Wednesday 18 October 2017

Colm Keys: We’re still set for a 'big-four' finish but advantage clearly rests with the Dubs

Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Dublin manager Jim Gavin. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

In the 17 years that they've been in existence since the inception of All-Ireland qualifiers, Kerry have never failed to reach an All-Ireland quarter-final but have rarely failed to stamp their authority on one either.

There are of course notable exceptions. Their dismantling of Armagh in the second half of their 2006 'last eight' meeting was the beginning of a peak for that team that made six successive All-Ireland finals and was adorned by so many strong characters.

Three years later Dublin were blitzed by a resurgent Kingdom who thrived with the air of Croke Park in their nostrils after visits to Longford, Tullamore and even Tralee for back-water qualifier matches.

Just once have they been caught off guard, against Down in 2010, when Tomás Ó Sé and Paul Galvin were ruled out through suspension, while their 2012 defeat to Donegal had been brewing through a combination of Donegal improvement and erosion of their own powers.

30 July 2017; Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Roscommon at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
30 July 2017; Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final match between Mayo and Roscommon at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

A Kerry quarter-final appearance will generally be attached with words and phrases like routine, ring-rustiness, lethargy and 'getting the job done'.

Éamonn Fitzmaurice has trotted that last phrase out more than once in the press auditorium in recent years.

Think of their last meeting with Galway four years ago, or Cavan 12 months before that, Limerick in 2011 or Monaghan in 2007 when they came so close to being bumped off the road.

Their ability to measure a peak has been one of the strong points of his management and for every one of their previous four under his stewardship, there was never a sense that they were overextending themselves.

So we should take their latest offering against Galway in vain, except the creation of so many goal chances by their opponents on Sunday represents a cause for alarm. Ian Daly and Damien Comer in the first half, and Sean Armstrong after the break pulled the trigger from close range only to be thwarted by Brian Kelly (twice) and Fionn Fitzgerald.

For Kerry, it was all a little too ragged.

At the other end, James O'Donoghue's failure to score from play may have its source in an injury but Kieran Donaghy's resurgence bodes well for the remainder of the campaign.

With an eight-day headstart over Mayo or Roscommon in terms of preparation, Fitzmaurice must privately feel that the cards are falling right for his Kerry team in terms of their overall goal.

If it's Mayo they meet what condition will they arrive in an All-Ireland semi-final in with after at least 530 minutes of championship football, on top of six hard seasons, for so many of them?

The inevitable credits roll for wiping out a seven-point lead to take a two-point advantage in at half-time on Sunday but their failure to kick on and control the game sufficiently after that raises the most serious questions yet about their sustainability in this year's championship.

The potential exists for a bulkier Brendan Harrison to take over at full-back or even Lee Keegan to remain at midfield but both probably can't happen in tandem because of the knock-on effect. Beyond that Mayo must essentially rely on tried and trusted ways and instincts.

Sitting tight last weekend, the advantage still very much rests with Dublin. Like Kerry, tailoring to come strong at the back end of the year has been foremost in their preparations all season. Their players have been used sparingly so far.

But they too have issues to resolve in their full-back line that will intensify if there are any lingering issues with Jonny Cooper, who has missed huge chunks of the season. Cooper's adaption to full-back in the absence of Rory O'Carroll ensured the smoothest of transitions.

Mick Fitzsimons' man-of-the-match performance in last year's All-Ireland final replay was followed up with a very solid league but he looked less than comfortable in conceding a late goal to Kildare's Paddy Brophy who beat him easily in the air to get the touch.

Dublin are still vulnerable to that kind of threat. They dealt with it well over two games in 2015 against Mayo during Aidan O'Shea's posting at full-forward by delegating Philly McMahon to shadow and getting sufficient numbers around him when he did get possession.

Donaghy is more accustomed to the role and prior to picking up an injury there were signs that he was making his mark against them in last year's All-Ireland semi-final. This year he is, in the words of his manager, in the "shape of his life".

Perhaps the most equipped team, potentially, to take down the champions, is Tyrone who have breezed through Ulster in a manner few could have predicted.

They retain the best defensive structure, have the attitude and have the record, albeit in league games, against Dublin in Croke Park in the era of Jim Gavin management, a one-point win, a one-point loss and two draws.

They'll be relieved to have avoided Monaghan in a quarter-final next weekend but Armagh's steady improvement will require careful navigation.

Recent history suggests it's best to overlook the indifference of All-Ireland quarter-finals. Even Dublin have lacked conviction against Fermanagh and Donegal in successive seasons at this stage. But right now they're hugging the inside lane with intent.

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