable players and to get the best out of them. Jack and the players have mentioned a lot this week how enjoyable the year was. While it can be said it’s easy to enjoy it when you are winning that enjoyability factor shouldn’t be underestimated.

The Lesser Lights 

While the main men on both sides had a big say, as always, unlikely heroes emerged also. Jack Glynn had a great game until Paudie Clifford eventually ground him down to influence the game hugely. On the Kerry side Graham O’Sullivan was simply outstanding. He shadowed Rob Finnerty and kept him scoreless even if the Salthill Knocknacara man did have an influence on the game. 

Graham also made a vital interception in the 53th minute when Johnny Heaney attempted to play Cillian McDaid in. It was on the ball though that he had his biggest effect on the game. He put both long diagonal balls in for David Clifford’s two marks in the first half and he played a lovely kicked pass into Paudie Clifford for his score in the 42nd minute. He punched the hole for Diarmuid O’Connor’s point before offloading to the Na Gaeil man to finish. Finally, he also kicked a great score himself. All in all an marvellous All-Ireland debut for the Dromid man.

Killian and the finishers 

While it is obvious analysis the impact of a bench is often game deciding. The Limerick hurlers and previously the Dublin footballers consistently had this ace in the hole. When the replacements work a manager is a genius, when they don’t he is an imbecile. Of course the changes working are totally dependent on the impact of the subs. 

Half time in an All-Ireland is very important and Jack, Diarmuid and Micheál went for broke. There is nothing unusual about this in a final. In the last five finals (other than 2019) there has been at least one substitution at or even before the interval. Managements don’t hang around on the biggest day. Killian had a game deciding impact. He has form here as he was equally effective in the 2019 drawn game. 

He did kick an initial wide but he displayed great nerve as he didn’t allow this to unsettle him. He kicked a great point with his left with two Galway players in his face. He won the free off Conor Gleeson and he punched a critical point in the 69th minute to push Kerry out to two. There was so much that was good about that score from Kerry’s perspective. 

Micheál Burns made a great run to make himself available for a kick pass from Jack Barry and then he delivered a bouncing pass inside to Killian. It was mature and effective from Micheál. Killian then took Kieran Molloy on the outside, realising that the Corofin warrior had to be tiring. Paul Murphy also made a couple of critical interventions. 

For Gavin White’s late point that pushed the gap to three points, Murphy’s handpass to Seánie O’Shea who had just performed a backdoor cut in the middle of the field was on the money accuracy wise. Seánie then slipped in Gavin to punch it over. It is vital for subs to effect the game with legs, not to force it and by doing the simple things well. 

Kerry had this in abundance last Sunday whereas Galway lacked in this department. One of the things that I am sure Pádraic Joyce and his management will reflect on is the replacement of Rob Finnerty. While he wasn’t scoring I felt he was effecting the game. When he departed in the 46th minute Galway had 13 points on the board. He had 2 assists and a further 3 score involvements.

Shane Ryan 

Shane Ryan deserves huge credit for his continued development this season. The numbers tell their own story with him conceding only one goal in championship and with a kickout retention rate of 87% throughout the championship. I feel his decision making has improved significantly also. 

He was particularly good throughout the championship at picking out mid range receivers. In many ways this is the best kickout as it guaranteed possession but it gets the team up the field quicker than a short chip out. 

In the semi final against Dublin he showed great courage late on to pick out Briain Ó Beaglaoich twice to lift the siege when Dublin were coming hard. Also last Sunday his highlight for me was the kickout to Gavin White that lead eventually to the controversial late free. Just before that Damien Comer had stolen a long kickout to set up Cillian McDaid’s equaliser, so Ryan had to be feeling the heat. 

He hit White with a scud of a kickout right on the sideline at the Hogan Stand side. TV missed it as the replay of McDaid’s point was still being shown but I noticed it live and admired the cojones and execution.

