A third championship defeat in five seasons to Dublin is unthinkable for Kerry...
The Saturday-before-the-All-Ireland-final column is a tricky assignment.
All-Ireland finalists are subjected to such intense scrutiny that by the time the weekend of the game comes around most arguments have lost whatever novelty they had in the first place.
In the case of Dublin and Kerry, most of what might have once passed as original insight has long since taken the form of ‘conventional wisdom’.
Is there any point in trying to wring the last drop of life from the ‘squeezing up on Cluxton’s kick-out’ routine? Would your morning really be any richer for being told yet again that ‘Kerry are vulnerable when ran at’?
Éamonn Fitzmaurice likes to focus on his opponents’ strengths. Dublin aren’t as cavalier as they used to be but they still cough up a share of goal chances. Kerry will win whatever midfield battle transpires. Dublin derive great pleasure from scoring goals. Kerry are vulnerable when ran at.
Did we mention that one already?
Sorry, let’s try a few more recent additions to the catechism, and, of course, as Stephen Patrick Morrisey once advised, feel free to ‘stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before’.
Kerry have the superior bench? Dublin will be sharper following their replay with Mayo? What, you’ve heard them, too?
Like I said, a tricky assignment.
Now, we’re not for a minute suggesting that Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs won’t be crucial to the’s outcome, and there is plenty of truth to be found down many of these well-trodden paths, but for the sake of your sanity and ours we’ll try and look elsewhere before delivering our final verdict.
And besides, does one of our most beloved of all clichés not decree that ‘All-finals have a habit of taking on a life of their own’?
We have to assume that Dublin are going to do something different to what they’ve being doing all year. There is just too much context for the opposition to leave things as they are. The same goes for Kerry.
The assumption all along is that David Moran and Anthony Maher will dominate at midfield should Dublin go long with their kick-outs this time. And if that doesn’t happen, the assumption is that Kerry will devour the breaking ball once it hits the ground. That’s a whole lot of assuming, and if the Tyrone semi-final is anything to go by, there is no evidence to suggest that Kerry would benefit hugely from a change in Cluxton’s restarts.
These assumptions about Dublin’s kick-out don’t provide the firmest of ground from which to be launching a verdict.
And few managers abhor a cosy assumption as much as Éamonn Fitzmaurice does.
Fitzmaurice likes certainty, clarity and conviction.
That is why he will demand more of his half-forward line than Mayo did of theirs against the Dubs two weeks ago. Where Mayo were happy to allow Séamus O’Shea, Diarmuid O’Connor and Kevin McLoughlin to roam with impunity and to track back as often as possible, Fitzmaurice and Kerry fully expect Stephen O’Brien, Johnny Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh to do all the same running while offering a genuine presence up front as well.
Where Mayo gave enthusiasm and endeavour, Kerry know that sometimes such things are simply not enough. They learned as much from their encounter with Dublin over two years ago. In that epic 2013 semi-final, even after Dublin made the smart move of putting Cian O’Sullivan on the rampant Colm Cooper, Kerry were still a point up with ten minutes to go. They had a good few chances all through the second half to keep the scoreboard moving, and kill the ball, but failed to do so. As they started to live on rations it was noticeable that the Kerry backs had very few half-forward outlets between midfield and the attacking 45-metre line. That was fear kicking in and stifling their game.
In the past three seasons, Donegal appear to be the only team who have realised that in order to win a big game against the Dubs you need to play without fear.
Denying Dublin the goals that they derive so much pleasure from and living without fear are not two mutually exclusive concepts.
Shutting down those avenues to goal is also about winning the ball back. That is the starting point. The next step is crucial. If the ball can be kicked, instead of handpassed, into pockets of space further upfield, and received by someone who’s going to add value to it as opposed to someone who’s going to take the safe option, then the assassins on the inside line are in business.
The good news for Kerry is that, for all their combative qualities, their half-forwards have a natural instinct to try the unorthodox. And, of course, in Gooch, Geaney and O’Donoghue, they have the killers inside.
What O’Brien, Buckley and Walsh have done consistently this summer owes as much to their game-sense and to their intelligence as it does to their football skills. Kerry have an abundance of that type of player who can pop up in the strangest of positions to influence the game. The bad news for the Kingdom is Dublin do too.
Because these two teams are so familiar with each other and because they will have studied each other’s play so much, the unorthodox and the unconventional will be crucial tomorrow.
For example, it’s not just a matter of comparing benches and judging which team has the better chance of springing a surprise. It’s more a matter of minimising a sub’s influence for as long as possible after he comes on. Bryan Sheehan’s, Barry John Keane’s and Darran O’ Sullivan’s scoring contributions this year (4-23 between them) suggest that they know how to make an impact when they arrive. But, in the case of Dublin’s subs, it is critical from a Kerry viewpoint that they don’t make an instant impact.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed how quickly Alan Brogan, Michael Darragh Macauley and Kevin McManamon, in particular, settled into the game against Mayo. Within less than a minute of coming on, McManamon was spraying a clever crossfield foot-pass to James McCarthy for what was arguably the most important point of the game; the score that brought Dublin back to within a goal of the Connacht champion on 54 minutes.
Robert Hennelly’s poor game management before, during and after his fateful next kickout is well documented.
While that whole episode highlighted an element of Mayo’s game that many hoped was banished for good at this stage, nobody is talking about how aggressively the recently introduced Macauley went after that kick-out, or how Alan Brogan (just three minutes on the pitch) gave the defence-splitting pass, or how Bernard Brogan, fresh from tracking Tom Parsons for 70 yards and turning him over, ensured he was in the right place at the right time to finish.
Contrast that with Patrick Durcan’s introduction for Mayo. Within 30 seconds of his arrival, Ciarán Kilkenny had him in a one-and-one situation under the Hogan Stand and took him for a point.
These things don’t happen by chance. Dublin, more so than any other team, exploit those moments of flux caused by substitutions on either side, and Kerry will do well to deflate the Dubs each time a change is made tomorrow. Of course, the same is true of Kerry’s substitutions and of Dublin’s efforts to keep Kieran Donaghy from repeating his party piece off the bench last year.
Kerry and Dublin have contested 12 All-Ireland finals but have never drawn a decider.
There is so little to choose between these two teams, that the temptation is to take the 8/1 on the draw.
The do-or die stuff then, and a few final questions.
Have Kerry got it in them to plug the gaps that appeared so alarmingly last month whenever Tyrone gambled and won a turnover?
Will the expected rain suit Kerry or Dublin or will it make any difference?
Can Bernard Brogan and Paddy Andrews keep up their incredible economy from attempts on goal?
Will Eoghan O’Gara’s loss be properly felt for the first time all year?
Can Shane Enright, repay the faith shown in him by his manager, continue his rich vein of form and shackle Bernard Brogan?
Can key Dublin players like Paul Flynn retrieve their form for an All-Ireland final?
Can Kerry keep Dublin below 15 points without resorting to the arch-conservatism that sees most of Dublin’s opponents beaten before they take the field?
Can Kerry’s half-forwards contain Dublin’s flying wing-backs without sacrificing too much of their own game?
Having missed out on last year, will Colm Cooper remind us all once again of his enduring genius, and his talent for torturing the Boys in Blue?
Cooper was captain when Kerry lost the 2011 final to Dublin, a defeat described by Fitzmaurice as his generation’s ‘1982’.
A third championship defeat in five seasons to the same opposition is unthinkable for Kerry.
I expect pent up hurt, allayed with a game-plan that can both test and contain the Dubs, will be enough to get Kerry over the line.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved