Tuesday 24 April 2018

Colm Keys: Donaghy rips up main script to win ground war

Roaming full-forward shifts emphasis to highlight flaw of O'Shea move

Stephen O’Brien fires home Kerry’s first goal having been set up by team-mate Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile
Stephen O’Brien fires home Kerry’s first goal having been set up by team-mate Kieran Donaghy. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Some 25 minutes into an All-Ireland semi-final that had, even by then, attained 'compelling' status, an unusual roar began to ripple around Croke Park, coated in the anticipation that grows with the realisation that something you're waiting earnestly for is about to occur.

As Stephen O'Brien's delivery from over on the Cusack Stand side climbed higher, so too did the decibel level that accompanied it.

Kerry’s Killian Young surrounded by Cillian O’Connor (left) and Séamus O’Shea of Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry’s Killian Young surrounded by Cillian O’Connor (left) and Séamus O’Shea of Mayo. Photo: Sportsfile

The great battle of the skies was finally on. And it had a feel of pantomime about it.

Within seconds the 66,195 crowd with eyes trained on its arcing trajectory would get a feel for whether another bold move by this Mayo management team was all in vain.

Aidan O'Shea came from behind to challenge Kieran Donaghy, disrupted the potential catch, gathered and cleared the danger. The Mayo crowd erupted in delight, as if at once the ghost of 2014 had been exorcised. The anti-missile defence system had worked.

But by then Donaghy had already been impacting this game on the parameters, sensing the need to adopt a different strategy in the knowledge that under a greasy, dropping ball O'Shea might just have his number.

So he moved and kept moving, hoovering up a lot of ball away from his customary patch in front of the opposition goal as Mayo were denied any further psychological impetus from an aerial success.

His influence was profound. As he took up wider positions and picked his moments to step off O'Shea and get involved, it became clear that this would be no battle beneath the boards and was being played on Kerry's terms.

O'Shea is a magnificent fielder and one of the best tacklers in the game. But he doesn't have tracking instincts.

And for so long Donaghy had a free hand to pick off passes by hand and foot with ease. A conservative estimate gives him a direct link to 1-4 of Kerry's total. The credit line could rise to 2-5 on further reflection. If Jack Barry had done the needful after a clever Donaghy lay-off in the 54th minute, drawing one of two magnificent saves from David Clarke, it would have risen again, but you get the picture.

The perception will always be of a player with wrecking ball qualities but it takes some instinct to adapt so quickly when faced with a different set of circumstances. And for those around him too.

Too often O'Shea was left redundant. All the time O'Shea's absence from that middle channel where he has been so effective this summer was growing more noticeable, even as Cillian O'Connor, Jason Doherty and especially Andy Moran were tearing an unprotected Kerry full-back line to shreds.

What Mayo gained from shutting down the skies with O'Shea's placement, they lost from removing his playmaking instincts and control.

As long as Donaghy remained on the field, Mayo were compelled to leave O'Shea on him. When you commit to something as radical as that, it's difficult to make changes.

You could sense the urge in the Mayo crowd for O'Shea to be set free when he came storming out of defence midway through the third quarter to clear his lines and, once again, approval was loud.

Kerry had a sense that Mayo were considering it but felt it was down their list of options, manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice added.

"It was a thing we'd discussed, there was a possibility it could happen, that they could match him up with Kieran," he suggested.

"We felt maybe it would be down the list of possible options, but it was something we had discussed."

Without a shot being fired the submissive feel to deploying O'Shea in the role had presented Kerry with an advantage that Fitzmaurice wouldn't publicly accept but knew, nonetheless, was theirs.

"I suppose," he replied when asked whether he was happy to see O'Shea away from his more orthodox role, I haven't really thought about that side of it yet. But with a player like that, if you give them a big job like that to do, it's robbing Peter to pay Paul - he obviously can't be in two places at once. From the Mayo point of view, they'd be happy once he does the role that is assigned to him for the day."

Had O'Shea's positioning changed the nature of the delivery inside?

"To be fair to Mayo, they were very intense in the middle third and, as they do, they tackled ferociously and worked really hard. I think conditions helped that. It was hard for our kickers to get their head up and get the ball in as we would have liked, but that's something for us to work on for next week now."

They have, it seems, much forensic work to get through and priority will be the organisation and selection of the full-back line.

From early on it was evident that Jason Doherty had a run on Mark Griffin while Andy Moran's posting of 1-5 off Shane Enright will give further cause for concern. At the other end James O'Donoghue again struggled to make his mark in a Croke Park match.

Fitzmaurice accepted that, on "the balance of play" there was a 'get out of jail' element to their day.

"Any time you draw a game you can look at it and say 'yeah, we got away with a bit there' but we were a point up with two minutes to go so we could have stolen it as well."

But this was just their second match in seven weeks, in comparison to Mayo's sixth (including two periods of extra-time) across the same stretch which will leave them with more than 600 minutes of championship action played by next Saturday evening. So the benefit of the game wasn't lost on him.

"I couldn't put a percentage on it but a game like that is invaluable because, regardless of what you try to do in training which we do as intense as we possibly can, you can't replicate that kind of championship do-or-die stuff. So it will benefit both teams for next weekend."

Fitzmaurice has a habit of getting messy business done early in the week. Marc Ó Sé's demotion for the Limerick replay a case in point. And in that sense he has perhaps more scope than his counterpart Stephen Rochford.

"You need to be decisive alright. Tomorrow (Monday) could be an interesting day."

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