Saturday 24 February 2018

Colm Keys: Kerry options limited as they seek quick defensive fix

Kingdom have been wide open at the back and are giving up too many goal chances this season

Mark Griffin blocks Andy Moran’s goal-bound shot, however, the Kerry defence struggled to contain Mayo’s attack. Photo: Sportsfile
Mark Griffin blocks Andy Moran’s goal-bound shot, however, the Kerry defence struggled to contain Mayo’s attack. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

When Stephen Rochford and his backroom team began the process of sifting through the finer points of Sunday's draw with Kerry with a view to Saturday's replay their task will have been a lot less onerous than their counterparts down south despite the blizzard of criticism that has, once again, come their way.

Since Mayo embarked on their extraordinary qualifier run against Derry at the beginning of July they have started just 19 different players.

By last weekend, Fergal Boland, who had started against Derry, had slipped out of the match-day squad.

From the other 18, Conor Loftus looks too far out of the reckoning for a start while the lack of involvement for Ger Cafferkey over the last two games renders his prospects of inclusion quite remote.

Essentially, the 15 starting places are between 16 players, if the last two games anything to gauge by.

Barry Moran just looks to have too little game time behind him to be considered for a role relating to Kieran Donaghy while, despite his continuous trouble with kick-outs, management are not likely to move on David Clarke after the disastrous consequences of his last displacement.

So it boils down to whether or not Paddy Durcan comes in from the start this time and if it's Colm Boyle making way. Maybe form will dictate that Diarmuid O'Connor makes way and that they restructure with a sweeper in front of Donaghy instead of handing all the responsibility to Aidan O'Shea.

Whatever calls are made, the scope is more limited than Éamonn Fitzmaurice's suite of choices this week because Mayo have a defined, settled team that, Durcan apart, doesn't look like it can benefit from personnel change in the present circumstances.

Fitzmaurice has never been shy about making changes between games in his five seasons as Kerry manager.

Leaving the inevitable changed face of a team from the end of one championship season to the beginning of another aside, the Kerry manager has only once, out of 20 opportunities, delivered the same 15 for back-to-back matches, when they played Waterford and Tipperary six days apart in the 2013 Munster Championship, his first two games.

Game-to-game changes have ranged from nine in 2013 to 12 in 2014 to a season-high of 16 in 2015 before coming back down to just seven between the four games last season. This season the rate is even lower with just six. That's an average of two per game.

Some have been forced by injury - Donnchadh Walsh's absence through injury for the first time in Fitzmaurice's 25 championship games being the most recent and obvious example.

But more often than not it is a matter of choice, horses for courses to suit opponents, conditions or the type of game management is expecting to materialise.

In four games this season, for instance, the same midfield pairing has yet to start back-to-back matches - Jack Barry and Anthony Maher were together for Clare, Maher and David Moran renewed their partnership for Cork, Barry was back in for Maher against Galway as more mobility called, but Maher stepped back in beside Moran the last day.

His struggles in Tom Parsons's company the last day would suggest that he is now vulnerable to Barry for Saturday.

Fitzmaurice has never let reputations cloud his judgment. Donaghy was left off for the 2015 All-Ireland final despite being captain and a previous threat to Dublin. Marc Ó Sé and Paul Murphy also made way, three changes from a team that had won a semi-final against Tyrone.

Between their two previous replays Fitzmaurice and his management have shown a particular propensity for change.

For the 2014 semi-final replay with Mayo, Donaghy was recalled after his cameo in the drawn game while Ó Sé also lost his place to Fionn Fitzgerald for the Limerick game.

Between the 2015 Munster finals they were at their most ruthless. Fitzgerald had kicked the equaliser but was still dropped while Peter Crowley, an All-Star the previous year, made way for his porous defending, especially for Cork's third goal. In all they made four changes.

It may not reach that figure this time but Fitzmaurice and company can expect to at least maintain the average of two with a third more probable than possible, especially if Walsh can put a hamstring injury behind him. Even if he doesn't, Michael Geaney's prospects of starting again have slipped.

It was with a knowing smile that Fitzmaurice concluded his post-match press conference on Sunday by suggesting yesterday was going to be an "interesting" day.

Repairs will be most focused however on the full-back line which took quite a buffeting on Sunday.

Mark Griffin, nurtured carefully over the last two seasons as full-back, was withdrawn during the break after Jason Doherty had stretched him so often, Shane Enright shipped 1-5 to Andy Moran while Killian Young was taken for three points from play by Cillian O'Connor.

Fitzmaurice appeared to give them a pass when he pointed to the source of the possession being served to Mayo's inside trio.

"The full-back line are often thrown to the wolves but a lot of the time, particularly when you're not playing a sweeper, if there's space there and uncontested ball going in, it's a tough assignment."

Mayo created three gilt-edged goal chances, taking two, and when added to the five that Cork created and the four that Galway had, it points to a substantial amount of leakage.

Are the personnel there to fix it? A glance at the list of replacements on Sunday would suggest there are limitations.

Fitzgerald is a fine footballer who joins the attack well and can pick his colleagues out with precision but he is not a dogged man-marker.

Jonathan Lyne can switch between defence and attack but is more suited to half-back.

Gavin Crowley made an impact in the league final but had fallen down the list until last Sunday when he re-appeared as No 26.

Tom O'Sullivan has a growing reputation and could be the potential bolter but experience at this level is minimal.

Lyne and Young are the other two defensive substitutes used in the four-match campaign to date, the reluctance to give more exposure to some of the recent All-Ireland minor-winning stock perhaps painted in different light now.

Brian O'Beaglaoich is more of a specialist full-back but has rarely featured this season because of injury and wasn't even part of the 26-man squad on Sunday.

The most obvious solution is to keep Tadhg Morley in the full-back line, where he played for much of the second half and bring Lyne in. But Fitzmaurice's thought process is likely to go a lot deeper than what he saw last.

It's very short notice to be implementing a sweeper system but Kerry will surely have to sacrifice some of their more attacking instincts to offer a better level of protection the next day.

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