Tuesday 19 March 2019

Colm O'Rourke: 'Don't get too carried away by February's phoney wars'

Mick Fitzsimons and Paul Geaney battle for the ball last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Mick Fitzsimons and Paul Geaney battle for the ball last weekend. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The depths to which football has plunged was summed up by the reaction to the Kerry-Dublin game last weekend. Yes, it was good, and both sides went at it hard, but it was talked up into something more than it was. Epic battles only happen when there is a bit more at stake. Maybe it is a natural reaction when there are so few good games. The weekend was balanced by all the other Division 1 matches ranging from poor to rotten (in the case of Galway v Monaghan). So thank God for small mercies.

Football has never been much different. Most of the games in the last 30 years were raw enough. We were not blessed with too many great teams, or great skill either, but the essential change in the game has seen it become one of keeping possession, with fewer contests for the ball. This is a by-product of hand-passing, which most supporters find neither skilful nor enjoyable.

The chorus after Kerry defeated Dublin was 'this is the way football should be played'. We all know that. The problem is that few teams are capable of or willing to play that way.

The reason the game was so enjoyable was the speed the ball was transferred from defence to attack. There was almost as much hand-passing, and there was also a lot of blanket defending, but the ball was moved so quickly that defences didn't have time to get set in most cases, especially early in the game. Players wanted to either move forward at pace with the ball through quick hand-passing or good accurate kicks. There was a lot of long kicking, which made the game exciting for spectators. Speed of movement of man and ball ensured there were plenty of scoring chances for both sides.

A guiding principle for most of the game was that both sides wanted to attack at pace and to move the ball forward. Contrast that to Galway-Monaghan or Roscommon-Tyrone and the number of hand-passes that went backwards in those games. The build-ups were often so ponderous that you had time to nip out for a pizza before the ball got into the scoring area.

Still, when Dublin were five down in the last 10 minutes they were faced by a green wall so they had to be patient in working a man into a scoring position. This was often done by a series of probing hand-passes.

Peter Keane should be delighted with the result, and even more delighted with the performance. A developing team gets confidence from a win like this, even if it is only a minor showdown in the grand scheme of things. Yet, there are a couple of notes of caution too.

I am struggling to find many of the new Kerry players who I was really impressed with. Seán O'Shea, of course, paid his way again, and while Dara Moynihan and Gavin O'Brien were also very good, the jury is still very much out. Perhaps I was expecting too much from a lot of exceptional young players who Keane managed to win minor All-Irelands - they may make their mark in time.

Perhaps more of an issue at the moment is the form of Paul Geaney. For a few years he was one of the best forwards in the game, but his form has gone downhill. There will be no point in going to the big field without Geaney in top gear. Like all great players, though, the big occasion brings out the best in him.

If Dublin meet Kerry later in the year, they will hope the Kingdom are still fielding the same full-back line. Dublin would make hay.

Kerry should also be careful not to believe their own publicity. In 2017, they beat Dublin in the league final but they crashed and burned afterwards. Last year Kerry demolished Cork in the Munster final. There were numerous people, who should have known better, raving about them as the only opposition to Dublin. We all know what happened in the Super 8.

Kerry had humiliated Cork alright but that was no guide to anything. Before judging a team by a performance it is always wise to consider the opposition. Cork were dreadful last year and were subsequently destroyed by Tyrone. Their tale of woe continues and the corporate rubbish in their five-year plan is not going to save them.

What we learned last weekend is that Kerry are making progress, nothing more. Monaghan beat Dublin and there was much less fuss. Of course Dublin talked up their rivals too after this game but their memory banks are filled for use later on. This was not the real Dublin and every good farmer in Kerry will be able to tell Keane to beware of Dubs bearing gifts - there is nothing more dangerous than a licking bull.

Dublin don't like losing, even if the league is hardly a priority. The same applied last year and the year before, but the players are so competitive among themselves as well as against the opposition that they win even when they are not fully wound up. That is the nature of the beast.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote that the only certainties to come back on to the team were James McCarthy and Ciaran Kilkenny - and you can add in Jack McCaffrey, who will torment a few wing-fowards this year.

Cian O'Sullivan and Philly McMahon will also be in the mix, but what Dublin need most is a full-back who can catch high balls, mark a man tightly and have a bit of 'presence'. There is no Seán Doherty or Lar Foley walking around lifting sacks of grain or fixing water pipes. Mick Fitzsimons has speed and competitiveness but is not good in the air. He did not help his team last week by getting sent off. The first yellow card was for a phantom tackle but he should have got a straight red for stupidity in the second case.

Worryingly for Dublin, very few serious contenders have appeared so far in this winter trawl; in fact there may be no new player at all this year. There's always Diarmuid Connolly of course. I suspect Jim Gavin is tiring of being asked about him. Some forget that Dublin won the easiest of their four All-Irelands last year without Connolly, who was a bit of a distraction in 2017. There were no calls to Boston last summer asking him to come home.

Anyway, it is great to see that we may have some opposition to the Dublin dominance. Yet the word is very much 'may'. There is a lot of improvement to come from Kerry, with David Clifford back. The only trouble for them and others is that there is also huge improvement to come from the Dubs.

One guarantee from all of this is good news for the GAA - if these two do meet at any time before the All-Ireland final there will be no trouble selling out any stadium - Croke Park, Killarney or, if the GAA wanted to throw Cork a bone, Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

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