Mike Quirke: If the hope doesn’t kill you, plenty of boys in blue will

It’s the hope that gets you every time. You subconsciously start to build walls after disappointments to protect yourself, and you insist you won’t let the same blind faith seep in and cloud your judgement again.

I drove down the road from Croke Park after the league final back in April and I made my mind up.

That was it - Kerry would not be beating Dublin this year. No chance.

We built that game into much more than just a league final. Logic suggested it should be a far more significant contest for Kerry to win than Dublin.

The Kingdom were after an impressive league run and had demolished a vibrant Roscommon side in the semi-final. Confidence was high, old legs seemed rejuvenated, and we told ourselves the gap had to have narrowed over the winter to the All-Ireland champions, now shorn of a couple of All-Star defenders and the mercurial Alan Brogan from their star-studded bench.

We were convinced the pain and hurt of the recent defeats at the hands of the Dubs would have Kerry driven so demented that they would run through a brick wall face-first before bending the knee to them again in Croker.

This was to be the start of something different; a new dawn.

As it turned out, Kerry did run into a brick wall that day, but instead of breaking through it, it knocked us all back on our arse again.

On the drive home, you start to reassess everything. It’s like you’re working your way through the stages of grief. Maybe Dublin are just that good you think, or maybe Kerry aren’t quite as good as we like to think we are just now.

Too old perhaps. Too many miles on the clock. No pace. No impact off the bench. Not enough young blood. Maybe Jim Gavin just has Fitzy’s number.

The three-hour journey south west felt like six.

Before you get to Naas, you slump down further still in your seat when you realise that Kerry’s last three big games against Dublin since 2013 in Croke Park (two championship games and one league final), have each been won by the Dubs by an average of seven points… Seven!

That’s a borderline hammering.

By the time you hit Adare, you’re resigned to the fact we won’t be beating them for at least five years or so until all these talented minors come through and make the team their own. But that’s a long time to wait, too long, so by the time you’re passing Castleisland you just want to forget the game ever even took place.

Eventually, some days after, the immediate rawness and pain of defeat begins to wane, days turn into weeks, weeks into months, and slowly you start to fool yourself into thinking that maybe next time will be different.

Surely they’ve found something behind the locked gates of Fitzgerald Stadium. Surely Donaghy, Marc Sé, Mahony or Gooch won’t want to bow out taking another trimming from these boys.

Surely… They must have figured out a plan. Fitzmaurice has been hatching it away and just holding onto it.

Something different. Something new that the Dubs haven’t seen before.

But that’s probably just the hope talking… Realistically, Dublin should win Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final because they have proven themselves consistently over the past five years to be the better team. They have pace and in every line of the field, coupled with a beautiful mix of enough aggression and class to put you away without even playing at full throttle.

That’s how good they are these days. They can do it any way you want it, dry ball or damp and dreary, shoot-out or slugfest, it makes little or no difference to this new breed of Dublin footballer.

Albert Einstein once suggested doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome was the definition of insanity. With that in mind, Kerry must free themselves from the strait-jacket Dublin have managed to put them in, and bring some new dimension to their play if they are to have any chance of changing the outcome.

Against Clare and Tipperary we saw sporadic use of their updated defensive scheme where they withdrew every attacker back into the middle zone between the two 45’s and flooded that area with bodies

The hope is that by not engaging defenders coming out with the ball high up the pitch without support and being easily bypassed, they drop in unison and try to outnumber their opponents in that middle sector.

Kerry want to ideally force a turnover, or at the very least slow down the ball enough to reduce the quality being delivered in to Dublin’s inside forwards.

It’s something fresh from Fitzmaurice, a strategic adjustment that is different to the by-now accepted zone defence back inside your own 45.

It will be fascinating to see how much joy, if any, Kerry get from their new steel curtain, and how exactly Dublin plot their way through it.

As always, it will be equally intriguing to see what Kerry decide to do against the William Tell-like Cluxton kick-out.

In that league final, Kerry seemed to spend the day chasing shadows in a man-to-man press that didn’t bring about any joy. It only succeeded in burning precious energy from the legs that could have been better spent it in other ways.

I expect to see something different next Sunday.

I mentioned here before how you have to play Cluxton like a quarterback; mixing up the coverage you’re showing him all the time. After a wide or a dead ball free, you might get everybody to press up hard in man-to-man. After a score, you might sit everybody in a zone and conserve some energy and force him to kick it to a corner back and build from there.

We know by now, whatever problem you throw at Cluxton, he’s too good to let it confound him for long. The key is to keep throwing a new headache at him in the hope he gets impatient and makes one or two bad decisions that you profit from.

Offensively, low, fast ball hasn’t worked against them in recent games, so maybe it’s time to flip the script and go back to the future and bombard an inexperienced full back with high ball for the first 15 minutes to a full forward line of Geaney, Donaghy and O’Donoghue. Test them out with something they haven’t experienced.

Once the GAA’s master fixtures plan was unveiled last November, the inevitability of August 28 smacked you in the face like a Conor McGregor jab.

It’s the one we’ve all been waiting for, but don’t expect it to be a fine work of art between two of the games great aristocrats. Desperation will ensure Kerry will push the boundaries of all accepted rules of engagement next Sunday, and supporters won’t care a jot if they are spared another agonising journey of head-scratching back down the road with their tails between their legs.

Hope is a dangerous thing.


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