COLM COOPER: A Kerry nightmare in Croke Park, too many players looked stale

I’ll ask the question: How much have Kerry actually progressed in 12 months? Have they found senior-ready players? No.

I took myself off down home Saturday night. I had intended to take in both the weekend’s semi-finals in Dublin, but then again I had never experienced the demoralising low that supporters can suffer at this stage of the championship.

Until now.

Nothing I heard from Kerry’s frustrated faithful in the aftermath of Saturday’s comprehensive dismantling by Mayo could be interpreted as harsh or unfair.

Everyone inside and outside the county was operating on the basis that Kerry would be so much better second time around. That assumption, as we would learn so painfully, was seriously misjudged.

Stephen Rochford and his management team have gotten plenty of flak when things haven’t gone according to plan, but his players and the gameplan came up trumps on Saturday. Mayo were playing up to the rim in nearly every position on the field.

They out-thought Kerry in set-up, match-ups, and they won 90% of the battles over the two games. You could not have an argument from a Kerry point of view because they were so comprehensively beaten.

How many Kerry players could honestly say they won their individual battles over the two days? I mentioned last week that four Kerry players did well in the drawn game — Paul Geaney, Paul Murphy, Kieran Donaghy and Peter Crowley. I was hanging my assumptions for the replay on the basis that Kerry would at least double that second time around. But even less than four did well.

You look for 10 players to deliver 8/10 performances in these big games — how many Kerry players even delivered 7/10 on Saturday?

Geaney looked dangerous, Paul Murphy did reasonably well over the two games. So much seems to have changed since the end of the league, it demands that we ask did Kerry — and a lot more besides — read too much into winning the competition and beating Dublin.

I think so.

The progress of Mayo — and their steady improvement from defeat in Salthill to a winning semi-final replay — puts into stark perspective just how flat Kerry have looked these past two weekends. Killian Young, Johnny Buckley and Jonathan Lyne, to name but three, have very little football played.

The problems with the half forward line have persisted all season. Kerry were supposed to be the ones fresh and eager, but they looked stale and leggy on Saturday.

David Moran had one of his poorer games but he’s an easy target too because he is seen as a principal ball-winner. Watching the re-run yesterday morning, it was stunning how comprehensively beaten Kerry were everywhere on the pitch.

If you were in the corporate sector, you would be calling a board meeting and demanding a full-scale review and performance analysis.

I know how badly Éamonn Fitzmaurice will take this defeat. He’s feeling very low in the cage now, and his over-riding feeling yesterday must have been ‘where do we go from here?’ People on the outside will say ‘ye lost a semi-final playing badly by five points, and ye’ve all those minors coming through’. But that’s not how it works down here. Éamonn is around long enough to know that such is the gig as Kerry manager.

He might have explained away the James O’Donoghue decision had the new system worked, and frustrated Mayo. My take on it is this: you always play your best players, even if you have to fit them in somewhere they are not entirely comfortable.

For Kerry to win on a dry day in Croke Park, they had to score big, they had to have O’Donoghue and Geaney firing, so James had to be on the field — from the start. I accept he didn’t have his best game the week before, or even against Galway, but you have to find room for such a dangerous scoring weapon in the expectation that when he is firing, he will deliver.

Dropping him was alarming. If he was dropped on form why was Shane Enright on the field until after Andy Moran scored Mayo’s second goal shortly after half-time?

Mayo were running the table, which is alarming because in gaelic football, it is always the defence that dictates the match-ups. At the other end of the picture, Kerry weren’t even convincing in their attempt to disrupt David Clarke’s short kickouts — something Kerry had put pressure on the week before.

It was all so unconvincing and unsure by Kerry. We are told that Kerry always play streetwise football. They looked anything but that on Saturday, right from the ’keeper, Brian Kelly, out.

I’ll ask the question: how much have Kerry actually progressed in 12 months? Have they really found senior-ready players? No. We were talking about strength in depth after the league with the likes of Ronan Shanahan, Gavin Crowley, Briain Ó Beaglaoich. Seán O’Shea was coming on strong.

And yet none were involved last Saturday, I was looking at the replay programme Saturday night: if Crokes were playing those lads in the county championship in a couple of week, who are you really afraid of? Who will really take you out?

What I am most worried about from a Kerry point of view is the rate of progress by those in the squad now for five or six seasons. They are there or thereabouts but are they really improving? Who are developing as leaders? Where were they on Saturday when Mayo got their second goal. Instead of killing Mayo’s momentum and reeling them in point by point, Kerry went chasing goals.

It was Mayo who looked streetwise when the momentum started ebbing from them — they slowed it, they had ‘injuries’, how many frees did they concede in the second half, happy to take the sanction and slow Kerry down? That’s smart. I questioned how they could keep going to the well, I questioned their ability to go week-on-week, but they have torn up all the scripts written for them, and penned their own.

Now there is one more day. In the past, they have taken the scalp but not followed it. History has taught everyone to hold judgment on Mayo until September but they are going into the final with nothing to fear.

The confidence that beating Kerry will give them, the feel-good factor they will have for the next few weeks is something you can’t inject artificially into a set-up. It’s just there. I thought Mayo at 2/1 on Saturday was a fantastic price. But if someone had told me that so few Kerry players would produce when given a second chance, I wouldn’t have thought that was possible. Never in my worst nightmares.


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