Thursday 14 December 2017

Jim Gavin v Eamonn Fitzmaurice - Martin Breheny runs the rule over the tactical geniuses

Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice
Jim Gavin and Eamonn Fitzmaurice

Within minutes of the defeat by Dublin last September, Eamonn Fitzmaurice explained in detail why he thought Kerry had lost an All-Ireland final to their great rivals for just the second time in 39 years.

Honest and illuminating, it now offers a much better insight into the areas they will have worked on than any of the sanitised comments emerging from the camp this week.

Fitzmaurice identified the hard work by the Dublin forwards, Kerry’s lack of accuracy in many areas and their inability to get Colm Cooper and various other forwards on the ball often enough as game-changing  exchanges.

“For a lot of the first half, we had to play on Dublin’s terms,” he said.

And, in a clear illustration of the extent of Kerry’s problems, he acknowledged that he would have worked the subs’ bench more if it were permitted.

“We would have brought on 10 today if we could,” he said.

This week, Gavin emphasised the strength of the Kerry panel and, as he is wont to do, name-checked several players before concluding that he could go “on and on about the quality of this Kerry side”.

Still, Dublin have beaten Kerry in their last three championship games and extended their dominance into this year’s Allianz League, winning the Division 1 game and the final by a total of 17 points.

It’s against that background that Fitzmaurice and Gavin prepare for a contest where their tactical input will be very significant.

The challenge for Fitzmaurice is to devise a means of becoming the first team to beat Dublin since early March last year, during which they have won 24 and drawn two of 26 championship and league games.

Gavin’s test is to maintain his squad at a level that keeps all threats at bay, including one from a Kerry team now hurting deeply.

Given the manner in which Dublin coped so efficiently against Donegal without three of last year’s defenders, Gavin would appear to have the better chance of hitting his target.

For all that, Dublin’s short odds-on favouritism won’t sit easily with him as it creates the impression that they have solved the Kerry conundrum once and for all.

The 11-point win in the league final last April added to the perception of an ever-widening gap between the counties but it wasn’t quite that one-sided as Kerry were only two points adrift when Aidan O’Mahony was sent off in the 50th minute.

An important part of Dublin’s success against Kerry has been down to their defenders forcing the forwards into a game which doesn’t suit them.

Philly McMahon, James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper all press forward, drawing Kerry forwards with them rather reluctantly.

It was especially noticeable in last year’s final when Colm Cooper found himself tracking back after McMahon with about as much enthusiasm as a thoroughbred horse pulling a plough.

It’s not that Kerry as a whole haven’t embraced the ultra-defensive side of the modern game. The problem is that they haven’t been nearly as slick as some others on the counter-attack.

“If you told me this morning that Dublin would score only 12 points, I would have bitten your hand off,” said Fitzmaurice after the All-Ireland final.

A fair assessment but, unfortunately for Kerry, it was accompanied by an attacking power failure which left them with only nine points, the county’s lowest championship score against Dublin since 1941. Kerry scored 0-14 and 0-13 respectively against Dublin in two league games this year, having also failed to score a goal in last year’s league clash which they still managed to win (0-15 to 1-10).

It leaves their goal drought against Dublin heading for a fifth game, territory not usually associated  with Kerry.

It underlines the degree to which Dublin have succeeded in shackling the Kerry attack, a pursuit they will continue with relentless determination again on Sunday. Fitzmaurice alleged that it was done with excessive vigour in the league final, claiming that Kerry forwards had been subjected to ‘rape and pillage’ in the second half.

He also explained that the decision to switch Kieran Donaghy to midfield during the league was because he wasn’t getting proper protection by referees when playing at full-forward.

Gavin made broadly similar comments about Diarmuid Connolly after the win over Donegal, claiming that the St Vincent’s man was targeted  by opposition, a point he reiterated this week.

It all adds to the pressure on Meath’s David Gough, who will be refereeing his first senior semi-final. 

But then Fitzmaurice and Gavin will be feeling the strain too. Defeat would leave Fitzmaurice as the only Kerry manager to have presided over three successive championship defeats by Dublin. 

Meanwhile, Gavin knows that the level of expectation is so high in Dublin that defeat would, inevitably, put tactical matters under the spotlight, just as it did after the semi-final defeat by Donegal two years ago.

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