Michael Quirke: New breed of middle man ruling the Kerry GAA roost

For some reason, I was never overly fond of the word ‘mobility’. 

It seemed to haunt my playing days for as long as I can remember. ‘He’s a fine fielder, but as slow as a cart horse’ seemed to be the general consensus of the experts and the terrace mafia.

Hard to argue with, I suppose. In 2009, Pat Flanagan did a range of fitness tests with the Kerry squad. One of them was a 20 metre sprint test – designed to measure your start up power and sprint speed. He had the top of the range technology with all the electronic gates and gizmos set up. This was really supposed to be an opportunity for the really quick guys to shine. The machine was to beep three times, and after the third beep you sprint as hard as you can through the last gate. He had a couple of college students there to supervise it, but there was no cheating – ‘you can’t fool the computer’ said Pat.

When the results were posted on the wall the week after, there was more than a few hearty chuckles when guys scanned down to the 20 metre sprint test. I was third out of 33 players. Third!

Darran O’Sullivan, to his eternal shame, was fourth. Now, there was a not-so serious internal investigation into the results of course, but mostly from the guys 4-33.

Everything checked out, and I never formally accepted any impropriety, but let’s just say when the machine beeped for the third time… I had about 10 metres already ran. I used to carry the print out of those results around in my wallet for a while after, just to show proof to people that I wasn’t as slow as everybody said - I couldn’t be, sure wasn’t I faster than Darran. The computer doesn’t lie.

Back then, which isn’t that long ago, a midfielder’s primary function was to compete in the middle to win possession from kick-outs, be busy around the field and provide a link between defence and attack.

Diarmuid Murphy was our goalkeeper at the time, and his tactical kick-out strategy, which by today’s standards was very uncivilised, would be to launch the ball as far away from his goal as possible. It was always safety first with Murph. Long and longer were his only real variations, but they worked fine for the time that it was.

Kerry are starting to get back to those more traditional days again. Maher and Moran are receiving all the praise for being the best pairing in the game at the moment, at least until Monaghan’s power runners came to town on Sunday.

Anthony Maher , similar to Donnacha Walsh, has developed the unenviable media tag of being the under-rated side-kick to David Moran’s silken-skilled super hero. They have been the most formidable 8 and 9 duo in national league so far, following on from a big championship run-in last year. They are an increasingly rare breed, almost a curiosity in today’s modern game.

Two big men, both over 6’4”, who have the ability to stand their ground, go up and win their own ball, but also possess the skills and work-rate to get forward and back and fill up most columns on the stat sheet. Not everyone is blessed with those midfield riches, so they must find another way.

In other counties, the focus has shifted away from taller midfield ball winners like Nicolas Murphy, Alan O’Connor, Kevin Walsh, Sean O’Domhaill, Ciaran Whelan, Darren McGee, Dermot Early, Kalum King, and Owen Lennon to name just a few.

I’m assured it’s purely coincidence that the big man has started to disappear more rapidly as the jerseys have gotten tighter and tighter.

A midfielder is now seemingly judged more on the amount of tackles he registers as opposed to the number of clean catches he makes.

Midfielders have always been indelibly linked with their goalkeepers and Dublin, with the help of laser-like accuracy of Stephen Cluxton, were the first to make the redefinition of the midfielder from the traditional to the new breed of ultra-dynamic runner.

MD McACauley and Cian O’Sullivan are the prime example of the new generation of 8 and 9; shorter, super athletic, high tackle count guys, with even higher possession numbers in every game.

Remember how their movement and Cluxton’s accuracy made Aidan O’Shea looked like he was running in mud in the 2013 final - and O’Shea is far from a slouch for a big unit.

Look at Cork cruising to a league semi-final with the shortest midfield they have had in decades.

Fintan Goold, Cadogan, Collins and Jamie O’Sullivan have all had a go, and all done well at different stages.

They are the new breed of midfielder. Runners and foragers instead of jumpers and fielders.

In one sense I’m delighted to see Kerry maintain that sense of tradition around the middle.

But whatever county you are from, it’s difficult not to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a midfielder rising up over friend and foe and plucking one out of the clouds a la Nicolas Murphy, Darragh O Sé or Paul McGrane.

High fielding is one of the greatest arts of our game and it’s being lost in some counties amid the pursuit of greater mobility to compensate for a lack of do-it-all ball winners.

Maher, Moran and Kerry could be relegated this time next week, but for now, they are the guardians at the gate of all that is right about midfield play.


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