If there was one lesson Kerry learned from their tussles with the Tyrone team of the last decade it was no two games are ever the same against a great rival and in order to come out on the right side of the tie, the game must be played without fear.
The individuals involved in all three of Tyrone’s big championship wins over Kerry didn’t change a whole pile over the six seasons between 2003 and 2008, but, as a unit, Tyrone always seemed capable of morphing into something new. Every time you met Tyrone you learned the more precisely you had measured the ‘what’, the less likely you were to be able to gauge the ‘who’, the ‘when’ or the ‘where’.
Like a strange subversion of science’s Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, the more precisely Tyrone’s position was determined, the less precisely their momentum was known. Thus they always prevailed.
Even today, there are so many examples that spring to mind of Tyrone’s fearlessness during that era: the famous full-court press under the Hogan Stand in the opening minutes of the 2003 semi-final; Peter Canavan having the nerve to roll one along the carpet past the best goalkeeper in the country in 2005; and Kevin Hughes’ late score in the 2008 final that pushed Tyrone three points clear down the home stretch.
Even after Hughes had made a mess of a few earlier attempts, he still backed himself to make that final effort and his fearlessness was rewarded with another medal.
The similarities between those Tyrone teams and the Dublin group of this era are obvious and striking.
Ever since they startled the earwigs almost seven years ago, Kerry have come out worst in all the major games between the counties. Whether they like it or not, Dublin have become Kerry’s Tyrone and thus, their scalp a prize worth claiming.
The ability to transform themselves has become one of the reasons Dublin have stayed ahead of Kerry recently and, just like Tyrone of old, Dublin have given us plenty of big moments in big games that bear testament to their fearlessness and their nerve. What of Stephen Cluxton’s free kick for the ages in 2011? Or Michael Darragh McAuley’s fingertip that sent Kevin McManamon on his way to destiny in 2013? Or young Brian Fenton, playing in his first All-Ireland final last September tapping over the opening point after 20 seconds before going on to a man-of-the-match performance? So the challenge for Kerry is this: How do you anticipate once again what Stephen Cluxton might do to secure possession from his kick-outs, and at the same time allow for those one or two moments when Cluxton surprises even himself with something that doesn’t come from those days of sitting in a dark room with the laptop?
How do you deal with the variables Jim Gavin can throw into the mix tomorrow and the levels of concentration required to adjust to those changes?
And if the likes of James McCarthy or Philly McMahon continue to wander with impunity, how do you go about trying to steal possession and convert that into a score with Cian O’Sullivan prowling for turnovers of his own at the other end?
These are all questions that will have engaged Éamonn Fitzmaurice during the past two weeks and it will be interesting to see how his troops go about attacking Dublin where they have been strongest since early spring – in defence.
Much has been made of Dublin’s defensive meanness all through the league campaign and in conceding only 4-73 during the opening seven rounds and just 0-13 (0-4 from play) in their semi-final stroll against Donegal two weeks ago, they are, albeit by just six points, a tighter defensive unit than Kerry.
Whether it was a coincidence or not, three of the four goals they conceded came on days (against Cork and Roscommon) when Stephen Cluxton wasn’t on duty. In order to get a chance at goal tomorrow, Kerry are going to have to bypass as many Dublin players as possible when they are in possession around the middle or behind midfield.
The slow build-up that characterised their play in the first half of last September’s final simply won’t do. But a return to the traditional values of kicking the ball long over the covering backs won’t work all the time either.
In mixing the play up, Kerry are going to have to be inventive and patient in equal measure but there will be times when, like Miles Davis long ago, both teams will have to avoid playing what’s there in order to play what’s not there.
Philly McMahon provided that spark of audacity with his assist for Bernard Brogan’s goal just after half-time in the semi-final two weeks ago.
His direct opponent, Colm Cooper, has forged a glorious career on playing what’s not there and if he keeps rekindling the old flame, then it won’t be long before he has one of those days on his old prairie home.
As much as Kerry followers are rejoicing in the resurgence of Cooper, Donaghy, O’Mahony and Ó Sé who continue to defy the mileage on their clocks and the doubts about their futures, all four players know themselves that tomorrow’s game offers the first real gut-check of 2016 in terms of pace of movement and sustained intensity. Another reason to believe that it could be a league final to remember.
Without wishing to diminish in any way what Dublin have achieved in going unbeaten in 21 games heading into the league final, I believe, firstly, that they are not playing as well as they were this time 12 months ago and, secondly, that they haven’t learned nearly as much as they did during last year’s league campaign. Much of this is through no fault of their own.
The loss of two key players, Rory O’Carroll and Jack McCaffrey, might explain the first observation. Irrespective of who has returned to the fold, who is on the bench or who has maintained their form from last year, and regardless of what young players are emerging, you can’t replace O’Carroll and McCaffrey without losing something.
In trying to find ways of playing through congested backlines this time last year, Dublin learnt an awful lot about themselves. During this year’s league campaign, they gleaned nothing from their opening night last January against Kerry and from their other games, only Cork, Mayo and Monaghan asked any questions at all.
They may have been pilloried for their approach against Dublin in last year’s league, but at least Tyrone and Derry’s harassing defensive game forced the champions to think more, and their absence from Division 1 this year robbed Jim Gavin of what managers like to call ‘context’.
One area where Dublin have noticeably moved on to a new level is in their spatial awareness in confined areas. This, it must be assumed, has something to do with the contributions of basketball coach Mark Ingle last year and Jason Sherlock this year. Watch when a Dublin player handpasses a ball away and see how he shields the arc around him from the tackler. In most cases, it’s perfectly legal and entirely fair but, no more than Kerry and other top teams, Dublin have developed a very clever holding game when their momentum is halted.
In the immediate aftermath of their semi-final win over Roscommon, Éamonn Fitzmaurice said that his players will be “going all out” to win the league title. “It’s national silverware so it’s significant,” said the Kerry manager but he might also recall what Jim Gavin said having secured his first league title at the beginning of an amazing four-year run as manager in 2013 – “pieces of tin are difficult to win.”
Provided they play without the fear and inertia that marked their game last September, and provided they have learned that no two games against the likes of Dublin are the same, their desire and need should ensure that Kerry get their hands on the piece of tin this time.
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