Sunday 15 December 2019

Flawless O'Sullivan centre of attention

Fitzmaurice's tactical masterstroke frees up veteran star to get Kerry back in the groove

Cork failed to get to grips with Kerry, particularly Declan O'Sullivan, during their Munster SFC final defeat. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Cork failed to get to grips with Kerry, particularly Declan O'Sullivan, during their Munster SFC final defeat. Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Around the 58th minute of Sunday's Munster football final, Marc O Se reclaimed a ball from Colm O'Neill out near the covered stand sideline at the Blackrock End of Pairc Ui Chaoimh and sought the safety of numbers inside him.

As play was transferred across the Kerry goalmouth, the sanctuary of Declan O'Sullivan was eventually reached.

There, the second most experienced asset Kerry had on the field took possession and a certain calm descended. All afternoon, O'Sullivan had provided that same calm, that same sanctuary.

Of all the little tactical nuances they brought to their effort in the closing football championship of this module of Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the placement of O'Sullivan in a withdrawn role behind his midfield was perhaps the most effective.

Named at full-forward and started at centre-forward, O'Sullivan took a step further back and, with Bryan Sheehan, took the central role in directing Kerry's play.

Much of what he did with ball in hand 13 times in each half was simple. A handpass here, a recycle there. But it was the control that he brought which made the tactic so effective.

His handpass may have been intercepted by Cian O'Sullivan in the 2011 All-Ireland final against Dublin which led to Kevin McManamon's game-changing goal, but generally there isn't a better player in Gaelic football to protect possession.

With that in mind, Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his team redrew a role for one of their most prolific forwards of modern times.

In tandem with Sheehan – himself celebrating a half century of championship appearances in the green and gold – they ran the show.

For the Cahirciveen man, it represented quite a stunning regeneration after missing most of 2013.

THRIVE

He had shown glimpses of it from centre-forward in the league against Tyrone in March; his place-kicking that day further embellishing the view that Kerry couldn't hope to thrive in his absence.

But when he struggled against the more mobile Paul Sharry in a subsequent league match against Westmeath in Mullingar and was replaced by Daithi Casey at half-time, doubts about his sustainability in the engine room surfaced.

Sheehan was first out of the Kerry dressing-room and cut a disconsolate figure on his way to the team bus that day. From there to Pairc Ui Chaoimh last Sunday has been quite a transformation.

With those two pillars anchoring themselves behind midfield, the game- plan was in place to release a devastating series of attacks, the success of which no one outside the camp could see coming – not least Brian Cuthbert and Cork, who surely came away from Tralee in early April in the belief that the upper hand was theirs after the league demolition.

The quality of the foot-passing was something to behold.

The 20 to 30-metre punted pass that hops just once into space around the 'D' and is gathered on the chest with precision timing has long been a Kerry trademark; all that changed on Sunday were the names.

So many of Kerry's points came through this mechanism. O'Sullivan to James O'Donoghue after three minutes; Sheehan to Paul Geaney a minute later; Anthony Maher to O'Donoghue and O'Sullivan to Geaney again in the 12th and 16th minutes. And on it went, 10 points in all requiring just a hop, turn and accurate kick from the receiver to secure the score.

Had Colm Cooper replicated what O'Donoghue did and reeled off eight points from play in a Munster final against Cork, we would be measuring it today against his greatest ever displays.

It was the closest re-run since of Frank McGuigan's extraordinary 11- point show for Tyrone against Armagh in the 1984 Ulster final.

One of the striking features of this Kerry team is the confidence they have in themselves. The disarming reticence of previous Kerry teams is gone.

"I think we're all comfortable in our skin and our own game," said team captain Fionn Fitzgerald. "It was just a matter of performing. The league has been a bit topsy turvy, there's no doubt about that. We're still finding ourselves, we're a young team, but I don't think we doubt ourselves.

"We enjoy the big games. This was a big game. You want to test yourself down in Pairc Ui Chaoimh with backs to the wall. Maybe a lot of people didn't give us a chance, but I think a lot of our fellas enjoy that."

Even the Tralee experience didn't unnerve them, he promised.

"I don't think as a player that you doubt yourself. You put it to bed. We all knew it wasn't an indication of where we were at. It was a freak performance. We were flat in a number of different ways. It was parked very soon after that weekend and we've driven on from there," he said.

"Psychologically it was a big win today as well, getting that win under our belt. We have momentum now and hopefully we can drive on."

When the same two teams met at the same venue just over two years earlier, the RTE analyst Martin Carney suggested that the "music had died" for that particular Kerry team. Their subsequent All-Ireland quarter-final defeat to Donegal seemed to confirm that.

Against that background, the context of what Fitzmaurice has achieved in a season and a half should be set. Already he has matched the provincial title haul of Jack O'Connor in either of his three and four-year terms as Kerry manager.

Just five of the team that started against Cork in 2012 started again two years later. In all, 11 of the 19 used by Kerry in 2012 played some role last Sunday.

The calculated decision to keep players like O'Sullivan away for this year's league campaign has risked Division 1 status, both this year and last year, but the benefits have been reaped in the long term.

On an afternoon when Kerry put back-to-back provincial minor titles together their recent underage record, particularly at U-21 level, never seemed more irrelevant.

But their capacity to produce a particular genre of footballer is enshrined.

Irish Independent

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