Saturday 20 January 2018

Hold the Back Page - The Kerry way gets the job done

'Bagging 1-2 from play was good enough, but Kieran Donaghy also created several other scores and sent panic through the Donegal defence every time the ball went in his direction'
'Bagging 1-2 from play was good enough, but Kieran Donaghy also created several other scores and sent panic through the Donegal defence every time the ball went in his direction'

Eamonn Sweeney

Thirteen ways of looking at the All-Ireland football final.

1 You don't have to be perfect.

You don't have to cancel the club championships, you don't have to rejig the entire under-age structure in the county, you don't have to copy other counties, you don't have to adopt a sweeper system, you don't have to have an enormous support team, you don't have to have strategic reviews or helicopters or player empowerment or power point presentations or under-age success, you don't have to bring the County Board to the brink of bankruptcy. You just need to crack on with the players you've got, trust in their character and put them under the management of a sensible man. This is the Kerry way. The Kingdom are the masters of getting things done.

This may sound simple but think of the big counties who insist they can't compete until everything is changed from under 12 level up or who take refuge in claims about mistakes at County Board level. Think of the likes of Cork and Tyrone, whose players are not much less talented than the current Kerry crew, and how easy they are on themselves, proclaiming themselves 'in transition,' thinking that a place as also-rans is OK for now, speaking about systems that will take another year to 'bed in.' Or Mayo and their myriad moral victories.

Kerry, like Kilkenny, are never in transition. They're as interested in moral victories as Kilkenny are in football. This was not the most gifted set of players Kerry have ever sent out, it may not even have been the most gifted in this year's championship. But it won it all. There is a lesson there for other counties which is perhaps far more important than the tactical lessons taught by Donegal in 2012 and Dublin in 2013.

2 Eamonn Fitzmaurice is a great manager.

When Eamon Fitzmaurice began his reign as Kerry manager, they suffered a succession of league defeats which left the faithful calling for his head on Weeshie Fogarty's great local radio programme. He looked to have been handed a poisoned chalice; an aging team and young players who'd been regularly beaten by Cork at under 21 level. (Loath though I am to discourage unfair attacks on Joe Brolly, he had a point. Kerry don't have the amount of quality players coming through that they did a decade or so ago.)

All the same he steered them to an All-Ireland semi-final only to be rewarded with a worsening of the situation, the retirements of Paul Galvin and Tomás ó Sé being followed by the loss of Colm Cooper for the year and the injury induced limitation to cameo roles of Declan O'Sullivan, Bryan Sheehan and Darran O'Sullivan. He appeared to be going into the campaign with a team considerably weaker than that which, for all its efforts, had been beaten in the semi-final by seven points.

That he won the All-Ireland with the set of players at his disposal probably ranks as the finest feat of management of the modern era. And yet, in an era when one All-Ireland victory is enough to get a manager hailed as a kind of golden god, Fitzmaurice is practically anonymous. And, though I may be wrong and My Struggle by Eamonn Fitzmaurice may be at the printers as we speak, this seems to be the way he likes it. It's a nice change.

3 Donegal outfoxed themselves.

Donegal's final display bore, as Darragh ó Sé suggested it might, a striking resemblance to their quarter-final display against Armagh when Jim McGuinness's men were so cautious that they almost sleepwalked their way out of the championship. That day they got out of jail with a couple of late scores, this time around they weren't so lucky.

Perhaps the best thing that could have happened to Donegal in their semi-final was to go five points down midway through the first half. This caused them to throw caution to the wind and play the exhilarating attacking football to which Dublin had no answer. Similarly after Kieran Donaghy scored Kerry's second goal, Donegal replied by putting over three points in four minutes, scored with sufficient ease to suggest a more adventurous approach might have paid dividends against a back-line which had struggled in the two games against Mayo.

Instead Donegal, for the most part, played with extreme tentativeness as though simultaneously afraid to make mistakes and convinced that their system would win the game for them on its own. Unfortunately systems don't win games, players do. That Colm McFadden might have equalised in the last second was bitterly ironic as, on a team full of honest footballers, no one is more honest than the Dunfanaghy man. But no one suffered more from Donegal's failure to commit players forward or play quick ball into attack than McFadden. Unless it was Ryan McHugh, thrilling in attack when Donegal opened up in the semi-final but reduced to deep-lying anonymity in the final. They may feel they didn't quite give it their best shot.

4 We all got a bit previous.

The outstanding work of the great Roman historian Tacitus is Histories, written about the Year of the Four Emperors when four different men, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian, led the Empire.

Well, I'll always think of 2014 as Gaelic football's Year of the Three Emperors because two other teams were credited with winning the championship before Kerry finally took it away. In fact, from the moment that they destroyed Cork in the national league semi-final, Dublin were not only given credit for already winning this year's championship but the prophets of woe predicted total dominance by the Dubs at every level over the next few years. Everyone else, it appeared, might as well pack it in as they hadn't a hope against the financial and demographic muscle of Dublin. The only people who didn't agree with this were the Dubs themselves, but we heard so much about the coming hegemony it felt like we'd lived through it already.

So when Donegal overturned the champions it was their turn to be awarded the All-Ireland ahead of schedule. Jim McGuinness was given credit for adding a second Sam Maguire victory as pundits vied for the most outlandish ways to praise him, my personal favourite being the brain donor who claimed that beating Dublin in a game of Gaelic football made him favourite to become the next manager of Glasgow Celtic.

