DARA O'CINNEIDE: Hurt can only carry Kerry so far

We know Kerry are hurting. We know it’s going to take a hell of a team and a strong bench to beat them. We also know that team is Dublin, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.

‘It was the finest beating I ever took…’

[Bill the Butcher, Gangs of New York]

Our last tally of the rumours about Kerry’s team selection had about eight different players starting in midfield with the specific task of curtailing Brian Fenton. They were all flying in training, ravenous for their chance to go one-on-one with the Dublin midfielder.

Kerry football folk may have grown to accept the closed-door policy in Fitzgerald stadium, but it appears they abhor a vacuum.

Some of the rumours have been so preposterous that you’d nearly feel a little aggrieved not to have gotten a call yourself. (I’ve been practicing my kick-outs just in case.)

Kerry will tog out in the green and gold tomorrow, but apart from that we know very little about their plans.

According to Éamonn Fitzmaurice, they have “plenty of thoughts” on Dublin and “a lot of different things” they can try. Nothing too “left field”, he promised.

He’s not saying much, but neither is he saying much to dampen the expectation that Kerry will bring something very new to the challenge.

Humility and adaptability were the hallmarks of Kerry’s last All-Ireland success in 2014; hurt and unpredictability are their biggest weapons in 2016.

Whatever about the rumours, there has been a slight change in the mood of the Kerry public over the past week. Resignation has given way to defiance as pride and tradition have been summoned to make the case for the defence. It’s been interesting to observe, but a belief that ‘Kerry are Kerry’ isn’t much to be hanging a kick-out strategy or a defensive formation on.

That’s where faith in The Inscrutable One comes in.

As a player and as a manager, Éamonn Fitzmaurice has proven himself a big game hunter. In 2014 he and his management team helped deliver an All-Ireland that many felt was beyond Kerry in what was supposed to be the beginning of a fallow period. They did so by outmanoeuvring no less a bloody-minded tactician than Jim McGuiness.

Fitzmaurice, like all good managers, views defeat, however galling, as an invitation to learn, and he’s a better learner than most. Last summer, after the drawn Munster final with Cork in Fitzgerald Stadium, for example, he broke ranks with the new breed of self-contained, self-assured GAA managers by admitting to having “a bad day on the line”.

After a week spent absorbing the lessons of a lucky escape, Kerry won the rain-soaked replay with a commanding performance on the field and on the line.

Fitzmaurice had context and, as we have written here before, he thrives on context. Well, he has plenty of context to chew over as he tries to steer Kerry to a third All-Ireland final appearance in a row. At this stage, he could probably write a doctoral thesis on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs. The Kerry backroom team will have gone deep into the defeats against Dublin last September and this spring. They will have thought long and hard about how to curtail the influence of Fenton, who is rapidly becoming a midfielder for the ages. About how to disrupt Dublin’s possession game and how to avoid being stretched by their clever movement off the ball.

About how to solve a problem like Ciarán Kilkenny. And a problem like Cian O’Sullivan. And a problem like Diarmuid Connolly.

How, when and where do you deploy the genius of Colm Cooper? What’s the right balance between defence and attack for Kerry? What’s the optimum role for Kieran Donaghy? For Paul Murphy? For Marc Ó Sé?

If there are answers to these questions, they should have found them by now.

And I, like one lost in a thorny wood,

That rends the thorns and is rent with the thorns,

Seeking a way and straying from the way;

Not knowing how to find the open air,

But toiling desperately to find it out,

- [Shakespeare, Richard III]

There is a desperate hope among Kerry supporters that the All-Ireland defeat of last September and the league final hosing in April is hurting their team so much that anything is possible. That hope will be very quickly replaced by frustration, anger and recrimination the longer the losing sequence against Dublin in Croke Park continues.

Since Éamonn Fitzmaurice took over in 2013 his teams have faced Dublin under Jim Gavin five times in Croke Park and lost all five games. Fitzmaurice will, like most Kerry managers before him, bear the brunt of those defeats and he is strong enough to carry that burden.

But there surely comes a stage where his players, and more specifically the generation halfway between 19-year old Marc O’Connor and 36-year old Marc Ó Sé, need to stamp their own authority on the group.

It is too much to expect O’Connor, Brian Ó Beaglaoich, the O’Sullivans of Dingle or Tony Brosnan, the young bolter from the quarter final, to influence a game of this magnitude. It was in the semi-final three years ago that Ciarán Kilkenny, Jack McCaffrey and Paul Mannion were forced to learn the difference between a being good young player and a game changing force with a few years experience to back it up.

By committing once more to the cause after last September’s defeat, the likes of Ó Sé, Aidan O’Mahony and Kieran Donaghy will have brought all their experience to bear to the job of recovering from another All-Ireland loss. They returned knowing that an August 28th semi-final date with Dublin was always likely. They wouldn’t have come back unless they believed they could contribute something to a winning cause.

The real winning impetus this time, however, has to come from those in that 24-27 years age bracket — Mark Griffin, Peter Crowley, Stephen O’Brien, Paul Murphy, James O’Donoghue, Johnny Buckley and Paul Geaney.

Many of this group have a solitary All-Ireland medal from 2014. If they want a shot at another, they must realise that they are the players best placed to ensure Kerry get a crack at May.

I can add colours to the chameleon,

Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,

And set the murderous Machiavel to school

- [Shakespeare, Richard III]

All week in Kerry we’ve been hearing about how it’s going to take a radical departure to beat the Dubs. While we can expect some tactical changes at 3:30pm tomorrow, despite expectations, I’m not so sure that we’ll see all that much shape shifting and colour changing. The reality for Kerry is that, in order to beat Dublin, they are going to have to do something they haven’t done since the first half of that legendary 2013 semi final — that is play to their potential.

So much has changed since that 2013 game and even since last year’s final, and while we’ve all been concentrating on Dublin’s absentees we’ve barely noticed what a monster Brian Fenton has become for them.

From the moment he won the throw in to set up Diarmuid Connolly’s goal chance against Donegal to his black card in the 77th minute, Fenton’s fingerprints were all over the quarter-final.

Prior to getting a swollen jaw from a Michael Murphy tackle in the 13th minute, Fenton had handled the ball constructively 10 times. For the few minutes after that incident, Fenton’s speed of thought in defence was seen to great effect when tracking runs by Ryan McHugh and Paddy McGrath.

Much like Kerry’s Darragh Ó Sé from another era, Fenton makes those around him play better. His backs look better because he buys defenders a few seconds with his relentless work-rate, his forwards look better because he glides into position often with the intention of creating space for them as a decoy. And we know the added element he brings to Cluxton’s game.

In the past, teams never played Kerry without a specific plan for Darragh. Maybe it’s time Kerry paid Fenton his dues and came with a bespoke plan from the start for the Raheny man.

One of the many criticisms aimed at the Kerry effort in last year’s final was that things may have been too planned, too choreographed and too straitened. Since taking the most comprehensive three-point beating they ever took, Kerry have been toiling desperately behind padlocked gates in Killarney to find a way of beating the Dubs.

In overcoming Clare and Tipperary to get within one game of September 18, they have rarely, if ever, arrived with so little known about them.

What we do know is obvious enough. We know Kerry must be hurting. We know some of their greatest players are close to the end. We know they won’t want for motivation.

We know it’s going to take a hell of a team and a strong bench to beat them.

But if we are to be true to all of the evidence in front of us since last September, we also know that team is Dublin.


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