Monday 18 November 2019

Kerry had their priorities right: battle first, football second

Pádraig McNulty, Tyrone, is shown a yellow card by referee Maurice Degan
Pádraig McNulty, Tyrone, is shown a yellow card by referee Maurice Degan

Tommy Conlon

Tyrone kept them honest last Sunday, but the abiding impression afterwards was that no one is keeping this Kerry team more honest than their own manager. The champions were hard and flinty in the face of a severe examination from their Ulster prosecutors. Any lingering softness after the achievements of 2014 would have been found out against a team that was willing and able to go the distance.

Tyrone came to do battle, in harsh weather conditions, and on their own terms too. Kerry duly squared up and refused to flinch.

It made for an absorbing contest. It demanded hard running, heavy collisions, zealous tackling and total concentration. The physical output from both teams was enormous. Their fitness levels were deeply impressive. Most players spent the afternoon covering vast tracts of Croke Park: up the field and down the field in a ceaseless circuit of movement, supporting the ball when they had it, tracking back with dour determination when they hadn't.

This fierce engagement was conducted on the understanding that Kerry would have an edge in terms of attacking firepower, ball skills and experience. But if Tyrone could neutralise those advantages with their two sweepers at the back, and simply out-battle them all over the park, they would close the gap between them to nothing.

Kerry understood these terms clearly. So they got down in the trenches with Tyrone and stayed there for as long as it took. And it took all of the 77 minutes played. They were every bit as gutsy, selfless and committed as their opponents. They went in where it hurts and kept going in there.

If they knew they had more all-round class in their game, they did not take this prized asset for granted. It did not tempt them into a comfort zone. They had their priorities in order: battle first, football second. It was a performance grounded in championship realities.

This attitude had of course been cultivated long before match day. Eamonn Fitzmaurice is obviously imposing high standards of performance in training. And he has a weapon at his disposal that any manager would love to have - a deep squad. The threat of the bench is clearly keeping his players lean and hungry. They know the deal. Their manager is adamant about it: selection is fluid, form is being rewarded. The criteria for inclusion in the first 15 are therefore cold and clear.

Now, one would expect a high degree of self-motivation among Kerry footballers anyway. They know their responsibilities to the jersey. But complacency the season after winning an All-Ireland can seep in like a virus, unseen and undiagnosed. It doesn't take a lot to do the damage, just enough to blunt the edge. And suddenly the other team is first to more breaks in midfield, and coming up with more 50-50 ball.

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None of these symptoms were visible in the champions last Sunday. Fitzmaurice is doing a very fine job. He appears to have handled his squad with that cold-hearted sensitivity often apparent in top managers. Shuffling his pack on a game-by-game basis, rationalising his options and prioritising his needs; watching his players in training and weighing up what the next opponents are going to bring to the table. And having assessed all the permutations, acting decisively.

Players are getting dropped, and taken off, accordingly. And whatever disappointments come their way, they are responding positively when their chance comes round again. They are up on their toes and grafting hard. The manager is minding them with a potent combination of tactical discernment and emotional intelligence.

In a nutshell then, they were ready for whatever Tyrone had to throw at them last weekend. And Tyrone threw a lot at them. The underdogs delivered a terrific performance. It had just about every hallmark of a team drilled, organised and inspired by Mickey Harte.

The master did everything he could to camouflage the gap in class. This team does not have nearly the volume of talent that his great side of the 2000s did. And there was an inherent concession to this fact in the way he deployed his formation on Sunday. Harte as expected stacked his defence and pulled most of his players back towards midfield.

It led to a nagging sense all afternoon that they were committed first and foremost to damage limitation. That they were content to spend a lot of time on the back foot, inviting Kerry onto them. This approach always seemed too cautious to imagine an outright victory. In the end they could manage just 12 scores to Kerry's 18.

But within that conservative template they conjured a display of ferocious resistance to the champions. They never stopped striving to bridge the divide between them. And when they fired 1-2 without reply they were there with just eight minutes to play: level on the scoreboard and hard on Kerry's shoulder. The grapple hook they'd been casting all day seemed to have finally gripped and taken.

A team with any softness in its soul might have cracked at this point. But Kerry had matched Tyrone in the battle until then, and now they asserted their expansive footballing gifts. In the moment of crisis, they played their way to victory. The movement, foot-passing and finishing were smart and precise: stone cold composure in the heat of battle.

Job done, it was back to training last week with a vigilant manager to impress all over again.

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