COLM COOPER: Testing a man’s pulse isn’t cynical...

The beauty of Sunday’s Kerry-Mayo All-Ireland semi-final is the fact that neither side now fears the other. Hang onto your hats.

In the way that scoring a goal at Croke Park in August or September is worth more than three points, so too is the concession of one. Or two.

Mayo have never been the best at minding their back door at this stage of the football championship. It’s frequently been their undoing, even if it has occasionally been down to plain bad luck like last September.

The irony was hardly lost on anyone watching them pepper the Roscommon goals in the quarter-final replay. That has been Mayo on the receiving end in the past. I’ve been involved in a few of those games myself. They concede goals in big games, defendable goals. And when you ship goals, it absolutely crucifies a team.

If you are going point-for-point with the opposition, hanging in there, there are moments when you have to grab onto their coat-tails and ride out the storm. Get through ten minutes. Limit the damage. Too often in those clutch moments, Mayo ship a goal. And five minutes later, they ship another goal. Then they are chasing the game, forcing them to take chances. That adds to pressure, and the special talents can navigate their way through that turmoil, but more than 80% of players – and not just Mayo players – will withdraw into their shell or perhaps force things, take chances. Only the top 20% of players, the fellas with balls, can haul a bad situation back from the brink and steady it all down. They will literally battle you back into the game.

Whichever of Kerry and Mayo has more players with that special quality will advance Sunday to the All-Ireland final. What makes the first semi-final so intriguing is two opponents who don’t over-respect each other. There’s nobody in the Kerry dressing room fearing they can’t defeat Mayo, but the same can now be said in return.

Kerry has an incredible record against Mayo in Championship, they haven’t lost to them since 1996. But I don’t feel this Mayo team fears Kerry like they fear Dublin. There’s a sense of ‘we know we can beat Kerry’. But they haven’t done it. They had Kerry on the ropes in both of those 2014 semi-finals, but that’s the story of Mayo. Putting someone away, putting things to bed, is the thing.

At the RTÉ Championship launch in May, Tomas Ó Sé said something along the lines of ‘I wouldn’t mind if Kerry gets Mayo in the All-Ireland semi-final’. Maybe there’s a mutual feeling there, Kerry believe they have Mayo’s number. But there’s no-one in that Mayo squad shaking in their boots at the thought of facing Kerry either.

Setting up properly against Kerry is something I presume Mayo will get right. They’ve had plenty of practice and it’s not like they don’t know what’s coming. Maybe that allows them the option of a left-field tactic. Mayo will definitely set up with a seventh covering player, so does it follow that Kerry do the same on the other side? I think it does. Kerry went man-for-man against Galway and there were holes there. The full-back line didn’t do well, notwithstanding that they lacked cover and shape outside them. Kerry might have been anticipating beating their opponent man for man. That didn’t work out too well for them. They’ll buy the extra bit of insurance this time.

Will Keith Higgins be more restricted in a marking job on Sunday - or will he sweep? He did his best work over the halfway line in the Roscommon replay, but is the imperative behind midfield on Sunday for the Ballyhaunis defender, who is now 32? He also did a lot more than reasonable on James O’Donoghue in 2014, so Mayo won’t sweat James. Maybe Mayo want Kevin McLoughlin to keep Paul Murphy busy. I know I would. There’s a good reason teams rely on an extra man to mind the house: they are vulnerable and they don’t trust themselves six on six. Dublin is slightly different. They invariably have the luxury of an extra defender because teams will set up with an insurance defender against them anyway. You’d want to be a hell of a brave team to play the Dubs six on six.

If you are playing six on six and one players breaks past your defender, the problems multiply straight away with the overlap. Which goes back to the Mayo problem. Crucifying goals. The longer Mayo can avoid conceding goals on Sunday, they’re going to believe they can beat Kerry.

Here’s the odd thing. Though Kerry has conceded no goal since beating Clare back in June, they’ve given up nine opportunities to Cork and Galway. Éamonn Fitzmaurice has been working on making his defence a lot meaner in the past few weeks. Kerry traditionally opt for straight match-ups defensively. So Peter Crowley will pair with Aidan O’Shea as long as the Mayo talisman doesn’t stray into full-forward. Peter’s a fine and cranky individual. I like crankiness because it shows you care and you care about standards. I’ve seen him have plenty of rows in training, bang-ups, verbals, the brutal hits. He’s a strong beast and he has that bit of venom in him that I like – and which Kerry need.