Maybe all the hyperbole got to Donegal, McGuinness commented after the final that perhaps the team were already thinking of what it would be like turning up to the City West with the cup. Instead Kerry proved to be the year's final champions, and its only real ones. Yet it strikes me that we spent an awful lot of time this year talking about things which hadn't happened as though they'd already happened. I was as bad as anyone else. Maybe next year we might cool the jets and wait for the results. Because, judging by this year's surprises, soothsaying is gone back a bit since Tacitus' day.

5 Gotcha.

Winning managers in All-Ireland finals always get credited with tactical brilliance. But there's seldom been a more obviously brilliant stroke than the one pulled by Kerry in the first minute. Knowing that Donegal would be fixated on the aerial power of Kieran Donaghy and the all-round threat of James O'Donoghue, they kept both of them well away from the square and isolated Paul Geaney there against the smaller Paddy McGrath. One high ball, one good catch and one great finish later and Donegal were reeling. It had all the effrontery and audacity of a brilliant confidence trick. Can you find the Donaghy sir? Keep your eyes on the O'Donoghue, turn over that card and it's a . . . Geaney. Sorry sir, better luck next time.

6 LeDon? Or should it be Doctor K?

Last seen staring forlornly down the pitch as Kerry's late collapse coincided with his arrival on the pitch in the 2013 semi-final against Dublin, Kieran Donaghy didn't feature in anyone's championship predictions this year. His best days apparently behind him, he wasn't even one of the three forward subs Kerry brought on in the quarter-final.

And then Eamonn Fitzmaurice introduced him an hour into this year's semi-final with Kerry four points down and apparently on their way out.

Donaghy inspired Kerry's revival and then tormented Mayo throughout the replay. But his contribution this day last week was probably even more vital. Bagging 1-2 from play in a tight game was good enough, but he also created several other scores and sent panic through the Donegal defence every time the ball went in his direction. "You can be sure Donegal will have a plan for Donaghy," was one of the most popular pieces of conventional wisdom in the run-up to the game. It turned out they had no more idea how to cope with the big man than Mayo did.

And while his goal might have seemed like a bit of a gift, it may well have had something to do with the Austin Stacks player's grounding in basketball where players are coached to try and steal the ball the second the opposition put it back into play. It's good to have him back.

7 All Stars.

There is a danger that this Kerry team might be under-rated by comparison to Dublin, who have all that razzmatazz surrounding them and Donegal, loved by pundits who can surround them with a lot of chat about destiny, psychology and so on. So there is a likelihood that the Kingdom, like Down in 1991 and Cork in 2010, might get a sly dig at All Star time, perhaps coming away with fewer awards than Donegal as if to suggest they weren't actually the best team in the country.

But the best team in the country is the one that wins the All-Ireland. And Brian Kelly, Donnchadh Walsh and Kieran Donaghy deserve to be honoured ahead of Paul Durcan, Ryan McHugh and Michael Murphy. We'll see what happens.

8 The Weak Championship.

We might also hear the usual bullshit about how isn't it easy for Kerry considering how weak Munster is compared to the cockpits of Ulster and Leinster. But Kerry only won their first round game against Clare by four points. The Banner went on to lose by just a single point in the qualifiers to Kildare, probably the second best team in Leinster. Tipperary, the third best team in Munster, made short work of Longford and Laois.

The weakest championship at the moment is Leinster whose other counties appear to have given up altogether on the idea of giving Dublin a game. In fact, it's the weakness of their province which left the Dubs so ill-prepared for Donegal's onslaught. So next time you hear someone complaining that the provincial system discriminates against the Leinster counties, remember that quantity isn't the same thing as quality.

9 The Smelling Salts Please, Nurse.

Barry John Keane kicked the ball away. Off with his head. Jim McGuinness may have sent a friend to look at a training session, like approximately a thousand managers before him. Set the hounds on the blighter. And remember that whole, 'the Armagh man pushed a doctor' furore? You'd swear the doc was giving mouth to mouth to a car crash victim on the side of the road at the time. We'd need to take it easy with all this fabricated moral outrage. If we don't watch it, we'll be no better than the English.

10 Use it or lose it.

Michael Murphy is potentially the finest attacking talent in Gaelic football. But all we're getting of the man are tantalising snippets. That routine about him 'sacrificing his game in the interests of the team' has gotten old at this stage. There are plenty of grunts around who can be scrapping for ball out the field. But Murphy has a rare talent and if he was from Kerry would be deployed as close to the goal as possible. Right now it's the team's interests which are sacrificed by the misuse of Murphy. And the rest of us are also missing out on seeing him play like he did in the 2012 final. Great players need to be accommodated because they win many more matches than guys who do 'unseen work.' Unfair but true.

11 Mayo God help us.

Ye couldn't have done this change of manager in some sort of routinely civilised manner? No, of course ye couldn't. If there was ever a gift that kept giving . . . Still, there's no county you'd prefer to see winning next year. If they don't, the fact that they led this year's champions by five points with three minutes of normal time left in the semi-final may well end up being the most painful Mayo memory of all. Their name was on the cup but they couldn't read it.

12 Minor matter.

Son of Tom and nephew of Pat and Mick, Killian Spillane was a joy to watch in the All-Ireland minor final and should do great things at senior level in the not very distant future. Sadly this means Pat probably won't be able to analyse Kerry games on TV if there's a member of his family involved. Sigh.

13 Tree in a row.

Apparently the GAA will be carrying out an investigation into Spygate. They've called in the Special Branch.

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