Kerry just have to get back to being Kerry
Eamonn Fitzmaurice allowed his conservative side to take control last Sunday against Galway
Clare and Cork were "mediocre," said Pat Spillane, delivering a stark assessment in the course of explaining the latest Kerry malfunction under the management of Eamonn Fitzmaurice. Spillane's dismissal of the Munster Championship as evidence of Kerry's re-emergence as a force suited his immediate purpose, the need for a quick soundbite, and may contain more than a grain of truth but it glibly neglected how well Kerry had played in storming the province. Did that count for nothing?
We went from sweepers on the field to sweeping statements in the studio. There were swipes later in the week from some of Kerry's more recent generation, a tsunami of comment pieces on Kerry, on how the county had lacked the mettle and leadership needed when some of those cited as found wanting had actually been among Kerry's few better players on the day. Paul Murphy appeared on some lists of the damned and in fact played quite well if you study the match closely enough.
But Kerry still fell a long way short of expectations and their downfall was helped in no small way by the decision to go on the back foot and give excessive licence to Galway to play the game on their terms. For Kerry to doff the cap to that extent rubbed salt in the wounds. That concession, the resort to a sweeper last associated with the abject loss to Mayo in last year's All-Ireland semi-final replay at Croke Park, saw Fitzmaurice relapse into a conservatism that has been characteristic of his time in charge. This at a time when he seemed to have become more adventurous and attack-minded. Yet David Clifford managed to overcome all the day's impediments and again blossom.
"We're expecting a thriller, it usually is," said Marty Morrissey, as the ball was about to be thrown in. Rarely has the commentator's curse been seen to such telling effect as when the contest got under way. Players who prospered in Munster were now committing juvenile handling errors and misplacing passes that would make a McGrath Cup player blush. Sean O'Shea was nowhere near the pivotal influence of earlier games. James O'Donoghue tried hard, but was replaced after 51 minutes. Paul Geaney kicked a couple of excellent scores and set up the late consolation goal without cutting loose.
But then, it wasn't easy when Kerry abandoned the game they had thrived on and trusted and reverted to something that seemed coarse and alien to their natural instincts. In the 2014 All-Ireland final against Donegal, the experts on football tactics at the time, Fitzmaurice enhanced his reputation considerably by devising a game plan suited for the day in question.
Their half-back line stayed in position and didn't leave the holes which had left Dublin exposed in the semi-final. They were restrained and kept their shape and they devised a tactic to diminish the impact of Michael Murphy. Of course a poorly executed short kick-out helped Kerry win that All-Ireland in no small way and there is no tactical allowance for something like that happening. But Kerry appeared to be taking charge of their destiny and had a plan. This was Fitzmaurice's peak as a manager and tactician.
On Sunday last they looked to be sacrificing too much of what had got them there in a bid to defuse Galway's counter-attacking arsenal. Instead of pushing up and going for the jugular, believing in themselves unequivocally, they were reserved and cautious. This was a management call and they never looked comfortable with it.
The decision to recall Killian Young, who hadn't had a match at club or county level since the team lost to Mayo last August, has also invited comment. Kerry were still well in contention, just two points behind, when they lost Young to a red card even if they were struggling in the 15-minute period after half-time. Criticism of the decision not to bring on Kieran Donaghy seemed entirely reasonable and claims that the player had a minor breach of discipline related to him playing in the pro-am golf event at the Irish Open could not be confirmed. At one stage Donaghy looked to be warming up but did not go on.
The listlessness of Kerry's play shocked their followers, who will expect a response when they meet Monaghan for the first time in 10 years in the championship today. Their tackle count dipped well below average and they were overrun by Galway in the closing stages of the game as a seven-point gap opened up, with Kerry's goal putting an undeserved gloss on the final scoreline.
From being touted as potential challengers to Dublin, perhaps even this year, Kerry's prospects were suddenly being subjected to a sharp downward revision. Far from winning the All-Ireland, with the injection of seven new players in the Clare match, Kerry stand on the brink of elimination, a catastrophic potential outcome given the early promise and excitement generated by their flamboyant play.
