Colm O'Rourke: Dead rubbers loom and serial losers may progress, nonsensical nature of Super 8 is rearing its head
The gloss on the Super 8 washed off a bit in the gloom and rain of Croke Park last Sunday and if Kerry and Kildare don’t win today there will be little enthusiasm for their dead rubber meeting in Killarney in a fortnight. Anyway, when it gets to this stage of the championship a defeat should mean the end of the season and if you beat Kerry once in Croke Park you should not have to live with the possibility of having to beat them again to win the All-Ireland.
In fact, the nonsense of this new system is reflected by another possibility: that one team in the group could win all their games and the rest win one each; then, the second county in the group could reach the All-Ireland semi-final on score difference. If this team had come through the back door, then it is possible to have a county in an All-Ireland semi-final who had lost three championship matches. And they could go on to win the All-Ireland. Some system that.
In previous years, the All-Ireland quarter-finals on the August Bank Holiday weekend worked very well. It really signalled the arrival of the business end of the championship. There were no second or third chances, it was death or glory. As Eric Cantona said, losers go home. Proper order too.
Today it will be hot in Clones. Not just temperature wise but the young players of Kerry will find out what the real world of raw, uncompromising championship football is about. It was not designed to be like this.
Last Sunday, Kerry were supposed to swan into town and put on a display of silky football in Croke Park. They had been reading too many papers.
If they had looked at the Cork-Tyrone match the alarm bells would have rung. It was only then that the poverty of Cork was totally exposed, but the positive spin of the Munster final had seeped into the consciousness of too many Kerry heads. When that happens there is no coming back. Not during a match anyway.
Now with a very cold wind blowing on their necks the Kerry players have a chance to save their year and their reputations. And a reputation for good or ill is hard to shake off in the Kingdom, where players are judged by different standards to most ordinary counties who win the odd All-Ireland.
So Kerry have gone from contenders to crisis in one anaemic performance. Eamonn Fitzmaurice is in the firing line too. After all the compliments for throwing so many young stars into the Munster final and being rewarded with the performance of a lifetime, the harsh realities dawned in Croke Park a week ago. Some teams actually mark their men, unlike Cork, and proper teams have a collective will and work-rate to cover weaknesses.
The only Kerry player who seemed to have factored in all of this was the youngest, David Clifford. The 19-year-old could have got caught up in the bullshit of imminent coronation, the Prince Harry of Kerry football. Yet he was the one who dug in, worked hard and did the right things when all around were falling apart. He passed his first big test with distinction. The bad news for him is that another test awaits every Sunday, and the hardest of all will probably be at club level, where there will be even less respect shown.
Anyway, the brutal nature of championship football exposed some of the great Kerry players who have dominated underage ranks. Games at this level are about a whole lot of things — maturity, confidence, intelligence, work-rate and mental resolve. On every one of these Monaghan tick the boxes. Perhaps intelligence might be pushing it a bit considering the stupid things a couple of Monaghan players continue to do in almost every match, but I won’t name them or their school to protect their reputations.
They are not blessed with the same individual talent as Kerry but the sum of Monaghan talent is certainly greater than the individual parts. It is the essence of team. They are unlikely to score a huge total and will rely on a certain degree of obstinacy, or thickness as we used to call it, to keep the opposition within 15 to 18 points. That is manageable, even if the fast conditions should lead to better scoring. A bit of rain would do Monaghan — and the potatoes — more than a little good but that is not happening today.
When I watched Monaghan beat Laois in Navan I was very impressed with their first-half performance. In the second half they looked as if they rested on their oars with a big test awaiting and so it turned out to be. They have some players at the very top of their form: the Wylies, Niall Kearns, Ryan McAnespie, Vinny Corey and Fintan Kelly. Conor McManus has been a little quiet but a big game in Clones should ensure a big performance, while Rory Beggan’s long kick-outs and frees make him the equal or superior of Stephen Cluxton. You need to bless yourself when saying that. Karl O’Connell keeps trying these kicks with the outside of the foot to the point where I am inclined to shout, ‘Don’t do it’ . . . but they keep going over.
To win this afternoon Kerry need to get their kick-outs sorted. It was a raffle last week in Croke Park when Shane Murphy launched them out. (Everything gets blamed on goalkeepers these days.) Why not just kick it out when in doubt and let the midfielders fight for it? Too many players get off the hook now when they should just get on with it and win their own ball. Could Paul Murphy, Sean O’Shea, David Moran, Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue be as bad again? Yes, they could and there needs to be a major change in attitude and personnel. It stlll may not be enough to stop Monaghan who now smell blood.
In Newbridge-or-nowhere, a similar plot unfolds.
Kildare are fighting for their lives, something they have got used to since the defeat by Carlow. Some smart psychologist will come up with a theory on whether a team who were used to championship knock-out football had a change of mentality when they went back to a league format which is essentially what the Super 8 is. You don’t have to have a degree to have a theory.
Kildare ran into a lot of roadblocks last week and were very easily bottled up by Monaghan. Often they carried the ball into trouble and were easily dispossessed or had to stop and play it back to a team-mate who was standing around the 45-metre line. It was all very static with no hard runners coming off the shoulder, which is very easily defended. The manager Cian O’Neill (pictured) needs to ensure that there is a change of approach today. For Kildare can hope that Daniel Flynn will get the ball, beat three or four defenders and score, but it will not work against a Galway defence that knows how to defend individually and, more importantly, collectively.
Kildare need much more from Kevin Feely and Tommy Moolick and the two Cribbins, not to mention Paddy Brophy, who needs to show a lot more drive. These are players of talent but there is a lot more to the package.
Galway are on top of the world and probably feel they have one foot in the semi-final, so it is not really live or die for them today. It will be very interesting if they are able to bring that same relentless approach today as last week when they really throttled Kerry from start to finish. It should drive them on to even greater performances with the confidence that brings. Yet there is also the danger of mentally slipping into a not so razor sharp mode.
Even though they beat Kerry I was still not very impressed with Galway. They certainly are a team but there were very few outstanding individual performances, apart from the likes of Ian Burke, Shane Walsh and Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh. Damien Comer is too one-dimensional, he needs to bring others into the game rather than always taking on his man — a few quick releases could set up goals for his friends up front. One thing Galway do have is a bench which makes a difference and they should finish with all their redheads on the pitch. It seems to work. All they need along with them is a few farmers.
Galway have been cagey in their games up to now and that won’t change today. The clamour from outsiders, and even their own supporters, is to let off the handbrake and run up big scores. Yet why would they change now? Their approach is working very well and they seem to be getting better all the time.
However, they are in an unusual position today. They don’t have to win. The pitch is tight and the home support will be similar to the Mayo match. If Kildare are men at all it will drive them to another emotional high. Maybe even enough to win and keep their season alive.