Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final joust with Dublin is the game Kerry have wanted and have been waiting for since last September, according to Éamonn Fitzmaurice.
The Kerry boss labelled this weekend’s assignment as the “ultimate test”, but is adamant his charges have evolved as a group compared to the side which fell to Dublin in last year’s decider. He also believes they’re in better shape. Fitzmaurice’s assertion Kerry must play to their potential is hardly letting the cat out of the bag as to what the Kingdom require - but they have failed in this regard in both the league final and the 2015 All-Ireland decider.
“I don’t think we need anything dramatic from left field. We’ll have to play better than we have played the last couple of times,” he insisted.
“I would use last year’s All-Ireland final as more of a benchmark than the league final. And on that day, we were flat and we didn’t perform.
“Hunger caught us. On the day, and for some reason, Dublin were hungrier than us. It’s very hard to measure that or to quantify it or to make fellas hungry. But they were hungrier than us last September. You’d be hoping that we’d be hungrier this time around.”
Surely, the frustration which lingers from that 0-12 to 0-9 no show will ensure a performance, at least, is delivered.
“The lads have been waiting for this game because when a team beats you, it hurts. When you lose an All-Ireland final, any sportsperson wants to get a cut off the team that beat you.
“It’s always been [a game] on the horizon for us. We knew [when we won Munster] if we kept winning, the likelihood is Dublin were going to keep winning and we’d be playing them in an All-Ireland semi-final. It’s the game we wanted. It’s the game we’ve been waiting for since last September. We have it now.”
There’s a sub-plot too: “For some of the lads, it would be the case they’re coming towards the end of their time. There would be that bit of motivation there, that they would like to go out on top.”
Back to Dublin. Fitzmaurice reckons they’re beatable. Fair enough, but where you catch them is a harder question to answer - this is a side, after all, which hasn’t lost a championship game since August of 2014 and have won the last four league titles. Their average winning margin this summer stands at 10 points, while, across their four games, Jim Gavin’s rearguard has leaked just 2-21 from play. So much then for this theory surrounding the susceptible nature of the opposition’s full-back line, and, indeed, their defence as a whole given the departures of Jack McCaffrey and Rory O’Carroll.
“This thing has been put out there that they are vulnerable in their full-back line, particularly in the air. But I haven’t seen too much evidence of it yet.
“Michael Murphy was well-handled the last day. In the Leinster final, Westmeath had John Heslin inside for a while and then when they had the injury to Connellan, they brought on the big fella [Darragh Daly] and they handled him with ease.
“They handled Aidan O’Shea with ease last year. So I don’t know if that’s over-stated. It’s under- estimated how important their defenders are to them because we see the expansive game they play and the scores they put up. But they have very good defenders, particularly in one-on-one situations.
“I don’t think they’ve missed the lads a lot. Whether it’s a factor between now and the end of September, who knows? But if anything, it’s freshened the team and it’s freshened the group. Which has to happen if you’re going to retain an All-Ireland.”
What about the Kerry defence and how they plan to cope with Connolly, Brogan, Kilkenny and Co? Part of the Donegal approach was to get under the skin of the Dublin forwards, a ploy Jim Gavin wasn’t wholly enamoured by.
“Opposing forwards are always going to be singled out because they have to be marked out of the game. But the way I would always look at it is, you would always do that in a footballing sense. I wouldn’t be into sledging. If you’re tight and physical with your man, you can do it within the rules. I wouldn’t be into the ‘dark arts’. And the lads wouldn’t be either.”
Jonny Cooper suggested otherwise when claiming in the days after their quarter-final win he expected Connolly to receive the same “special attention” from Kerry that he experienced against Donegal.
“He’s an obvious target from the point of view he’s an exceptional footballer,” continued Fitzmaurice. “And I think Donegal got it wrong the last day. They brought Martin O’Reilly back. They put a forward marking one of the team’s best forwards, which seemed to me a strange move.
“To be fair to Diarmuid Connolly, I think he has matured an awful lot with regard the stuff he gets. Four or five years ago, he would be much more volatile than he is now. The number of incidents lately have been very tame.
“I think he was unfortunate the last time. The second yellow card, he was trying to tackle Anthony Thompson.
“We’re going to have to mark him tight because he is so important them. But we’re not planning on doing anything untoward or anything like that.”
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