Tomás Ó Sé exclusive: Reinventing defence mid-season is recipe for disaster
Mental strength to see Kerry through as Galway play dangerous game
Published 01/08/2014 | 02:30
Padraic Joyce offered me a bed for the Races in Ballybrit and I was thinking it mightn't be the only trap Galway had in mind for Kerry this week.
A sounder man you couldn't meet but, no more than Eamonn Fitz and the boys, I'd hope to be in the whole of my health when hitting for Croke Park on Sunday. Galway Races mightn't exactly have been the best way for me to do that.
Not to say I wasn't tempted. There's a sincere bond between Joyce's team, the one that won All-Irelands in '98 and '01, and the Kerry lads who beat them after a replay in the '00 final.
I've big memories of that season because, having being a sub in '97, it was my first genuine experience of winning Sam Maguire as a player.
I was in my third year of teacher training at Mary Immaculate in Limerick and just heading into the crucial two-week practice phase that amounts, essentially, to work experience. Now the people in charge, quite rightly, didn't give a damn who you were or what little distractions might have been tugging for your attention.
This, after all, was a vocation you were pursuing and things needed to be done by the book.
The prep for practice was really intense, three full days from half nine in the morning until six in the evening. If you missed a single hour of that, you'd be brought up in front of the board. A bit of a predicament for yours truly.
I was supposed to begin teaching practice in Limerick city the Monday morning after the All-Ireland final replay. Not alone that, but prepping the same week you're getting ready for an All-Ireland final wasn't exactly, well, ideal.
There's a lecturer in Mary I, Sean de Brun, who'd togged out with Kerry himself and had even been on the fringes of the great team. Anyway, didn't he frog-march me down to the college principal's office one morning, an office I will admit I'd been in previously for the wrong reasons. Could almost read the poor man's expression as we entered.
"What in the name of God has he done now?"
Well, Johnnie Cochran himself couldn't have made a better case for me than De Brun did that morning, talking about the importance of Kerry football and how a man couldn't possibly be expected to multi-task with an All-Ireland final filling his head. By the finish, he was almost suggesting it would be morally wrong of the college to put me in such a position.
Sean's speech must have lasted about 10 minutes before it was agreed that my teaching practice could be suspended until the end of the year. I've owed him big ever since because I knew in my heart and soul that, win or lose, there was no way I'd make it into school that Monday. And a no-show wouldn't have been great for my hopes of a career in teaching.
Mind you, Dara O Cinneide is never slow to remind me how Kerry footballers mightn't have had anything to detain them that week if I'd been half a yard faster!
One of the hardest fellas I ever marked was Michael Donnellan. Never came across anyone faster on a solo run, but he was hardy too. The type of man nobody pushed around.
Now he didn't score in the drawn game, but was very effective all the same and, in the last minute – with the sides level – he got onto a breaking ball around the '65'. I was caught on the wrong side of him, trying desperately to grab a hold of his flapping jersey, a drowning man flailing for a life buoy. It's the grace of God I failed, because Joyce would have nailed the free.
Anyway Donnellan, mercifully, ran into traffic and nothing came of it.
The following Tuesday at training, Paidi had us in a circle. "And you!" he roars, giving me the hit-man's stare, "with your washer out tryin' to catch the Galwayman ... you would have cost us the All-Ireland if you had your way!" He put Tom Sullivan on Donnellan for the replay.
One thing that struck me about those Galway lads was how they never had a chip on their shoulders. They were always thorough gentlemen to meet. A big thing maybe was that Donnellan and Joyce had gone to college in Tralee and won a Sigerson with some of the Kerry lads. This meant there would be a fair sprinkling of Galway boys at Kerry weddings and vice-versa in the years after.
When we won the replay in '00, there was a reception for the players upstairs in Croke Park and I remember going over to Sean Og de Paor, a fellow Gaeltacht man, the two of us chatting away in Irish. To this day, I never saw anyone more cut up by a defeat. He was close to inconsolable.
But it's always pure football when you're playing Galway. That team of the late '90s had some of the best footballers you could hope to see, particularly with the likes of Donnellan and Joyce. You never got anything foul or nasty against them and they had balance all over the field.
I'm not so sure about the current Galway team though. Actually, I'll cut to the quick here and say simply that I think Kerry have better players than Galway now.
I know that in itself doesn't guarantee anything because a team with enough hunger and passion might still get a run on you. In other words, Kerry have to be hopping from the first whistle on Sunday. But I also think they'll play a lot more direct football than Tipperary did last weekend and, on the evidence of the Mayo game, Galway's full-back line could be vulnerable to the early ball.
I expect they will have a plan for James O'Donoghue and will set themselves up defensively. But I watched Galway closely against Tipp and they had plenty of fellas back in defence who didn't seem to be doing a whole lot back there.
It took Donegal maybe two years to perfect a defensive system, so for Galway or Cork to be trying to do it mid-season seems ridiculous to me. How in the name of God can you hope to reinvent yourself in a couple of weeks when the pressure is full on? You just can't. It's one thing having 12 bodies back, it's another knowing what they're all doing.
That said, the game we dreaded more than any other in Kerry under the current system was always an All-Ireland quarter-final. We hated the break before it because you can't ever really judge how you are motoring. You can't even get a challenge game, so you're going only on internal training and that's, ultimately, a guessing game.
If there is a worry for Eamonn Fitz, it is that Cork asked no questions of Kerry's defence in the Munster final. Now I'm not entirely sure that Galway will either, although they look to have decent forwards in lads like Conroy, Walsh, Lundy and Cummins.
But they folded a bit too easily as a team for my liking when it was put up to them against Mayo and you'd have to say it's not a great sign that they conceded four goals against Tipp last weekend.
My own hunch is that Fitzmaurice will come into his own this week, setting Kerry at just the right heat to make it into the last four. It's a week for mental toughness and I'd be confident they'll have it.