‘We want them to be the cleverest little team of all time with the ball in hand. And we have been working on that day in and day out’.
— Kevin McStay, St Brigid’s manager November 2012
Kerry followers have a few abiding images of that miserably wet day in Fitzgerald Stadium nine weeks ago when Roscommon beat Kerry in the league.
One is of Killian Young’s crossfield ball to Brian Ó Beaglaoich that skidded out over the terrace sideline. Another would be Mark Griffin’s attempt at a solo that went wrong and was punished with a turnover and a score.
There was Barry O’Sullivan’s telegraphed pass a few minutes from the end that led to Enda Smith kicking his third point to send Roscommon into the clear within sight of home. And finally, there were those two 21-yard frees missed by Barry John Keane, one in each half, that would ultimately prove the difference between victory and defeat.
It was one of those days when, as Louis Van Gaal would have it, the ‘Law of Murphy’ applied.
Watching the Kerry U21s’ narrow defeat against Cork on Thursday night, we saw enough to know both Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Barry O’Sullivan will have good days in the senior set-up.
There is a case to be made for Mark Griffin being Kerry’s most consistent performer in their five-match unbeaten run since that Roscommon defeat, and Barry John Keane showed as recently as last Sunday in Tralee there are few better at getting to the pitch of the game quickly when introduced late on. It took him a while, but Kerry folk now recognise Keane’s value to the team.
Heading to Croke Park tomorrow for a league knockout game for the first time since he became manager, Éamonn Fitzmaurice will know his team have moved on from that day in Killarney. They are playing with more conviction than any team in the country this past month.
A winning run tends to have that effect on a team but there’s more to it than just that. There is also the quiet satisfaction at knowing that your league experiments are working. Witness Kieran Donaghy’s flourishing as a hard-working, hard-running midfielder.
Or how about Paul Murphy’s spring blossoming as a centre forward and link-man of genuine substance?
Although nominally a full-back, Mark Griffin has also become a genuine option to counteract some of the opposition’s most physical forwards.
There shouldn’t be any dearth of those in the Roscommon line-up tomorrow and it must be acknowledged the Rossies, too, have moved on from their last tussle with Kerry.
Because of injury and U21 commitments, they were missing key players such as Donie Shine, Donie Smith, Ultan Harney, Diarmuid Murtagh, Cathal Compton, Niall Carty and Kevin Higgins for their outing in Killarney and two others, Senan Kilbride and Niall Kilroy, had to withdraw before the ball was thrown in that day.
Still, Roscommon fans hoping tomorrow’s game will resemble last February’s are probably aware that such a scenario is unlikely. But Roscommons’s ability to learn and to process lessons from setbacks has been obvious all spring. They learned a lot from the 1-1 they conceded in the final few minutes of their opening day defeat to Monaghan in Kiltoom. When Kerry came looking for late goals a week later, the Roscommon defence were pragmatic and watertight in those final frantic moments.
When Mayo’s Tom Parsons and Seamus O’Shea overpowered Fintan Cregg and Ian Kilbride at midfield on Easter Sunday, they chose the more robust combination of Niall Daly and Cathal Shine to take on Dublin’s Brian Fenton and Emmet Ó Conghaile last weekend.
Last weekend’s lesson came in the form of a realisation the big teams like Dublin and tomorrow’s opponents have vulnerabilities and concerns like any other team.
In an honest post-match assessment of his team’s performance against the Dubs, Kevin McStay said his players are used to seeing the bigger teams “on the telly” and when these “big massive men come down from the city” the natural inclination in Roscommon is a sense that “nobody can compete with them”.
“And you stand back a bit. And then they get a run on you, they put up the points fairly lively and then everybody is running away from the ball,” said McStay.
Substitute the city for down the country and the Mayo manager could have been talking about Kerry. In addressing the prevailing mindset, McStay may well have put his men on alert for a Kerry onslaught just as he did at half-time against the Dubs in Carrick on Shannon last weekend. It has been a league campaign full of lessons for the Rossies. However, it was former Roscommon manager John Evans who made the point two years ago that there is a huge difference between a team who finds their feet during the league and a team who finds their confidence during the championship.
Despite all the talk of Roscommon being the story of the league in 2016, the challenge was always going to be how they made the transition from league to championship.
Many of this group were losing away league games to Laois and at home in the Hyde to Galway last year so when Sligo turned them over in Connacht and Fermanagh beat them by a point in Brewster Park later on in Championship 2015, you knew there was an amount of work to be done.
This time around, with the work done since October, they will take a lot of nourishment from the league and, with their game in New York just three weeks away at this stage, you would have to imagine that Roscommon will set up in championship mode tomorrow.
Their selection of Geoffrey Claffey in goals mirrors Kerry’s policy of rotating their goalkeeper throughout the league, but it could also put Claffey in the driving seat ahead of the championship. Darren O’Malley recovered from a shaky opening day out against Monaghan to put in some really decent performances throughout the league. But Claffey offers more.
The one concern might be that Claffey’s restarts tend to hang that bit longer than O’Malley’s, which could give David Moran, Kieran Donaghy, Donnchadh Walsh and Johnny Buckley more time to get to the pitch of the ball than they would usually have.
Kerry will be disappointed with their success rate, less than 33%, on Ryan Price’s kickouts last Sunday and after similar results on the Cork kickout at U21 level on Thursday night, it should come as no surprise if Kerry were to go about correcting that issue before it escalates.
The expectation is Kerry will welcome the return to Croke Park but Roscommon will, no doubt, relish the return to normal playing surfaces as well. After their two successive swamp outings on recent weekends, Croke Park should be liberating.
It was a hallmark of Kevin McStay and Liam McHale’s St Brigid’s All Ireland winning team of a few years back they were a ‘clever little team with ball in hand’.
With a more mobile middle eight than they’ve had in some time, there are enough signs their Roscommon project should be vivified, not inhibited, by the fast playing Croke Park surface. I still doubt they will have enough to derail a very focused Kerry team.
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