“Ill habits gather by unseen degrees as brooks make rivers, rivers run to seas” (John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel)
WHEN Derry effected an 11 point swing after the opening 20 minutes to overcome Kerry in last year’s National League final we all told ourselves it was “only the league” and that Kerry would absorb the lessons, move on and make their almost perennial assault on All-Ireland glory.
The knowledge that Kerry should eventually fall just short of that glory to another outstanding team from Ulster is only of historic value now but with the benefit of hindsight perhaps the habit of building up big early leads and allowing them dissipate alarmingly in the third quarter of matches was in its nascent stages in that Parnell Park outing late last April.
When that habit reared its ugly head against Cork three times that summer, we started to recognise that spring lessons aren’t always absorbed and can often become an unwanted but inherent pattern of behaviour that recurs automatically as a default setting when the heat comes on.
Even the first Derry goal last year re-appeared in a different context on a Sunday in late September. Barry McGoldrick makes ground up the middle, Diarmuid Murphy makes a good save, ball falls kindly for Fergal Doherty and is finished to the net. Sound familiar?
Substitute Kevin Hughes and Tommy McGuigan for the Derry duo and you get the picture.
Since the start of this year’s NFL campaign Jack O’Connor will have impressed upon his troops the intrinsic value of forming good habits as early as possible in the season. Although a concession of 83 points in the 2009 campaign doesn’t compare favourably with just 75 points conceded in the seven rounds of NFL 2008, there have been noticeable improvements in the defensive effort.
Every individual in the back line now knows that performing the primary duty of marking his man is the reason for his being on the field.
Crucially, the players on the half forward-line of recent matches also have a greater sense of what should or should not be happening behind them and they all know the difference between defending a lead and not unbalancing the attack at the same time.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Kerry have developed the happy knack of winning matches or, as in the case of the Dublin match a few weeks back, knowing how not to lose them.
Much like his Derry counterpart, O’Connor has laid solid foundations during the course of the spring campaign while at the same time experimenting freely with line-ups and team selection.
Of the new or relatively new faces, Anthony Maher’s progress will surely have pleased the selectors most. Maher is a low-key footballing midfielder- the kind that all high flying midfielders like to have as partner and his progress in exalted company in Croke Park tomorrow will be viewed with more than a passing curiosity.
With a defensive record second only to Cork in all four divisions of the football league, Derry obviously have a very clear and unequivocal view of what’s expected of them at the back by manager Damien Cassidy.
The refinements and subsequent improvement from game to game since meeting Kerry last month have been immeasurable even if the results against Galway and Tyrone didn’t exactly pan out as they had intended.
For the first time since the days of Eamon Coleman’s tenure, Derry aren’t coughing up easy scores and it must be a source of huge encouragement to their supporters that they managed to win against Donegal the last day out without either of their two supposedly indispensable players of the past few seasons, Fergal Doherty and Paddy Bradley.
Tragedy and injury robs tomorrow’s game of another of Derry’s spiritual leaders, Niall McCusker. When Kerry were beating a path through their back-line in last year’s final, McCusker was the first Derry player to show a bit of defiance. His game-breaking block in the first half and his second half point were emblematic of his team’s refusal to yield. He will be missed.
I was very impressed with Cassidy’s rebuttal of Liam O’Neill’s claim that managers have an undue influence on GAA policy debates during the week.
It was almost refreshing to hear an inter-county manager tell us candidly what we already suspected — that “every manager is in the business of looking after his team and getting results. They don’t care how another team does or another referee does. Let’s not fool ourselves. All I am interested in is how my team gets on. Let’s not be naive, let’s live in the real world.”
The real world of championship football against Monaghan is coming down the tracks and there are few better teams than Kerry at exposing in forensic detail whatever chinks need addressing at this stage.
“It’s only the league” is the all too familiar mantra of those who either fail to or refuse to acknowledge the value of the NFL.
O’Connor and Cassidy appreciate the true worth of football’s poor relation more than most having used league success as a springboard in past lives as manager and player respectively.
They both too will recognise the inherent truth in Dryden’s landmark political satire above: “We first make our habits, and then our habits make us”.
It’s only the league. Indeed!
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