David Clifford and Shane Walsh 

Last Saturday in my A-Z piece on the eve of the All Ireland I said the following about these two “X is for X Factor. Shane Walsh and David Clifford undoubtedly have the X Factor. One of them could make tomorrow's final, his final. Sit back and enjoy watching a pair of geniuses at work.” 

And boy did they deliver. They were mesmeric and took energy from each other. It was as if each time one of them did something absurdly brilliant the other vowed to match and better it. Of the 17 points they scored between them at least five were outside a scoring zone that applies to mere mortals. 

Both of them scored magnificent scores off left and right. David has definitely improved his over the head catching this year and those two marks in the first half were critical. He has also eliminated the odd miscue from his game where he would kick one or two into the goalkeeper's hands. His two long range points - one with his left in the first half and the other with his right in the second - were incredible. His free at the end was no gimme either. 

Walsh’s variety of scores were amazing to witness. His first score on the run was exceptional, his score under the Cusack Stand on the 20 metre line was outrageous, his one from under the right in the second half was terrific but the point he kicked into the Hill where he took off and slalomed between Tom O'Sullivan and Seán O’Shea was a score for the ages and had me feeling uncomfortable. 

If the pair were on the X Factor TV show they would have cobbled them together as a boy band as their sensational All-Ireland final displays were inseparable.

Luck 

Galway had heroes all over the field last Sunday. They got so much right and came so close. Liam Silke, Jack Glynn, Kieran Molloy, John Daly, Cillian McDaid and Shane Walsh were all superb. As always happens when you lose a final a couple of key incidents go against you. I will come to the infamous free in a minute but prior to that there was a huge moment in the 53rd minute with Kerry a point up. 

Conor Gleeson went long with a kickout to Damien Comer and Galway picked up the break. The ball ended up with Matthew Tierney bearing down on the Kerry ‘D’ as they tried to scramble back into shape. They were badly exposed. He looked right rather than left, where Galway had a huge overlap. The ball came to McDaid who pulled the trigger and missed. 

Tierney had continued his run and it had now ended up with a three on one with Briain Ó Beaglaoich facing an advancing Tierney as well as having to account for Johnny Heaney and Finian Ó Laoi. If McDaid had slipped them in it was an almost certain goal.

There has been much debate about the late free given against John Daly. Technically it was a free but they normally are not given at that stage of an All-Ireland. Seán Hurson had a fine game and if he had allowed himself another split second he may not have given it. However as always there were a few other decisions that balanced the books. 

Kerry people will feel they were owed a call or two anyway going back to 2011 when Kevin McManamon cleverly bought the famous Cluxton free off Barry John Keane and for the free that wasn’t in 2016. That is of little consolation to Galway though. Incidentally they were also very unlucky not to turnover the ball previously twice in the move that lead to the free when Shane Walsh almost took the ball off Jason Foley, and Damien Comer similarly nearly dispossessed Paul Murphy. Tiny, tiny margins.

PJ 

Padraic Joyce was reportedly under pressure last winter. He was two years into his reign and while his squad were young and developing things were not working out as expected. If anything they had regressed. He recruited three critical people in Bernard Dunne, Jonathon Harris-Wright and most importantly Cian O’Neill. Suddenly they were a top level team that were hard to beat. 

They got promoted, won the Connacht championship and had a serious cut at the All-Ireland. When Joyce reviews the final and looks to build on 2022 in 2023 he will know they were close, but that they need to deepen the squad. Seán Mulkerrin will return and he may look to get the likes of Michael Daly, Peter Cooke, Ian Burke, Tom Flynn and Eamonn Brannigan back involved. 

I also expect to see some of the U20s develop further. In particular I would anticipate that we will see a lot more of Tomo Culhane in 2023, who is a real finisher and gets goals. Add those to what is already there and it is as strong a squad as in the country.

They are on an upward curve and once they park the disappointment they will realise they in an exciting place. They will be joined by Dublin, Mayo, Armagh, Derry and Tyrone in pursuit of Kerry in 2023. For now it’s back to the club championships with anticipation and for the first time in a while all is well in the Kingdom.

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