Safe to say, this is not 2014 all over again. Kerry may indeed win the replay as they did back then. They surely will be all the better for a battle of such magnitude two days ago but they will have to bring something different if they are to do so.
Mayo, the chameleons of Gaelic football, certainly will. After Aidan O’Shea’s stilted (if not terribly disappointing) assignment at full-back, everything is on the table and O’Shea being recast as gamekeeper turned poacher at the other end of the field can’t be dismissed — especially if Mark Griffin is dropped.
By his Croke Park standards, Lee Keegan might have been quiet but then his presence coupled with a belief Mayo wouldn’t kick long into their inside forwards seemed to prompt the Kerry half-back line to abdicate their responsibilities of protecting their full-back line.
Keegan could end up anywhere but do Kerry have a player of that resourcefulness? Do they want to may be a more pertinent question. Paul Murphy can play on either 45-metre line but Kerry don’t have the luxury of pushing him into the forwards when the need for him patrolling behind midfield is greater. The paucity of Kerry’s defensive options underlines the importance of Murphy remaining in defence.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice has shown himself to be a manager unshackled by the traditional belief that Kerry must win playing the Kerry way. Subscribing to that theory would not have won Kerry an All-Ireland three years ago. The final against Donegal was one of the most forgettable in years, a most un-Kerrylike win, but then it had to be to reflect what Donegal threw at them. James O’Donoghue transfigured himself into a playmaker because Fitzmaurice knew he would have been swallowed up inside Donegal’s fortified full-back line.
Against Tyrone in the 2015 semi-final, there wasn’t a chance of Kerry being ambushed the way they were in the final 10 years previous. In the first half, Kerry looked regimental at times in keeping their shape, refusing to push up on the Tyrone kick-out in the first half. In the second, it was a full court press on Niall Morgan’s restarts and Morgan lost discipline. Kerry had lulled Tyrone into a false sense of security.
On each of those occasions, Kerry insisted the terms would not be dictated to them. That did not happen on Sunday. It will be strongly argued that they did in compelling Mayo to think left-field by ordering O’Shea to pick up Donaghy but Mayo’s strategy appeared more sophisticated.
Keith Higgins alternated between sweeping and taking the left flank where he burned Michael Geaney. Had he committed more to the former role, Donaghy may not have been so influential but then Higgins was excellent. Mayo have shown themselves to be more of a horses-for-courses team than Kerry but that is not to say they showed their opponents too much respect.
In fact, it allows them to get the jump on them. Given they had played over twice as much championship football than Kerry, Mayo were fancied to start the brighter on Sunday but then it also helped that they had stunned them in their formation. O’Shea’s role, as Fitzmaurice admitted, hadn’t been expected if not ruled out. He may also have foreseen Paddy Durcan starting. Jason Doherty or Donie Vaughan would then have made way but Doherty was terrific bridging between Mayo’s middle third and inside line, exposing the mismatch against Griffin.
A quiet proud streak runs through Fitzmaurice but he is hardly stubborn. Showing ruthlessness someone like Jim Gavin would appreciate, Fitzmaurice hauled off Geaney, Anthony Maher, and Griffin before the start of the second half. Had Donnchadh Walsh been fit to play, he likely would have been saved a substitute. The honesty and all-round game of Walsh was sorely missed.
Fitzmaurice will have made his excuses in his Tralee home yesterday to forensically comb Sunday’s game, knowing Stephen Rochford and his management team have shown themselves to be expert plotters.
How does he ensure Kerry aren’t reacting for the second weekend in a row? A sweeper shouldn’t be too far from his thoughts. Considering the prominence of Donaghy, Mayo would also have reason to reinforce their defence but then Andy Moran and Cillian O’Connor wouldn’t have been serviced as well had someone like Murphy manned the space in front of them.
In the event Higgins does commit to a more full-time sweeper role ahead of Donaghy, it might be in Kerry’s interest to mark him (Darran O’Sullivan, anyone?). That might be reactionary but then it would be an offensive move too.
Fitzmaurice can safely assume O’Shea’s role at full-back will be a short-lived one. Where he and Keegan now end up is anyone’s guess but it’s on the Kerry manager to make Mayo think twice, not just wait and see if Mayo’s next assault backfires. He isn’t a gambler even for a manager who realised quicker than most that Kerry had to adapt or die. Kerry will improve but relying on that probability alone won’t be enough.
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