Saturday 17 February 2018

Going back to keep moving forward

Kerry will never panic but their prospects in the qualifiers rest on a return to old values, writes John O'Brien

During the sabbatical he took from the job in the middle of the last decade, Jack O'Connor told a story from the spring of 2004. Kerry were playing Dublin in a league match in Parnell Park, a game they would ultimately win, but early on they were shipping heavy artillery fire. When a concerned O'Connor left his dug-out and ventured up the sideline, a sniper took aim from the crowd, piercing straight into his heart. "Bring back Paw-dee."

O'Connor would frequently point to that pulsating encounter as a seminal step on the path to the 2004 All-Ireland title. Not just beating Dublin but doing so in their own backyard and overcoming a hefty early deficit in the process. It stood to them when they met Dublin again in the All-Ireland quarter-final and buried them. It had established the foundation on which they swept all before them on the way to their 33rd All-Ireland title.

There is little question that Dublin and the painful manner of Kerry's defeat last September are a huge source of personal motivation for O'Connor this year but, right now, that chance at redemption seems a long way off. Forget the glib notions of provincial championships not meaning much anymore or of good teams even favouring the qualifier route. Kerry are six games away from glory and potential slip-ups face them every step of the way.

The mild panic induced by the Cork defeat betrayed a county on edge about the future. All the usual fears bubbled to the surface: the failure to win an All-Ireland minor title since 1994, the sustained lack of success at under 21 level. Great players growing old and heavy-legged. "One of those days when the music dies for an awful lot of Kerry players," said the analyst Martin Carney, an assessment that met with less hostility in the county than you might have expected.

Jack O'Connor does panic, though, like a poker player does exuberant dances of joy. It isn't wired into his hard drive. There has been no rush to discard the old crew after one bad day at the office, no haste to shake things up with fresh legs. Of the four changes to today's starting 15 against Westmeath, one was predictable (the return of Bryan Sheehan), two were enforced (the absences of Darran O'Sullivan and Peter Crowley through injury), while the inclusion of James O'Donoghue represents the lone nod to youth finally having its day.

No surprise there. There is a sure-headed cussedness about O'Connor that closely resembles a certain Ireland football manager. A sweeping raft of changes in mid-July would never be on the Kerry agenda. In the same column in which he recounted his story about beating Dublin in Parnell Park, O'Connor also made something of a mission statement. "The teams who win All-Irelands down through the years," he wrote, "always have a settled look about their forward line, especially the inside line."

He then reeled off some of the great forward lines in the history of the game: Doyle-Keaveney-McCarthy. Sheehy-Bomber-Egan. O'Rourke-Stafford-Flynn. Forwards thrived on familiarity, he said, with a position and with each other. Some partnerships were telepathic: Clarke-McDonnell, Mulligan-Canavan, Cooper-Donaghy. "I don't want to labour this," he said before hammering his point home. "But the importance of settled forwards cannot be overstated."

O'Connor hasn't deviated significantly from that stance over the years and, from it, you can deduce a couple of things. Firstly, that he would have thought long and hard before giving the exciting O'Donoghue his first championship start and that it more than likely would have been on one of those famously long and contemplative evenings in Finian's Bay when the plan of Colm Cooper lining out at full-forward began to take shape in his head.

On the assumption that Cooper stays close to goal as selected, there are those who will anticipate O'Connor's strategy as another potentially seminal moment of Kerry's summer in much the same vein as Donaghy's posting at full-forward in 2006 or the summoning of Mike McCarthy from retirement in 2009, years in which Kerry negotiated a path through the thicket of the qualifiers to All-Ireland glory. For what it might mean to Cooper himself and the Kerry team as a whole, this might not be an exaggeration.

At times like these O'Connor has spoken of the need for a manager to introduce "something new" and perhaps the moving of Cooper closer to the square is this summer's conscious effort to reinvigorate a sluggish-looking team. In a strange way, therefore, this year's "new" is essentially a return to the old. A firm resolve to embrace once more an old and cherished way of playing. A return to basics.

Kerry's struggles this summer have been painfully visible. Against Tipperary, they did enough to win but they laboured to get the ball forward at times and starved their forwards of chances and, short of radical surgery before the Munster semi-final, those shortcomings were always likely to prove fatal even if all that separated them from Cork was a few missed frees and '45s.

Against Cork, Cooper cut a notably frustrated figure, wandering deep from his corner into places a deadly finisher has no right to be as those further out failed in their primary duty of funnelling quick ball forward. The manifest frustration Kerry players felt that day was easily construed as a loss of faith in the manager, but is more likely to be a consequence of the way the team is playing rather than any underlying grievances about the set-up.

The real discontent in the county isn't with the age profile of the team or the departure of Donie Buckley as trainer but with the creeping feeling that Kerry have moved away from their traditional brand of football and embraced aspects of the Ulster style popularised by Tyrone and Armagh and which they routinely despised: forwards drifting deep, defenders massing around the opposition ball-carrier, an increased emphasis on possession football.

This isn't necessarily of O'Connor's devising, a manager deliberately abandoning a proud tradition, rather a shift that happened gradually and unconsciously, habits that slipped in by osmosis. "They seemed to just drift into that style," says Radio Kerry presenter Weeshie Fogarty. "You look at Kerry against Dublin last year and against Mayo and Cork this year. They faded in the last 10 minutes of those games. When you have players who are around a long time, that style of football doesn't suit them. It takes too much out of them."

So now they find themselves facing into the unfamiliar territory of travelling to Mullingar to play Westmeath in the championship for the first time ever. Expecting not just to win but to do so in the style they have long been accustomed to and which just might set the template for another assault on the All-Ireland crown they have gone an anxious three years without winning.

The stark truth for Kerry is that, for all the young talent filtering through, they still don't have a strong replacements' bench -- not compared to Cork anyway -- and conserving the energy of their ageing stars is paramount. That is why they want Cooper and O'Donoghue to stay glued to the full-forward line. Donaghy might roam but not too far. Tomás ó Sé, playing his 80th championship game, might still make the odd dash forward but will surely ration them in the interests of preservation.

They want more well-directed long ball seeking out Cooper -- who won't mind it low or high -- or O'Donoghue in the corner. Less faffing about in the middle third of the field.

"People are a little bit tired of that style of football," says Fogarty. "They want to see the ball moved faster into Cooper and Donoghue. Not all this handpassing and flinging it around."

It's that simple. The game moves on and evolves, of course, but Kerry's faith in the old values and traditions never wavers. They want those values restored again. They want to go back to go forward.

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