While it’s not the most palatable sight to see no Kingdom forward inside their attacking half, they are thinking outside the box and trying something different, writes Mike Quirke.
Cast your mind back to when you were a kid around December 25th — that sense of excitement and anticipation of what was coming around the corner on Christmas morning.
Sunday’s Munster final without Cork in Killarney was like the first Christmas without Santa Claus. Although it’s a still great day and you got lots of presents, you feared the same magic wasn’t there, no matter how much you wanted it to be.
And that’s pretty much the way the game turned out. Everybody in the ground was kind of closing their eyes and hoping for a contest, just faking it, wishing for something better. Even when Tipperary thundered through the middle to bang a goal after 35 seconds, that gloomy air of inevitability never lifted from supporters of both hues. I don’t think it ever really left the players either. The whole event felt like a dull shade of grey.
Last week I tried to make a reasoned argument as to why Division One finalists Kerry would defeat a Division Three team shorn so many quality players with relative ease. As much as Tipperary toiled away, that storyline seldom looked like deviating from the script.
Tipperary manager Liam Kearns did his best to make some noise before the game and play the ‘they don’t respect us card’, but trying to generate that kind of motivation for his players is a false way to try to develop the real confidence to get them to truly believe they could beat Kerry in their own back yard. That’s not easily found.
This was always going to be an impossible game for the Kerry players to be as motivated for as they may have been if they were facing Cork in the Munster showdown. It was a no-win situation; beat Tipp by 20 points and it would have been labelled a pointless exercise; win by only five and you’re told you’re going nowhere fast if you could only beat a Division 3 team by such a small margin.
Éamonn Fitzmaurice will be delighted with winning his fourth provincial title on the bounce, but you’d imagine conceding 2-27 along the way to Clare and Tipperary is not an aspect of either game that will please him or his players.
To that end, we saw a more pronounced defensive strategy employed by Kerry, which was rolled out sporadically at times last season but not to the same extent as last Sunday. It’s definitely an innovation on what’s out there already.
Basically, instead of flooding bodies all the way back inside their own defensive 45, Kerry tried to create a densely populated battleground between both 45s to trap Tipp in there with extra bodies.
That meant Kerry’s inside forwards Paul Geaney, Darran O’Sullivan and Stephen O’Brien all retreated back towards the centre of the field to join their half-forwards, midfielders and half-backs to form a thick green and gold wall to stop Tipperary building momentum by carrying ball through all the traffic.
Most of the time it left two-on-two isolated inside close to the Kerry goal, but with so many bodies in the middle third, the hope would be that if you can’t force a turnover, at least the ball going in should be kicked under severe duress and should give the likes of Shane Enright or Mark Griffin a fair chance to compete for it.
Did it work as effectively as they would have hoped? Probably not. At times, it forced Tipp into coughing up a lot of ball in contact, but with every Kerry forward 65 yards from goal, the counter attack was too pedestrian to really get full value from the turnovers.
I lamented after the Clare game that Kerry appeared to go out to just win that game and didn’t try to experiment in any way with a view to the bigger tests that lay ahead. I think this defensive zone around the middle was obviously something being trialled with one eye on a potential semi-final clash with Dublin. Maybe it will be shelved again, or perhaps tweaked a little to allow at least one forward to hold his depth inside as an outlet for a quicker ball should his team-mates force a turnover out the field. Who knows?
But while it’s not the most palatable sight to see no Kerry forward inside their attacking half, it’s encouraging to see they are thinking outside the box and trying something different. If Kerry or any other team is going to beat the champions this season, they’re going to have to hit them with something fresh.
For Tipperary, their race isn’t yet run. A three-week lead-in to a qualifier game may see them reach Croke Park in what could yet turn out to be a season of real advancement and triumph for a county so dominated by their love of the small ball. To reach the last eight teams standing in the football championship would be a remarkable achievement for this group, and after the extensive drain on player talent they’ve suffered, it would be a real example of maximising all available resources by Liam Kearns to reach that point.
In fairness to him, he hasn’t bitched or moaned about the bum deal they received with so many defections from their panel from the start of the year. The talented squad of players he was promised when being courted for the job wasn’t the reality of the situation he walked into a few short months later.
For those Tipperary players, who have had success at minor and U21 level against Kerry, they will be smarting from the 10-point jolt of reality they were hit with last Sunday. But while they didn’t want to be disrespected prior to the game, they shouldn’t be patronised after it. They’re still a long way behind the top teams obviously, but they have proved enough to themselves with their win over Cork and their scoring of 2-10 against Kerry to be able to take another scalp in the qualifiers and get to Croke Park.
The question is, do they really believe?
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