James Horan exclusive: 'No team has transformed their game quite like Kerry'
A week ago I couldn't summon much interest in this All-Ireland final. As it draws closer however, I must admit I have become more and more fascinated by it.
Fascination is the right word, chiefly because Kerry's game is now ideally structured to play against a counter-attacking team like Donegal.
Both teams share a lot of similarities, perhaps more than Kerry traditionalists might like to acknowledge. They have become very compact very quickly and for them right now, that's a good thing.
No team has transformed themselves quite like Kerry have this year. Their move away from more traditional values has been subtle but sure. Closing the gates of Fitzgerald Stadium was being cruel to be kind in some ways.
They still have that beautiful, natural movement up front which will cause Donegal problems, no matter how packed their defence is. A lot of their skills are so consistent.
But Kerry's system and method of play has absolutely changed. They keep at least two, possibly three, in their half-back line at all times, no matter where opponents are, and that has been the case all season.
Without possession they bring their wing-forwards Donnachadh Walsh and Michael Geaney back into far deeper positions to keep that structure tight.
They appear very comfortable with the way they are setting up. There is no way Donegal are going to get the same counter-attacking momentum they got against Dublin, or that they would like. Ryan McHugh, for one, won't get an inch this time.
The great conundrum for Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Kerry is what they do to counter Michael Murphy. Murphy is, quite simply, an outrageous footballer with such ability, strength and skill.
My expectation is that he will play a much more advanced role than he has done all season and test Kerry's full-back line.
I don't know if they have a match-up for him, if and when that happens. Match ups are usually a ploy that gives Kerry strength. But I'm not sure where the solution is here.
Aidan O'Mahony is one they might look at but he has essentially become one of those key holding players at half-back and the temptation will be to leave him there because retaining that structure is what has worked so well for them.
From a size perspective Murphy and Colm McFadden are going to have an advantage on that inside line and Donegal will seek to exploit that.
We could well see a big performance out of McFadden. Jim McGuinness has always put huge faith in him. Even when he wasn't playing well he always backed him and played him.
That's the thing about Donegal worth noting. They have some players of the highest calibre.
There is so much focus on their system and ability to defend that their execution in so many other areas gets lost.
Their hand passing to each other into the sweet spot to keep momentum going in their movement is fantastic to watch. It's something that takes a lot of practice and skill. The receiver doesn't have to break his own stride to take a pass so the tackle rarely gets on.
Counter-attack depends on such quality of transfer and Donegal have that skill close to perfection.
The trick for Kerry will be to create space for James O'Donoghue and Paul Geaney.
To achieve that we could see Kieran Donaghy pulling out to try to prise one of the McGees away from that space where Geaney and O'Donoghue were so productive in the earlier part of the championship.
O'Donoghue in an All-Ireland final is another layer of the fascination that I have.
He has been talking quite a bit about how an All-Ireland medal is all that counts. I think he might have put himself under a bit of pressure with that. He is footballer of the year elect, a player of undoubted talent but let's see if he does it on the biggest stage.
With a blanket defence, if you can suck out the first line out a little bit there is always a 15 or 20 yard space in front of the full-forward line that you can hit. With the quality of Kerry's foot-passing, that lovely hook kick that they are renowned for, they will seek to engineer some high percentage shots from that area.
The window of opportunity will be limited but it will appear and they are masters at finding it. I can't see Kerry resorting to outside 'pot-shots' just because it's Donegal.
Both these teams have all the skill sets needed to win an All-Ireland with the right form, creativity, conditioning, hardness and physical power.
Kerry will fancy their movement against them, particularly up front. They will seek to move the ball very quickly and try and keep it out of the contact zone. That's important. They are not gong to try and get into the tackles with Donegal who relish that.
Donegal have had the advantage of a second five day camp and that's definite plus for them.
The amount of work and clarity that can be brought, the amount of game scenarios that can be worked through.
The confidence to be gained from it for Donegal, particularly the way they played in the semi-final having gone through a similar routine, will be immense.
It's something that the opposition would be conscious of but with Eamonn Fitzmaurice and the back room he has, their planning will have been just as comprehensive.
But Donegal will instantly feel better prepared than their opponents.
Donegal should win. When you go though it they look stronger, they may be slightly better prepared and have greater experience.
They have more seasoned campaigners who you could probably depend more on to deliver. McGuinness has got the absolute most out of these players over four years and that's all a manager can hope to achieve.
But Kerry are on a rate of progress that is amazing. Every game has produced something different from someone different.
If you look at Paul and Michael Geaney in particular and how they have developed this year, it encapsulates that improvement. And that improvement is still coming.
In Limerick David Moran gave a Herculean performance. He's a man trying to catch up for lost time. That's what I got off him when I saw him up close and personal.
Honestly, that night in Limerick was as good as I have seen. It was the performance of the championship.
I see him now as one of Kerry's three most important players, along with Paul Geaney and O'Donoghue. Kerry need Moran to dominate the midfield zone. With Neil Gallagher knocking around, that will be challenging.
Because they are such good technical footballers, Kerry just have an ability to adapt to situations in games.
It's why I probably think they will win it. Their rate of progression can surpass where Donegal are.
I'm hesitant, but I think that maybe the case.