The Kerry defence has been worryingly devoid of leadership since the closing rounds of the league, according to former Kingdom footballer Seán O’Sullivan.
Ahead of the county’s All-Ireland semi-final meeting with Tyrone, O’Sullivan, who won four All-Ireland medals during his time in green and gold, says question marks remain over Peter Keane’s rearguard and the regularity at which teams are opening them up when attacking through the centre.
Kerry were taken for three goals in both the league final defeat to Mayo and provincial final win over Cork and while the Munster champions conceded just two goals across their three Super 8 outings, O’Sullivan is concerned at how no player is taking responsibility for organising their defensive shape when the opposition press forward.
“I don’t see them going for the kill early on against Tyrone because there are still a lot of question marks over our backs. They are going to need protection,” began O’Sullivan.
Since the league final, my biggest worry is where are our leaders back there? Where are our guys, and this was especially evident in the Munster final, shouting for the cover, marshalling it?
"If we want Gavin Crowley, Paul Murphy, and Tom Sullivan to get up the field on Sunday, where are our leaders at the back then, our communicators? Who is responsible for getting our setup in place if we lose the ball up the field? Are our two midfielders supposed to be doing it, is full-back Tadhg Morley or goalkeeper Shane Ryan supposed to be doing it?
“Going back to our time, Seamus Moynihan would be down our throat if he didn’t have people getting back behind the ball to cover. A lot of it is down to communication and a bit of leadership. They’re all gung-ho to get forward and that is great to see but where then is our cover. It has to come from either your two midfielders, your centre-back or full-back, they have to decide, ‘there are two guys gone forward here, so we have to cover’. That has been lacking.”
O’Sullivan, a regular in the Kerry half-forward line during the noughties, would like to see Rathmore’s Paul Murphy in the centre-back position as the county bid to reach a first All-Ireland final since 2015.
“Our biggest area is the centre of our defence, teams are working through the middle and next thing, they are in over our half-back line and there is no stopper. People refer to the fact we have no Peter Crowley. Peter wasn’t playing centre-back before he got injured, he was in the full-back line. Gavin Crowley was tried at six, I’m not sure he’s the answer. Paul Murphy was playing very well at centre-back in the league but was out on the wing for the Munster final.
Paul is not the biggest man as a stopper but maybe would control things a little better with his experience. We can’t allow Tyrone to run the ball through us. That is where Kerry need to step up.
"Protection in front of the full-back line when teams are breaking at us is the big question mark. The last day against Meath, there were times it was just too easy, even if we only conceded one.”
“Do they go back to what they were doing in the league where they set up defensively when they didn’t have the ball and just hope they have enough up front to win the game? I think that is what we’ll see on Sunday and we’ll have the forwards to get over the line.”
Cork’s success in unlocking the Tyrone system during the first-half of their Super 8 encounter, the Rebels led 2-5 to 0-4 at half-time, is a template Kerry would do well to follow this weekend, insisted O’Sullivan.
“Look at James Loughrey’s goal, that was a perfect example of how you breakdown Tyrone in getting that late runner coming off the shoulder and creating space. Tom Sullivan got a goal in the Munster final so he is well able to score, as is Paul Murphy and Gavin Crowley. They just have to be careful when up the field, Kerry have to be economical in that they are either scoring or killing the ball because the last thing you want is to be caught on the other side of a counter, which Tyrone are very good at.
“You’d be hoping if Kerry can bring what Cork did that we’d get in for scores. On the flip side, Tyrone will have learned from the Cork game. Harte won’t make the same mistake twice.”