Sunday 26 January 2020

Colm O'Rourke: Kerry and Mayo heading in opposite directions

‘Eoghan O’Gara is generally brought into a game to add a bit of old-fashioned physicality.’ Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
‘Eoghan O’Gara is generally brought into a game to add a bit of old-fashioned physicality.’ Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

The league has nearly always been the unloved cousin in the GAA. For many years it was 'only the league' as managers and players looked forward to the championship. Sometimes it even appeared as if it was in some way a hindrance to success later in the year.

Of course the vast majority saw no silverware in spring or autumn so the comments about the second competition were completely laughable. Now with the Allianz League there is a new reality, one largely down to Dublin and Jim Gavin: win the league, then win the championship, every year.

So the league is now the ultimate competition of equality and is a better measure of improvement than the championship. It brings counties of similar standard together and good organisation, motivation, management and commitment can bring serious improvement, particularly to those in the bottom two divisions. In the higher divisions there are probably only small gains possible.

Last weekend saw Kerry trying to stall the Dublin juggernaut. They nearly did too, through sheer grit, but the Dubs are a bit like Dracula now and only a stake through the heart will end their run.

It was a really exciting match in Tralee - and there was even a bit of kicking of the ball involved which is an increasingly rare sight.

These two counties have had a proper rivalry for the last 40 years and most of that time it has been dominated by Kerry. The shoe is on the other foot now and Dublin are certainly making hay while the sun shines. Kerry did not mention the Dublin record before the game but you can be sure it was in the back of all the players' minds, especially as Dublin were trying to equal the long-standing record of a previous Kerry side. Like Ireland in rugby, there was no mention by Irish players of stopping England setting a new record of consecutive Test victories, but eventually it was all about beating them and spiking their guns.

Kerry nearly did it but nearly never bulled the cow as the farmer said to the bishop. With Kerry two up in injury time they should have held on, but good play from Dublin and a bit of a clanger from Paul Murphy in giving away the ball from a free gave Dublin one last chance. It was not easy but quick hands gave Paul Mannion some room and over she went. Dublin got off the hook again but the worst thing for them would be to think that somebody will always come to the rescue. Some day when they are behind, there will be no fifth cavalry coming over the hill.

In 1991, Meath had a very bad habit of having to claw back leads in every game; in some ways it seemed like a self-fulfilling prophecy and we all probably believed that something would turn up in every game to save us. Yet in the All-Ireland final against Down the tide went out and did not come back in quick enough. It will happen to Dublin too some day if they continue to sail close to the wind. In this league campaign alone there have been close calls against Tyrone, Donegal and now Kerry. Some day the great comeback will inevitably come up short.

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Anyway, back to Tralee, which was what you might call a raw game. In the first half most of the action was off the ball. The argument for two referees was made. Away from the play there was pulling of jerseys, all sorts of grappling and not a punch in sight. Hulk Hogan and Stone Cold Steve Austin would have been embarrassed at the antics. Similar episodes were played out in the game between Donegal and Tyrone. In the bad old days one player gave another a punch and they sorted it out among themselves. Now everybody has to get involved. I wonder is it seen as a measure of manhood, all this snarling and growling but no hitting. Every player is told not to take a step back. It is the closest thing to a crowd of schoolgirls fighting over a fella.

Dean Rock profited from Kerry fouling and teams need to beware of giving away a free to the champions within 45 metres. He does not miss the easy ones and gets most of the hard ones too. His kicking into the gale in the second half was just fantastic and he is probably Dublin's most valuable player right now. Any league match where one forward is going to consistently get seven or eight points is quite winnable.

Of course Dublin had to introduce the heavy gang in the second half and Cian O'Sullivan, Paul Flynn, Paul Mannion, Eoghan O'Gara, Kevin McManamon and Bernard Brogan show strength in depth. The only thing is that later in the year most of them will probably start if that is any consolation. McManamon made a lot of things happen in a short space of time. A low centre of gravity and close ball control means he rolls off players and creates chances. O'Gara is generally brought into a game to add a bit of old-fashioned physicality. He does that alright but his tackling technique or complete lack of it will mean that some day a referee will shake red in his direction.

Some in Kerry were taken aback by criticism of their fouling and lack of discipline as if the Kerry way and Champagne football were part of the same sentence. They have had plenty of players who would put manners on a wild elephant so denials about hard men can be put down to a temporary loss of memory. Most of the frees given away on Saturday night were of the soft, even silly, variety. Yet there were positives for Kerry too.

They lived with Dublin until the end, they have far more new players than Dublin and maybe Jack Savage and Jack Barry could make it. David Moran was the best of a high-powered set of midfielders and James O'Donoghue will give Paul Geaney the support he needs. So, all in all, there should be a lot of optimism in Kerry after the initial disappointment dies down.

Not so in Mayo, who went back to bad habits against Cavan. They have invented even worse habits as they go along in this campaign. Their constant passing over and back along the 45-metre line indicates a team which has not learned much recently, or indeed at any time. Unless they get the sort of pace that Ryan McHugh brings to Donegal they are going to regress further.

It seems to me that the full-forward line is drifting out to midfield looking for easy ball and there is no one inside to kick it to. Cillian O'Connor must stay inside and contest long ball and they need Lee Keegan, Patrick Durkan and Keith Higgins playing around midfield with instructions to attack the massed defences that form along the 45-metre line. Otherwise it is back to prayers - and they have not exactly worked before.

The O'Shea brothers may return but that will bring power and not the pace and subtlety that breaks the outer defensive line and wins big games. Cavan set Mayo the same puzzle as they have experienced on many occasions in the past. Perhaps Mayo will be better in summer and maybe this is part of some long-term strategy, but the code is hard to decipher.

If I was picking the Mayo team there would be several positional changes but all the tea in India could not pay someone to run this team and I admire Stephen Rochford who must want to lash out in frustration but keeps his counsel very well. The continuing Mayo saga will fill many column inches this year. Oh, for an end to this play which is now rolling close to 60 acts. When are the heroes going to appear?

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