Saturday 21 April 2018

Colm O'Rourke: Kerry's killer instinct to end Dublin's dream

Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien is a great man for picking off a few points without any fuss
Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien is a great man for picking off a few points without any fuss
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Two great worlds collide today in Croke Park today. The best teams, the best managers, the best players. Most would agree with that, but count me out if some think that it will be a game to save Gaelic football from an indifferent or maybe just a lousy season. The players are not interested in that. That is for men in suits and those who comb grey hair to come up with both rules and competition structures which are fit for purpose.

Enough on that.

How will Kerry deal with Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs? A few years ago most people would have thought that football had reached the end of innovation. Blanket defences were in place for many moons and then along came Cluxton. No individual has changed football as much and in every parish and club there is a copier of Cluxton. Nobody has really broken the code. Kerry will try to mark zonally and every forward must immediately take up position after a wide or score. If one player is asleep for five seconds it will be too late.

Two years ago Cluxton kicked long when the game was in the balance with a couple of minutes left, two Kerry men went for it, it broke to McManamon and you know the rest. So it is not all about short kick-outs.

Kerry need to force long kicks from at least half of these as they will feel that they should have an advantage around the middle third through Moran, Maher, Buckley and Donnchadh Walsh, the most under-rated player in the country - by me. Yet Dublin will hardly worry too much about high ball. Denis Bastick, Brian Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley, Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly can hunt with the best but the form of both Connolly and Flynn is a major concern. A player can be working just as hard and trying to do everything right but with nothing happening, that is the story with the Dublin pair. It can drain the confidence from the best of men.

Kerry need a sweeper. And one who makes sure to be in front of his full-back line at the right time. Against Tyrone the Kerry backs were like juveniles as eyes were drawn to the ball and runners were not being taken up. A bit of luck, inexperience and selfishness saved them. The Dubs will pull the lever if they get such chances and no team gains as much energy and oxygen from goals, especially if they are scored into the Hill end.

The most likely scorer is, of course, Bernard Brogan, and I thought Marc Ó Sé would have been asked to perform his tight-marking role, which he has carried off for a decade. It looks as if the dreaded hamstring has affected him at the 11th hour and he'll be an observer from the start at least.

Those who are out and about could turn on their tellies at about a quarter to five and get the real game. At that stage all the subs will be unleashed, like great actors coming onto the stage to deliver the memorable line. Something like, "Play it again, Sam" from Casablanca, that would be appropriate, but a draw is not what they are here for. Maybe Kerry have the better panel, even if they are short of backs and Aidan O'Mahony can be a bit macho at full-back - he cannot give away easy frees.

The balance in the Ó Sé/Brogan battle has been in Ó Sé's favour in the last decade but an old forward can afford to lose 75 per cent of the battles if he makes the others pay. The old back is like the ageing gunfighter, one mistake and he's dead.

It was probably going to be the final shootout between these two, and the winner takes all. Ó Sé, one of the greatest players ever, is likely to hand in his gun after this one. A goal or two for Brogan would win every duel, even if he never does anything else. Also there is always goal king Kevin McManamon to come on and Kerry have paid a high price in the last two Championship games when he wrecked their ambitions. There will be a plan for him in particular and a red light will go on in the Kerry management when he starts warming up. Some back will be under orders to expect a special guest in the last quarter.

On the other side, the Dubs must prevent the Gooch and James O'Donoghue from scoring goals and the marking arrangements at the beginning of the match will be a fascinating aside to the whole game. When the match is over, the winning manager will get all the credit for making the right moves. It is not always the case, but the winners write the history.

At least Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice have heavy ammunition sitting close by them on the bench. When to use them and for whom will be central to the game. Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm and there is no manager alive who does not mull over decisions when beaten. Perhaps the best ones do the same after victory.

Last weekend will have brought all these things to a head. The teams were picked and even if they are not announced, every back will have been told who he is marking. There are some who will be just happy to be on - especially with the amount of changing Kerry do - but few will want the best forward on the opposition.

Once when I was manager in a big game, I found it impossible to get backs to mark the opposition's two best forwards. They all suggested somebody else was much better suited to the job. It won't happen today, yet some reputations will be made or broken by that simple term, mark your man, even if we are now in the days of blanket defence, or passing the buck as it could also be called.

The defeat by Donegal left a scar on Dublin which Cian O'Sullivan has had a big role in healing. He stays back and allows Jack McCaffrey, Philly McMahon and to a lesser extent James McCarthy attack. Kerry will try to force McMahon to be the last defender and he is not as good at that as galloping forward.

O'Sullivan is like a great horse of the 1980s, See You Then. He won three champion hurdles but did not race much as his legs were always dodgy. O'Sullivan has similar trouble with hamstrings and if he plays the sprinting will be only out of absolute necessity. At half-pace he would still make a big contribution just as Kevin Moran did back in the '80s when he had hamstring trouble.

Two years ago these sides played out one of the best, if not the best, game I have witnessed. The standards of skill, athleticism and bravery were truly outstanding and as most of the same players are on view it should be the same. Yet neither manager wants a match as open as that again and often finals are decided by a mistake as much as a piece of genius. Think of the kick-out last year which gifted a goal to Kerry. Or Cork doing the same. Maybe this is the day of the lesser lights and Ciaran Kilkenny and Paddy Andrews are looking to become a headline act for Dublin while Stephen O'Brien picks off a few points for Kerry without any fuss.

It is hard to see a clear winner and things will open up a bit in the second half as, despite the conservative approach which will be taken by both sides early on, the real nature of the beast on both sides is to attack.

I was much more impressed by Kerry in the semi-final, they played great football in wet conditions and the standard of foot-passing was incredible - and the ball stuck to the receiver too. Dublin were not as calm against Mayo on either day. Perhaps they needed the games to bring them up to Group One pace, yet there is a certain panic which is just below the surface.

Kerry's backs can be opened by running straight at them, but on the basis that they have solved this problem I feel that they have a more skilful forward line.

Kerry for me.

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