Everything comes into the mix when a management is under pressure, as Fitzmaurice undoubtedly is now after a showing as poor as has been seen from Kerry this decade - the Down loss in 2010 is the most recent comparable example, with the exception of the loss to Mayo last year.
The decision to keep supporters outside the gates in Killarney for team training, though nothing unusual in other counties, has always been there as a needling issue. The relationship between the county management and clubs has come under strain with clubs losing players for long stretches of their league campaign. Tracking devices have monitored county players instructed not to play beyond a certain allocated spell when they've returned to their clubs. The operation has become more centralised and less democratic.
But, as ever, none of that matters (remember, Jim McGuinness in Donegal was a prime example) if you are getting the results on the field and convincing people that your methods are worth the sacrifice. Kerry followers may be a rare breed but they are also realistic enough to know their county's limitations. They also know that eventually they will assemble a team good enough to win an All-Ireland - they are not a hard case and today meet a county that hasn't made the last four in 30 years. Kerry have only failed to make the semi-final twice (2010 and 2012) since the qualifiers were introduced in 2001. There is every chance they will find the missing zest and learn the tactical lessons of last week and come away with a result that can transform the mood heading into the match with Kildare in Killarney.
Kerry's lack of aggression a week ago, the absence of ferocity in the tackle and in the hunt for possession, in going for the ball, is something which no system of play can address. That much is entirely psychological.
From the start there were also signs of a lack of fluency. In the first attack Geaney spilled the ball. O'Shea gave an early ball away cheaply. Kevin McCarthy was guilty of another. Even the injury to Paul Conroy came from a loose Kerry pass, a hospital pass, except it was a low ball along the ground where two players came sliding in. David Moran, Gavin White and Stephen O'Brien all gave the ball away under little pressure, with Moran having a strong first half but fading in the second.
Unlike previous Croke Park visits they now have a chance to atone. The team stayed in Dublin on Sunday night last, breaking from tradition, which was probably no bad thing. Fitzmaurice and his backroom team will have spent the time available to them preparing the team's mindset for what is expected to be a war of attrition against a physical and robust side, before a majority Monaghan crowd. For the younger players, this is a serious test of their fibre, a big learning experience. The full-back line has been totally overhauled, though injuries and suspension influenced team selection.
Kerry don't have to do much more than revisit the match recording. If that doesn't inspire the kind of response necessary to produce a performance more befitting of a championship game then nothing will. This time Kerry might be better served looking at themselves more than the opposition. Last Sunday Kerry looked haunted or half-terrified by what might happen if they played the way they had been playing up to now. They overcompensated and over-compromised.
Maybe the caution in Fitzmaurice on the back of two runaway wins in Munster got the better of him. Maybe he feared that they were sitting ducks for a well organised counter-attacking team that had shown a remarkable level of consistency. But in devising a game-plan they squandered the principles that make Kerry what they are and on which they must trust implicitly if they are to challenge Dublin in the short term. Kerry win by playing football, not by trying to counter it. That requires some bravery. They will need plenty of it in Clones.
2008 Qualifier: Kerry 1-13 Monaghan 0-13
2007 All-Ireland quarter-final: Kerry 1-12 Monaghan 1-11
1985 All-Ireland semi-final replay: Kerry 2-9 Monaghan 0-10
1985 All-Ireland semi-final: Kerry 1-12 Monaghan 2-9
1979 All-Ireland semi-final: Kerry 5-14 Monaghan 0-7
1930 All-Ireland final: Kerry 3-22 Monaghan 0-2
Conor McManus (Monaghan) 1-26 (17f, 1-0pen)
Paul Geaney (Kerry) 2-14 (1f)
Conor McCarthy (Monaghan) 1-10 (2f)
David Clifford (Kerry) 1-9
Rory Beggan (Monaghan) 0-12 (7f, 5 45s)
Today: Kildare v Galway, Newbridge, 2.0; Monaghan v Kerry, Clones, 4.0
August 4: Kerry v Kildare, Killarney, 6.0; Galway v Monaghan, Pearse Stadium, 6.0.
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