If what W.H. Auden once said to a young Stephen Spender is true then we could be in for a classic in Healy Park, Omagh tomorrow. Sadly we suspect Tyrone’s humiliation at the hands of Donegal last weekend and Kerry’s poor showing against Monaghan will merely give rise to a less than uplifting exercise in the art of survival.
For the second time in three seasons, Kerry head to Healy Park trying to ensure their survival in Division 1. Two seasons ago their early enthusiasm nearly got bogged down in the heavily sanded pitch. The fact that the same pitch was bordering on waterlogged for the under -21 match in midweek adds to the feeling that this one could be a proper dogfight.
The challenge is even greater for Tyrone. The only game they have won thus far, away to Mayo in Castlebar, earned them few admirers. A draw in claustrophobic conditions three weeks ago in Croke Park added to their reputation as a team in damage limitation mode, and their other draw, with Derry, is a poor indicator of where they’re at given the atrocious conditions on the night and Derry’s subsequent form.
It might be stating the obvious to say Tyrone are nowhere near as good as the team of ten years ago but where exactly do they stand six weeks out from their championship game against Donegal? Only Seán Cavanagh remains of the gilded generation but those 25 or 30 minutes stretches without getting a score from play suggests his ability to control the tempo of a game are waning. Cavanagh’s decline as a general has also shown up a distinct lack of leadership qualities among some emerging players. Cathal McCarron, Peter Harte and Mattie Donnelly are all serious footballers but it’s been a while since we’ve seen any of them take the game by the scruff of the neck as we suspect they can.
The absence of Conor Gormley, Joe McMahon, Martin Penrose and Mark Donnelly has robbed Tyrone of much of their game-winning nous. The departure of Mickey Harte’s assistant Tony Donnelly and team trainer Fergal McCann last autumn was a further blow and while they are always capable of playing with energy and passion - and neither commodity will be lacking given the venue and opposition tomorrow - they can no longer be relied upon to produce the bewilderingly smart football that did for Kerry so often in the past. Based on their collapse against Donegal last weekend, the steel and the bite associated with players such as Ryan McMenamin and Philip Jordan is being sorely missed too, and it is hard to imagine Tyrone players of the recent past would stand on ceremony while they got bullied by Michael Murphy, as happened six days ago. Expect a reaction tomorrow as Tyrone are thrown an unexpected lifeline by Kerry’s ineptitude in Austin Stack Park last Sunday.
If you stood behind the scoreboard goals, as I did in Tralee, the first thing you would have noticed is the narrowness of the lines of Kerry’s attack all day. I don’t think a single Kerry forward made a selfless run or a run where he sacrificed himself to create space for a team-mate. These decoy runs often appear like meaningless darts to the sidelines and to corners, but they can expose hidden dimensions and pockets of space from which others can score. This lack of width can occur during the league when players aren’t playing much football together during the week and when the narrow focus on merely getting on the end of moves for scores is mirrored by a lack of imagination all over the field.
Kieran Donaghy, normally the most selfless of players himself, became the first casualty of this trend against Monaghan. While Vinny Corey deserves some kudos for his attentive shackling of the Kerry captain, the fact that Corey still had enough energy in the final ten minutes to make a few telling bursts upfield is a sure sign that he wasn’t worked enough by the Kerry forwards.
Contrast that with the amount of energy Kerry’s midfield of David Moran and Anthony Maher had to expend trying to counteract the width in Monaghan’s transitions from defence to attack. With nominal forwards, Dermot Malone and Dessie Mone, playing between their own half-back and full-back lines and counter attacking at pace, Moran and Maher got stretched just as they did against Cork and there was general uncertainty regarding who exactly should pick up the runners from deep.
With so many teams playing a zonal defence nowadays, individual players can feel removed from their traditional responsibilities to themselves and to teammates.
In this set-up, the defensive system maintains itself at least partly through players self-policing, but it is too easy to opt out. Last Sunday was a typical league match in Tralee and with a strong wind blowing straight down the field, it was probably a day for the traditional values of individual graft and taking responsibility at both ends of the field. The goal that Kerry conceded was a good example of this as Peter Crowley got caught in the buffer zone between defence and attack, and ended up neither defending or attacking. Mattie Donnelly will pose as great a challenge to Crowley tomorrow as Darren Hughes did last Sunday and I for one would like to see Crowley, or a colleague, take up the challenge in the same way he did when faced with Paul Flynn in the championship two seasons ago - in a traditional man marking role.
There are a few more factors worth considering ahead of tomorrow. Rory Beggan’s performance in goals for Monaghan the last day was stunning.
Apart from the magnificent free kick he nailed in the first half, he was also brilliant in the bread and butter business of maintaining a consistent and controlled kick-out into the breeze. The legitimate nailing of debutant Thomas Hickey when clearing his lines before the end was a mere bonus for Beggan.
Niall Morgan, a ball playing goalkeeper, who isn’t afraid to attack the high ball and whose default kickout is long and accurate, is cut from the same cloth as Beggan.
Monaghan bargained on having a greater appetite for the breaking ball than Kerry and on flooding the area where the kick-out was landing.
Aiming to win the battle for scraps by dent of sheer weight of numbers is a calculated risk that Tyrone often take.
Statistics will show that Kerry won more than 50% (12 out of 23) of the breaking ball last Sunday, but it somehow didn’t feel like that as Monaghan won 10 of their own sixteen kick-outs into the breeze.
Finally, Dublin’s Dean Rock showed the importance a few weeks back of having a good free-taker against Tyrone when they set up defensively. The four free kicks he hit in the first half in Croke Park proved invaluable as the game opened up later on.
When Kerry are without Bryan Sheehan, the opposition is emboldened by his absence because they know that any mildly difficult free is unlikely to be scored.
Sheehan’s return and good health tomorrow may prove to be the differencefor Kerry between Division 1 and Division 2 football in 2016.