Saturday 25 November 2017

In Gooch we trust

When Kerry met Sligo in a challenge match last Saturday week in Rathkeale there was renewed energy and drive to them.

They won easily -- 1-19 to 0-10 -- but the most noticeable feature was the quickness of their play.

At training, the emphasis has been on speeding up their approach work and getting away from the ponderous and laboured build-up play that has crept into their game and cost them dearly.

The Sligo game was the perfect opportunity then to road-test this renewal of an approach that has served them so well in the past.

No more than Pat Gilroy acknowledging that Dublin are nothing without their manic workrate, Kerry have come to appreciate that unless they move the ball into space at breakneck pace, they, too, will find themselves back with the pack.

The same emphasis on quickening their approach work was evident to those who observed an 'A' versus 'B' game over the weekend. Standing still makes them vulnerable.

But will this renewal of core values be sufficient to keep their foot to the pedal over the next few weeks as doubts about their staying power inevitably surface?

In previous years, when they have been rerouted through the qualifiers on his watch, Jack O'Connor has always managed to pull a rabbit from the hat.

In 2006, it was putting Kieran Donaghy at full-forward which was central to their reinvigoration; in '09 Mike McCarthy was coaxed out of retirement and planted at centre-back, while in the same year, Declan O'Sullivan was repositioned at full-forward for the critical game against Dublin in the All-Ireland quarter-final where he wreaked havoc against a hapless Denis Bastick.


Even going as far back as '02, the focus of change for Paidi O Se was full-forward, with Dara O Cinneide coming in for Liam Hassett after the Munster semi-final replay defeat to their bitter rivals Cork.

And this time the emphasis for change is once again focusing on the pivotal full-forward role that's so central to Kerry's game plan.

The change may be subtle, but ever so telling with Colm Cooper shifting from the position he has graced for the last 10 years to full-forward for the first time ever.

The Kerry management have identified the need to take him in off the periphery and give him a more central role. And by playing him at No 14, his range of movement is greater and more challenging for opponents to deal with. The move will accommodate James O'Donoghue's placement in the full- forward line.

"The ball wasn't sticking inside and that's why fellas were maybe hanging on to it for too long," said O'Connor.

"So, we've been looking to tweak things and maybe make a few positional switches. Moving the ball quickly and directly has always been our way. That's why we'd have played someone like Kieran Donaghy in there in the first place."

The scope for change is nothing like what it was three years ago when Kerry had, O'Connor admits, "an embarrassment of riches."

"We were able to replace Tommy Walsh after 20 minutes of the Dublin game in 2009 and replace him with Tadhg Kennelly. We wouldn't just have that depth of quality now. But what we have has worked very well in recent weeks.

"We'd have been very disappointed with how we played against Cork. That said we did create chances. But too many players just didn't have form."

That performance moved Martin Carney, the former Mayo and Donegal player and respected RTE pundit, to suggest that it was the day "the music died" for this Kerry team.

O'Connor says he wouldn't take any offence to Carney's observation. "I know Martin well and there wouldn't be anything vindictive in what he said.

"But to me there's been a fair bit of music left in these players over the last few weeks at training. They have trained really well. Naturally people are always looking for a new story. You saw that last September after Dublin beat us. The overwhelming majority wanted Dublin to win. We accept that it comes with the territory."

On the training ground the return of Eamonn Fitzmaurice has calmed tensions after the departure of Donie Buckley prior to the championship.

It is known that some senior players were unhappy at the way Buckley's departure was handled, but Fitzmaurice's return -- less than two years after he stepped away from a successful stint as a selector and coach -- has helped to calm any lingering tensions over the loss of a coach that the players had grown to respect during his work with them last season.

For all the concern there may be about Kerry having to get their hands dirty on the dusty tracks through the back door, they still have the best record of all, 100pc from eight games in four different years. The draws have always worked out for them -- Wicklow, Fermanagh and Kildare in '02, Longford in '06, Monaghan in '08 and Longford, Sligo and Antrim in '09.

"I'd be concerned about what's ahead, because we could have lost any of three qualifier games in 2009. It was only in the second half against Antrim that we found our form. I don't think we could say that we enjoyed our football during those weeks. And you have to enjoy the journey," said O'Connor.

Irish Independent

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