Question marks will continue to hang over the Kerry defence until such time as they successfully contain the Dublin forwards, former Kingdom manager Éamonn Fitzmaurice has said.
The 2014 All-Ireland winning manager said the concession of six goals across the county’s four Division 1 League games, particularly the four leaked against Dublin, was the outstanding blot on the copybook of the Kerry defence heading into Championship.
Fitzmaurice pointed to footwork and communication as areas where improvements can be mined at the back, but stressed also the importance of the collective and, to that end, the onus on the Kerry forward unit to pull their weight when not in possession.
The latter point was raised on these pages in recent weeks by 1997 All-Ireland winning corner-back Stephen Stack who maintains there would be less focus on the Kerry defence if their forward teammates were willing to work harder when they didn’t have the ball.
“The disappointment from a defensive perspective in the League would have been conceding the four goals against Dublin.
“When you’re conceding goals, there’s going to be question marks,” began Fitzmaurice in his appraisal of Peter Keane’s rearguard unit.
“Until this Kerry team beats Dublin or wins an All-Ireland, there will be question marks. There will be question marks about the team and there will be question marks about the defence until they get that job done.
“If you can do that and if you can hold down the Dublin forwards, then you’re obviously in a good place.”
In last week’s ‘The GAA Social’ podcast, Colm Cooper remarked that Kerry, from 8-15, “are as good as anyone”, but “defensively, that’s where our flaws are”.
Fitzmaurice’s view is that defence is not exclusive to those wearing jerseys two through seven.
“Defence is always a team thing,” he insisted. “When teams work hard from the front, they get plenty of bodies back and tend to then counter-attack at pace if they do turn over the ball. That’s probably the way the management will be looking at it, as a collective thing.
“Probably the biggest lesson they’ll be taking out of the league is the way Dublin scored those goals in Thurles. They’ll be looking at them and saying, ‘how can we improve?’ ‘How can you keep an eye on the man and keep an eye on the ball?’ I imagine they’re working on footwork, on collective defending, and communication. All those kinds of things. So it’s a work in progress at the back.
“The ultimate exam will probably be in an All-Ireland final, if they can get that far. Until you hold those Dublin forwards, you’re going to be a work in progress. It’s as simple as that.”
Casting his eye over the Kerry midfield and attack, the three-time All-Ireland winner said there is still a place for David Moran and “he will be very important” as the season develops.
Further forward, he believes the experimentation of Paul Geaney at wing-forward “freshened up” the 30-year-old.
“It worked for the league and it got him on a bit more ball out the field. Whether it will continue into the championship, I’m not sure.”
Switching focus to standard-bearers Dublin, Fitzmaurice didn’t see any evidence of disimprovement or regression on the part of the six-in-a-row champions during the League.
He reckons the Covid-enforced down periods of this year and last suited Dessie Farrell’s charges in allowing them to step off the hamster wheel and take a mental break.
“I’m not seeing Dublin coming back to the pack. To go and beat them you have to continually improve. Are they as strong as they once were, I am not sure. Whether they are improving year on year, I am not sure. But they are certainly not coming back, no.”
He added: “Obviously, there is the question over Stephen Cluxton. I know Evan Comerford is doing very well and is a top class keeper, but he is not Stephen Cluxton. And if Cluxton did step away, that would be a big factor.
“But their other main players, James McCarthy, Con O’Callaghan, Kilkenny, Fenton, they are all playing at the same level. They seem to be as good, if not better than ever.
“Niall Scully seems to have pushed on further during the League. John Small is a loss to them if he’s out, but by the time it comes to the business end of things, he will be well back.
“They are remarkable, they’re unbelievable. I’m not sure are there parallels in world sport of a team that keeps coming back with the same hunger to win where every game they go out every team is trying to shoot them down, so they deserve huge credit. But hopefully the day is getting nearer that they will have real hunger again because they’ll have to deal with a championship defeat.”