Ciarán Whelan: Kerry still have best natural ability in modern game and will crush Banner's fairytale
THE underdogs are really beginning to relish the opportunity.
History was created last weekend when Clare and Tipperary made the SFC quarter-finals of the All-Ireland series for the first time. Along with Westmeath and Cork, both teams will carry the underdog tag again to Croke Park this weekend.
It is no coincidence that the four outsiders this weekend have all played to their strengths all year by playing a traditional style of football with a strong attacking philosophy which has got the best out of their key players.
Whether that traditional style is good enough to succeed this weekend remains to be seen but it is bonus territory now for the likes of Westmeath, Tipperary, Clare and even Cork.
Ironically, when contrasting the underdogs against the favourites, it is still a good thought-out solid defensive system that plays a fundamental part in the success of the bigger teams.
We all know what Donegal will bring to the party defensively. Kevin Walsh devised and committed to a strong zonal defence system that was good enough for Galway to deliver a provincial title.
They dictated the terms of their wins against Mayo and Roscommon. The days of Galway coming to Croke Park and playing naive man-on-man football appear to be over.
Kerry are traditionally the team that you would not associate with defensive football. They were labelled as ‘defensive’ in a dour All-Ireland win against Donegal in 2014, when all they simply did was hold their back six in position and track the Donegal runners.
Times have changed though and on the back of defeats to Dublin, Éamonn Fitzmaurice has had to revaluate where his team is at presently.
There is no doubt but that there is an influx of talent on the way through in the Kingdom. I would go as far as to suggest that the pendulum will begin to swing their way in the coming years but nurturing that talent will take some time.
Kerry still possess the best natural ability in the modern game and they still have a forward line that has great creativity and magnificent speed of thought through both the hand and foot.
However, it is at the other end of the field where Fitzmaurice has problems.
Kerry have evolved defensively all year and it is obvious that Fitzmaurice does not trust his defence. They have been shown to have a lack of pace in some quarters and Dublin exposed their weaknesses badly in the National League Final this year.
Whilst nobody knows what goes on behind the closed doors of Fitzgerald Stadium, it is obvious that there has been a serious investment in their defensive structure in recent months.
I had a wry smile to myself last Sunday night when Pat Spillane spoke on the The Sunday Game about Tipperary penetrating a poor Derry blanket defence and taking the right options offensively. It was a fair point but he went further and referenced the fact that in the Munster Final Tipperary struggled to get their inside forward line into the game and they had coughed up possession many times in the tackle when met by the Kerry defence.
Without being disrespectful to Tipperary, in essence, what last Sunday showed was that Kerry’s defensive system is much more elaborate and thought out. Pat made no reference to the Kerry blanket defence though! That would be outlawed in the Kingdom!
Liam Kearns spoke after the Munster final and expressed surprise that Kerry had gone so defensive in the Munster decider. Kearns had not planned to face such a system in the build-up to that game but it was obvious that Kerry were preparing for challenges later in the year. The Kerry defensive system involves three stages. Firstly, there is no press on the opponent defenders when they are coming out with the ball from their half.
The Kerry inside forward line will just drift off their men towards the midfield sector which allows them to get 14 or sometimes 15 men back in their own half if the counter-attack is ponderous.
The first press then comes in the midfield area. They pressurise the opponent looking to build an attack or deliver quick early ball into their respective forward line.
Secondly, if Kerry turn over possession, they can push players into attacking positions very quickly and utilise their natural attacking instincts.
Thirdly, if their opponents happen to breach the first line of defence across midfield, Kerry are still well-positioned for a second press as they will have players like Paul Murphy and Donnchadh Walsh back to defend their 45-metre line and protect the scoring zone.
It will be interesting to see what strategy Fitzmaurice takes against Clare on Sunday having already defeated the Banner County men by 12 points seven weeks ago.
Clare come to Croke Park full of confidence on the back on three good victories against Laois, Sligo and a flat Roscommon team. However, their duel with Kerry in June was all but over after five minutes when they conceded two goals.
Clare must have the self-belief that they can cause problems for Kerry. If they stand off and admire them, they will be hurt badly in the open spaces of Croke Park.
Clare will not lack the work ethic or heart and they have the pace in their forward line with quality players like Jamie Malone, David Tubridy and Eoin Cleary who will open up Kerry if given the space.
A lot will depend on the performance of Gary Brennan who has been a colossus in midfield throughout the qualifiers.
Kerry will target Brennan to nullify his influence, have no doubt. Brennan is that good that if he is kept quiet, things could crumble around him and that is the fear I have for Clare.
This one is David v Goliath but Goliath may also have a blanket thrown over him. Clare have been one of the stories of 2016 but they may just run out of road this weekend.
Kerry still possess the best natural ability in the modern game.