Go through any All-Ireland winning team you want. Beyond the heroes and captains are the lads with a bit of an edge to them, a bit of badness. Some fellas who play on the edge. Darragh had a bit of it, Galvin, Tom O’Sullivan. Dublin have it for sure. Maybe Kerry need that little bit more badness.

I’d like if Kerry was a bit better at nullifying an opposition threat. People will say that’s cynical – it’s not. You have to test an opponent’s pulse. Paidi Ó Se always said that – see how they’ll react. Armagh’s James Morgan did it with Daniel Flynn of Kildare in the last round of the qualifiers. I’m wagering Daniel never came across that before, and Morgan fouled a lot of the time, to be fair. But he played and stayed on the edge. Daniel came off wondering ‘what happened there?’.

That’s where you need to be to win big matches. You need to let him know that you are going to do a job on him. Like Aidan O’Mahony on Michael Murphy in 2014, nullifying one of Donegal’s key men. Tyrone are brilliant at it. I’d love to see Kerry being a little better at nullifying a player.

Kerry let teams play and love an open game. But there is a way to do both. Perhaps the selection of Killian Young is a nod to a more no-nonsense style of defending. Is there enough of it in the Kerry
defence? Shane Enright has that North Kerry streak, for instance. Crowley for sure. I’d just like to see more of it.

Ultimately, the semi-final comes down to two issues: how likely is the Mayo full-back line to hold the Kerry inside line? And can Kerry prevail with their defensive match-ups?

The primary reason Kerry put 20 points on Dublin in April winning the league was their ability to get scores from all over the pitch. If Kerry are putting all their eggs into James O’Donoghue and Paul Geaney coming up trumps, they might come unstuck. The half-forward line needs to contribute more. Donnchadh Walsh’s form hasn’t been as strong this season, he’s the same age as myself, 34. Despite that his absence Sunday through injury does limit the options off the bench. Kerry clearly need Stephen O’Brien’s potency in the half-forward line. Eamonn is trusting form - if the Kenmare man is repeating in training what he’s been doing in big games, Stephen’s well ahead of a lot of fellas. His club-mate Sean O’Shea is a real talent who is well regarded in the Kerry camp, and he is included in the 26 again on Sunday.

Kerry are looking to produce the extra 10% they tend to find at the business end of the season. Have no fear, there’s been a real sharpening of things in training since the Galway game. I wrote that it was a very careless performance, and it was. I see a reaction coming from Kerry. They’ve been put under the microscope by the management since and told in no uncertain terms that standards weren’t met.

For both squads, though they’ve had vastly different demands on them to this point, there is a huge jump up in class on Sunday. We don’t know how they’ll react. The popular narrative is that Mayo are battle-hardened, but against what? A proper punch, delivered with force and accuracy, still floors the most durable boxer.

However, playing Kerry in a semi-final will get Mayo juices flowing, just like Dublin did for us in the 2009 quarter-final. They owe Kerry more than one. When Mayo get it right, they are a very convincing unit. Their strongest pitch is still breaking from the half back line. In Lee Keegan, they have a top, top, top player. Aidan O’Shea is ready to join the three-tops club if he gets it done in the next two games. With respect, Derry, Clare, Cork, Roscommon is not the benchmark.

I’d say the same for Cillian O’Connor. When you are so close to the top, you need your elite players to shoulder you over the line. Cillian needs to be that extra special bit of the puzzle. He’s a very influential player and possesses a fantastic work rate. Maybe he fouls a bit but I’d prefer a player like that than one doesn’t put in a shift. And that’s tough because if he’s anything like me, he’ll want to conserve his energy for creating something, not chasing fellas back.

Sunday could come down to having Cillian kick two or three vital frees in the last ten minutes.

Which is why I hope Bryan Sheehan is fit and available for Kerry. He has that up his sleeve. In the first Examiner column I wrote last May, I stressed that Kerry needed everyone available and firing to go all the way to September.

You may see what I meant on Sunday.


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