Thursday 5 December 2019

Kerry learn to win ugly as game forces them to change

Kingdom beat Donegal at their own game to grind out 37th title

Kieran O'Leary, joint captain of Kerry, is lifted shoulder high by Bryan Sheehan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Kieran O'Leary, joint captain of Kerry, is lifted shoulder high by Bryan Sheehan. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Colm Cooper celebrates on the Croke Park pitch. Picture credit: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In neutral houses, cheering Kerry's 37th title might be seen as the equivalent of celebrating coastal erosion, but it didn't feel that way yesterday.

How do you begrudge glory to old gods who have the humility to change? Who recognise the changed conditions of football and decide that, if it's a dark soul that is required, they can summon one. Kerry's history of plumed, attacking football was abandoned here. It had to be.

They beat Donegal at their own game, a startling achievement given the journey forced them well beyond the pale of conventional tactic.

Imagine Brazil embracing catenaccio? Then imagine them learning a system alien to every last fibre of their being in the condensed time-frame of three weeks?

Eamonn Fitzmaurice did something remarkable here. He built Kerry into an ugly team, knowing it was the only way that they could win.

The new game yields nothing to romance now. It is tailored by intense, young managers for whom each contest is approached with the seriousness of Honours' Maths. Their militarism makes so much of the past seem hopelessly random and innocent today. Little wonder we get stories of espionage in Killarney trees.

Read more: Football Team of the Year

But that was precisely why you have to tip your hat to Kerry. They have more All-Irelands won than the provinces of Ulster and Connacht put together. Their genetic footprint is on victims' headstones everywhere, yet - perversely - this game, a game in which they registered just eleven scores, will go down as one of their most heroic. Beautiful in a rotten way.

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Put simply, they won in the only manner such a contest could allow, by the skin of their teeth. By a goal gifted to Kieran Donaghy in the 52nd minute through a poorly judged, short Paul Durcan kick-out. Donegal's zealous protection of possession, thus, became the very thing that killed them.

Yet, it must be said that they died a magnificent death too, only a Canal-end post denying Colm McFadden's 72nd punch from delivering the GAA yet another oil-well of a replay.

It was that kind of battle. Epic for all its ugliness, glorious for all its spite.

The game had a fascination then, a tactical depth that threatened at times to cut its wind-pipe. The first-half, particularly, had no air in its lungs. It was so resolutely negative on both sides , so salted with needle, the wonder was that Eddie Kinsella didn't call for back-up.

The Laois man struggled to police it, but then anyone short of Attila the Hun would.

Statistics sometimes lie, but yesterday's didn't. Kerry won this All-Ireland by scoring the grand total of 0-1 between the 4th and 36th minutes. They did so with the Championship's most dangerous forward, James O'Donoghue, held scoreless. They did so despite the profligacy reflected in a tally of thirteen wides.

Essentially, they won the All-Ireland because they located the (slightly) meaner streak.

And Fitzmaurice was the creator. On any ordinary day, you might have heard aesthetes rail in outrage against Kerry playing a game that sacrificed so much of what is innate in their tradition. But this was no ordinary day, Donegal no ordinary opposition.

The goals came as stakes through Jim McGuinness's heart, a jolting rejection of his love for order and care and almost machine-like collectivism. Paul Geaney's arrived before the Artane Boys had even put down their instruments and Donaghy's came just after we had witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of David Moran taking the flight-path of a startled moth through the yellow maze, every single Donegal player having retreated inside their own '65.

It was compelling if you could make sense of it, a duel in all but name between two of the sharpest coaching minds around today. Yet, for Kerry, maybe it was something more than that. They'd gone into the final as outsiders and Kerry in the guise of underdog is the nearest thing you will get to an oxymoron in GAA life.

They are not accustomed to people talking them down. Seems it left some scars.

"There was a lot of stuff said about this team and, when we closed the doors to training, there was a lot said about that too" reflected Marc O'Se. The year had challenged them as a group he agreed, and him specifically.

He was dropped for the replayed semi-final against Mayo, ending the two decade-old permanency of Kerry having an O'Se on the team. Sulking was never an option.

The O'Ses, you see, are tight with Fitzmaurice. They trust him.

"There was a lot of tough days" acknowledged O'Se. "Cork in Tralee in the National League match (beaten 1-11 to 2-18), that was a very poor performance by the Kingdom. Personally it was a bad day for myself as well.

"But Eamonn kept us grounded, he inspired us really. It was like playing with a sixteenth man out on the field there today with Eamonn Fitzmaurice.

"Put it this way, I was very disappointed to be dropped for the replay. But Eamonn sat me down and he told me the way it was and it's just the respect you would have for the man...he said 'This is the way it's going, this is what we're doing...'

"I wasn't too happy, but you have to go along with it. I trusted him. And I think that's been the secret to our success this year, he's been that steady influence. There's nothing he misses."

Donegal may have created a monster in their own image here. McGuinness has mastered the art of defensive spoiling without committing a foul, you see. Just a single free was awarded against his team in the first-half and, given the intensity of the collisions, that brought defence to the realm of art.

Yet, imagine Kerry with a full year's schooling? And with 'Gooch' back pulling strings?

It is, of course, entirely possible that we will never see them play this way again that, barring another collision with Donegal and the co-ordinates that will apply, Kerry might just resume their love affair with the game as distinct from the glory.

But that was precisely the measure of what they did yesterday.

They created an image of themselves unimaginable to their forefathers. They went to war, pure and simple. And they did so with a body-language declaring loud and clear that nothing much mattered to them beyond the opinions of their own dressing-room.

Donaghy had an extraordinary influence, hanging in the air as if on an invisible pulley; Aidan O'Mahony too in his often unscrupulous chaperoning of Michael Murphy. A great deal happened that was neither noble or, at times, especially edifying, but that's what the game demanded and Kerry were faithful to the demand.

Maybe Fitzmaurice put it best. "You have to try and have a surprise or two up your sleeve the day of a final" he said. "That was the big thing we'd worked on for the last few weeks, not to be too predictable."

On a day of days, his team answered that call. They built themselves into something we hadn't seen from them before. A team utterly indifferent how the outside world might see them. Fitzmaurice set them the challenge of making their own history as against falling into step with the past. They met it.

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