One hasn’t really lived as a journalist unless you’ve pointed a recording device at a winning manager and posed the most pointless question of them all: What was said in the dressing-room at half-time? Like you are ever going to get full disclosure...
Players might have been dancing the tarantella in the showers at the break in play for all we know; what happens in that bubble invariably stays there in these times of controlled media access. That’s a pity but that’s for another day.
The winning of yesterday’s All-Ireland semi-final had its genesis in Kerry’s half-time dressing-room refit, which turned the tables on Tyrone and chisselled out a 1-18 to 0-18 passage to the final. The changes wrought after a wretched first half by the Kingdom were in personnel, pace and attitude, one as important as the next.
Jack Sherwood and Gavin White brought energy, a new shape, forward-thinking direction and an end to Kerry’s first-half sterility. When they had reduced the gap to a single point by the 50th minute, management rolled the dice again, Tommy Walsh coming in at full-forward for full-back Jason Foley, who struggled throughout on Cathal McShane – without any protection in front of him, it should be said.
That change, in itself, required considerable rejigging, which selector and maor foirne Tommy Griffin was frantically trying to convey to the players. It was worth it.
Walsh became the focal point, stretching the pitch, easing the demands on Geaney and Clifford and connecting Kerry’s middle third with their inside line. Walsh’s handling was pure and true, all the way back to his own half back line when it demanded in the final stages of the game.
But something else changed at half-time: Kerry’s approach. One is slow to employ the hackneyed ‘took off the handbrake’, but they were emboldened by something, or someone, in that vital time-out. If their second half tour de force was a reliable indicator, David Moran and Paul Geaney were in the vanguard of the half-time surge.
The role of Geaney in the only, and decisive, goal on 56 minutes, was the exampla gratis of the maturity this group of Kerry tyros is still striving for. Placed inside, he held his defender, he contemplated taking a point (it was 0-12 each at the time, remember), and he slipped in Stephen O’Brien all in the same movements for a beautiful finish. The move also involved Moran and Sherwood in its construction.
The Kenmare forward is a nailed-on All-Star but his involvement in the final against Dublin is now a matter of conjecture and appeals after he accumulated a third black card towards the end (in the same calendar year) of yesterday’s game. Such is O’Brien’s import now to Kerry, that he is among the biggest losses they could contemplate. He is a leader and there isn’t a lot of been-there experience to share around.
Out of the shallow end now, these classy Kerry kids need senior stability. They are getting there, though and the progress to an All-Ireland final only accelerates that process.
Tom O’Sullivan kept Peter Harte peripheral, Sean O’Shea did not allow the heavy-handed attention of Conor Meyler get to him and David Clifford – who shook off a calf injury which threatened his involvement all the way to this weekend – stepped up in the clutch second-half moments.
Briain Ó Beaglaoich made a crucial block on Frank Burns’ 58th-minute goal attempt. Even in his most chastening afternoon as a senior, Jason Foley will take plenty from his 50 minutes.
In fact, the mauling off the ball in the first half was evidently brought to the attention of referee Maurice Deegan at half time – would that it was done sooner – as he awarded at least four frees for off-the-ball incidents in the second period. Consequently, in open play and from frees, O’Shea’s influence grew.
The lack of consistency left Mickey Harte frustrated, for one. However, the Tyrone manager's frustration wasn’t reserved exclusively for the officials. His own players led by four points at the interval, 0-9 to 0-5, and it could have been more, though it was noteworthy in the conversation about Kerry's defence that they didn’t give up a goal chance in the half.
“(Kerry) came out with a different attitude in the second half — that they were up for the challenge, up for the fight. As the game went on, that became very apparent.
“And I suppose when it got close, a point-for-point game, a goal was going to be major for any team and that’s the way it turned out. I just think that half time is a dangerous place — if you are going well, you don’t want half-time at all.
We were going well up to half-time and that’s a time-out to be able to make adjustments with settled minds — that was half time at a bad time.
This is a dangerous deal because the team behind is going to come out more energised about changing the script. It can be hard to get your team to… you try to talk the right language to get your team to win the second half.
That bit of magic was clearly floating in the dressing room down the corridor.
And so to Dublin, the blockbuster finale most neutrals were praying for once Mayo’s race ended Saturday. Kerry with the opportunity to foil history in whatever way they can to claim a 38th All-Ireland themselves.
Manager Peter Keane was 10 when Seamus Darby denied the last shot at five-in-a-row 37 years ago.
“It was a big thing in South Kerry at that time because John Egan was captain. South Kerry won the county championship the year before and my father was a selector and he was chairman of the South Kerry board and there was a big hoo-hah at the time who would be captain. At the end of the day, I think they picked the name out of a hat, whether it would be Jacko or Egan would be captain.
“Obviously there is going to be a lot of talk in Dublin, seemingly they put up a big score in the second-half against Mayo. You are dealing with potentially the greatest team that has ever played.”
Keane slotted seamlessly into the underdog’s clothes as he settled down in front of the press.
“I (just) left the dressing-room below and (keeper) Shane Ryan was on the phone to Gerard Murphy of Vincent Murphy Sports in Castleisland. His biggest problem was would he get two pairs of boots - or three pairs - because he’d have the first ones worn out from kicking the ball out to Dublin. That is going to be the biggest problem.”
Many’s a true word spoken in jest. The progress made by Keane and his players this season has been encouraging but defensively, they remain hugely vulnerable.
The shape and the system is a work in progress because they do not have the personnel to go toe-to-toe with Dublin.
"We’ll come up in here in three weeks and give it a go", smiled Keane.
They are far from the shallow now.