Since 2000, the game of Gaelic Football has changed irrevocably.
In that period, Kerry have won six All-Irelands. Whether they know it or not, they have lived the Darwinian model. On Sunday, their adaptability once again sustained them, and left them as last team standing in September.
Was there an element of luck about Sunday’s win? Being realistic, yes. Stephen O’Brien’s shot in the opening minute wasn’t meant to be half-blocked but Paul Geaney was exactly where he was told to be, one-on-one with the diminutive Paddy McGrath.
The next shot from Johnny Buckley wasn’t meant to hit the post but a clever tap down from Geaney to Donaghy allowed him to clip a point with his left foot. Donegal keeper Paul Durcan certainly didn’t mean to pass the ball to Donaghy in the 52nd minute and if he hadn’t, there was no guarantee Kerry would have won. But by that stage Kerry had done what they had done in every game this year. They had adapted and ensured they were in front after the famous third quarter. It was the prerequisite that had to be delivered against such a systematic Donegal machine. Fortune favoured the brave and Durcan mis-kicked. The winners wrote the script.
Before Sunday’s decider, Joe Brolly questioned whether Kerry would have enough time to develop a game plan to defeat Donegal. Brolly referred to the Donegal players’ slavish adherence to their system and its robotic efficiency, four years in the making. He reasoned that Kerry would have had 11 days or a maximum of four training sessions to prepare and fully concentrate on the unforeseen opposition, especially after their own marathon replay with Mayo.
He was right insofar as the final was the most awkward tactical challenge on Kerry’s journey. But Kerry don’t revamp for anyone, they adapt within the context of their own abilities. What Brolly could not have appreciated was that it is Kerry’s fundamentals that are so strong and dynamic with well-rounded footballers. Whatever adaptations are required thereafter can be absorbed far easier by non-robots. That system trumps all.
This season, the most significant adaptation Kerry actually made was after losing by ten points to Cork in the final round of the national league. At that point, the Kerry management realised they needed more protection at the back. Full-forwards were getting too good and their full-back line was getting too weak. It was hatched behind closed doors in Portugal and kept under wraps until the Munster final. Logically, we predicted something defensive coming, but the execution was excellent. Both wing-forwards were now dropping deep while Declan O’Sullivan dictated play as a sweeper. Their comfort in possession and kicking skills restricted Cork’s time on the ball, another very clever way of lowering the opposition’s attacks.
In the Cork game, they went 25 minutes without giving a pass away. That’s as good a defensive system as you can have. They won the Munster final and by doing so, they were, essentially in with an 50/50 chance of making the All-Ireland final.
Since then, Kerry have only had to tweak their model to suit the opposition or indeed the occasion. Galway provided scrutiny with some penetration without ever really threatening to beat them. In this game, Kerry went 31 minutes without giving away a pass. It was enough to get them through, but lessons were learned. They didn’t allow victory mask the issues. Peter Crowley had been loose with his fouling up to that point in the season but the risk-reward was now worth it. He was brought in to shore up the centre of their defence. The Declan O’Sullivan role was now open to analysis by opposition and like his knees, it was waning in effectiveness. The fresher legs of Stephen O’Brien, back from injury, were required for Mayo. Bryan Sheehan’s injury looked to be disastrous given his Munster final display but David Moran was ready to step into his shoes. Adapt. Move on.
Against Mayo, they were nearly overtaken twice on the home straight but in the drawn game they threw Kieran Donaghy at the problem and so had to be given credit for solving it. The replay focused completely on his renaissance as a target man, a tactic which they discovered was Mayo’s ultimate weakness. Different game, different adaptation.
On Sunday, they out-Donegaled Donegal. Unlike the cavalier approach of Dublin’s half-back line and midfield, Kerry logically pulled the reins on their own half-backs. They played the game on their terms and Donegal’s limitations were exposed. Against Dublin, Anthony Thompson, Paddy McGrath, Karl Lacey had scarpered into open country beyond an absent Dublin half-back line while Ryan McHugh ghosted in on second phase. Watching Donegal’s warm-up, an incredible amount was dedicated towards replicating such moves as each Donegal player soloed in succession, hard down the centre of the field from the halfway line. In the game itself, Peter Crowley and Killian Young were back there, holding fast, waiting for these runners while Paul Murphy was detailed on McHugh and did a bit of scarpering himself in the open channels out wide. Adapt or Die. They kept moving forward.
The adaptability of this Kerry team has been grounded not in brilliant individuals but in the fact that their fundamentals are so strong. The strength and conditioning, the ball work, the honesty of effort and the belief has been the foundation of every performance. A reflection of their manager. No ego, just hard work on top of quality. Ironically, it was the Roy Keane/Jim McGuiness conversation that coined it: “Good players, very focused training at a very high intensity level is the magic formula”.
The tactics become flexible, not pre-ordained. Post this 2014 All-Ireland win, no one’s opinion is more valid than Declan O’Sullivan’s. In the aftermath of Sunday’s victory, he identified this high quality intensity in training as the primary difference for Kerry in 2014. The icing in the cake has been the development of a modern defensive approach that marries with their fluid style of football. The cherry on the top are the tweaks in tactics as Eamonn Fitzmaurice refers to them, bespoke to the opposition team in question.
Legendary ice hockey coach Scott Bowman is famous for acknowledging early in his career that in order to win games, he had better be ready to adapt. Darwin wasn’t far wrong either. For Kerry, 11 days and four sessions was more than enough.
— Statistics courtesy of dontfoul (shining a light onto GAA stats). www. dontfoul.wordpress.com.