Among the 6,230 football followers who shook and rattled with the cold and rolled their eyes at the sub-standard fare in Tralee’s Austin Stack Park on Sunday, one question endured.
And we asked it of Kerry’s Donnchadh Walsh, a thoughtful individual not given to the ways of the cliché. Can a team still win an All-Ireland playing football?
“It is a challenge,” he mused. “I’d love to play the game where it was all kick, catch and score, where you take on your one man. But that’s not the way it is anymore. What are you going to do?” he pondered, offering the unspoken, ridiculous notion of a Roberto Duran ‘no mas’.
Gaelic football’s swarm defence has now thrown a blanket over the entire island, the last outpost covered on Sunday in Tralee. Adapt or die? Gaelic football is in danger of adapting and dying. Former Kerry manager Jack O’Connor told RTÉ on Sunday night that he was more concerned at the defensive road football was travelling than the requirement for black cards. He said parts of the Cork-Donegal game were “hilarious”. But he wasn’t laughing.
“The name of the game is to win,” Walsh accepted, “and you have to adapt your play to beat the system.”
Notwithstanding the relief at two league points, it has been a long time since Kerry football followers got as excited by routine points from play as they did when Anthony Maher and then Kieran Donaghy split the uprights on Sunday in either half.
“In the second half, the game does open up,” suggested Walsh, convincing himself. “But at the start when teams are more concentrated on their defence, it is difficult. Watching Donegal and Cork and this game in Tralee, it takes a while for the game to open up. Fellas are so fit at the start, they have the legs to get back and pack the defences. But as they get fatigued, the game opens up a bit. Can kicking teams still beat the swarm defence? I think that’s the only way to beat it, kick fast out of defence.”
But will there be anyone watching if and when that happens?
“The excitement can still be in the game, and I think it will win out in the long term, I do believe the defensive systems can be beaten,” added Walsh, a qualified engineer now studying physiotherapy in the Royal College of Surgeons.
Kerry gave themselves a fighting chance — if that’s the appropriate word with a trip to old friends Tyrone looming — of surviving in Division 1 with a four-point defeat of Cork. Conor Counihan is a pragmatic coach who one hopes had Sunday’s tactics foisted upon him with the raft of injuries to his marquee forwards. With the admittedly faint fear of relegation still hanging over them, there will be an onus on Cork to strike a more progressive pose in their final league game against Mayo. However, James Horan’s men, themselves in a four-way relegation fight, will ask some searching questions.
Kerry, meanwhile, head for the quiet Algarve camera of Silves and the Amendoeira golf resort this week, primarily for five days’ of pre-championship training. However, their parlous league position means that one eye must be on April 7 in Omagh.
“We’ve all got a bit of a pep in our step now,” said Walsh, “we’re going away on a training trip with the Cork win giving us something to play for in Tyrone. It’ll be like a championship game up there, quite hostile. We’re looking forward to it already.”
Once again, space for starting attackers, which should include Colm Cooper and Paul Galvin for the first time in 2013, will be at a premium. “I think that issue [packed defences] is why we struggled at the start of the year; we were probably over-thinking it a small bit, wondering what were we going to do when we couldn’t play our traditional game.
“Now we are playing with a bit more confidence and have adapted our play to counteract that swarm defence. We’re still not excellent at penetrating, but we’ve improved.”
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