Sunday 26 January 2020

Kerry must leave a 'calling card' as Dublin's dominance grows

James McCarthy of Dublin charges past Cork’s Tomás Clancy and Luke Connolly in the league game last month. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
James McCarthy of Dublin charges past Cork’s Tomás Clancy and Luke Connolly in the league game last month. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

So a man goes to the doctor, complaining about memory loss and is asked how long he's had the problem.

"What problem?" he replies.

There was a flicker of that in me on Monday night. I was sitting at home, trying to figure out how many National League medals I'd won. By Tuesday lunchtime, I still wasn't absolutely sure. Was it three? Or maybe two? The competition just sits in my past as some kind of background noise.

I know that we beat Derry in one final, but mainly because I captained the team that day in Dara Ó Cinneide's absence. Other than that? A blank. I'm not trying to be disrespectful to the League, but the truth is it didn't ever mean much to me whether we won it or not. In my time playing for Kerry, it was always about September.

I do remember there being a marked difference in our attitude towards it once Jack O'Connor came in after '03. Straight away, he was 'We'll be taking this very, very seriously, we want to win every game. . .'

But I've never been excited about a League final in my life. Páidí was still manager when I started playing with Kerry and he was strictly old school. To him, the League wasn't there to be won so much as used to slowly get bodies up to speed for chasing what we really wanted in Kerry. The cannister.

That's all that ever mattered, getting the Sam Maguire back to Kerry.

He'd use the League just to suss out who he thought could 'cut it'. So we'd train hard in between games and weren't even always in the top division. Believe it or not, I once played against Kilkenny in Ballyragget and I'll tell you we didn't give them anything like the hosing Wexford gave their minors last week.

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But looking back, I think it was a mistake on Páidí's part not setting out to go as far as we could in the League. You just have to understand he was coming from a background that decreed Kerry needed to peak twice in a year. Once for Cork, then for Dublin.

The Leagues we won with Jack didn't exactly cause much of a stir. The Cup would go straight to the county board and you wouldn't dream of having a night out on the back of it. I have a memory of finals being played in a deserted Croke Park; it just never felt like a big occasion.

This Sunday is going to be very different.

I see this as a huge, huge game for Kerry. They've lost to the Dubs four times in a row, so I suspect this will be as close to Championship as you can get in April. I mean Kerry have to ask themselves 'Is this team just going to be another notch on Dublin's belt?'

In that respect, this is more than a League final.

You're going to have a mighty crowd in Croker, a big atmosphere. And the recent history between the teams is surely going to add spice. Tyrone were Kerry's biggest rivals when I was playing, now that role has switched back to Dublin. And you'd have to say, so far, the Dubs are getting by far the best of it.

Tyrone had our card marked and I think the same can now be said of Jim Gavin's men. Maybe Kerry players and management would shy away from admitting that but, deep down, they know this game is more important to them than it is to the Dubs.

As a player, I'd often twist the truth to rise team-mates. 'Such and such a lad from Cork has been talking. . . he doesn't rate you!' I might hear it alright, just maybe not exactly from the horse's mouth. By the time I'd be finished though, the same horse would be worn out from bad-mouthing my man.

And I wouldn't mind lighting a few of those fires in the Kerry dressing-room now because I hear people saying that Kerry won a poor final in 2014, that we still don't have the measure of the one team that really counts.

This is the best Dublin team of all time. People have been laughing at me when I say that, suggesting that I'm just deliberately putting them up on a pedestal. Let them think what they want. I happen to believe that they've already achieved more than the '70s team. They are having to compete against more challengers for a start and the game is faster and far more tactical than it was 40 years ago.

But that, apparently, is pure plamas on my part. Let me tell you, over time, I'll be proved right.

I admire them as men, I admire them as footballers, I admire their manager. I see them as really mentally tough. The Kerry team I played in had that quality too and I'm not sure people fully understand what that means. It's this almost cold ability to keep churning out wins. Let's just say it's something that the current Cork or Mayo teams don't seem to have.

My view is that Dublin can walk away from Sunday's game, irrespective of the result, without any damage done to their Championship intentions. Teams of that stature understand that their year isn't going to be defined by anything that happens in April. Can we say the same about Kerry right now?

No. I'm just not sure you can invest the trust in them yet that you could with the Dubs.

In saying that, I genuinely think they're capable of beating Dublin. Kerry have been playing with a lot of confidence in this League. They've basically the same players as last year but defensively, they look way more sound. But this is the litmus test to that theory. Because these are the forwards you have to be able to counter; the attacking half-backs you need to stop; the goalie you have to force to do things he doesn't want to do. More to the point, you have to do all of these things for the full 73 or 74 minutes.

And Kerry failed that test in last year's All-Ireland final.

The thing about Dublin is they aren't manacled to any single plan. Stephen Cluxton can change tack in the middle of a game. They can take you on any way they choose.

I love direct football and, for Kerry, I see it as the way to go. But that doesn't necessarily mean just horsing long ball in on top of Donaghy. What wrecks my head is watching endless bouts of lateral passing, this shuffling over and back across the field like line-dancers. Handpass by all means, but do it going forward. Break a tackle. Have the support runners.

One man I believe could have a huge year for Kerry is Paul Murphy. Watch the amount of tackling he does, monitor his work-rate.

If, down the line, we can have the likes of 'Gooch', James O'Donoghue and Darran O'Sullivan firing on all cylinders, the sheer work ethic of this lad and Donnchadh Walsh working the 45-yard line could be a huge weapon.

The older lads in the team look revitalised, but I suppose it's early days. 'Gooch' particularly is going very well, you can see he has that hunger in him. He's a bit like Donegal's Michael Murphy in that the team, ideally, could do with two of them. One out the field, play-making; the other inside, coiled like a spring.

But Dublin have set the modern template for how football should be played. The way the Jonny Coopers, Philly McMahons and James McCarthys come bombing up the field, it's the nearest thing to 'Total Football' you will see on a GAA field. Everybody carries a threat; everybody can play. And when they go forward, just watch the Denis Basticks slipping back in to cover.

Páidí had this expression that it was time to 'leave a calling card'. And that's how I see this game for Kerry.

I was at the Donegal match in Tralee and, Jesus, I felt like jumping in over the fence. It was the first really lively contest I saw in the League this year and, when things were kicking off, I felt an incredible urge to be back out on the field.

Not to be in there fighting, but to be there, just taking the game to Donegal. Standing tough.

And that's why I'd love to play in this game, to have the opportunity to leave the Dubs with their heads in a spin. That'd be my attitude. Put down that calling card.

So this isn't your average League final. The possibilities excite me. Dublin have answered every question put up to them since losing the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final to Donegal. In my time with Kerry, we never answered the Tyrone question. And that will always be thrown at us.

We have a similar question with Dublin now and it's high time that we addressed it. There's a lot of hurt there for Kerry to channel. I think it might just carry them over the line.

As for the Division 2 final, I really like the way Cavan have broken out of that defensive strait-jacket they looked trapped in last year. Their inability to transition from defence to attack really hurt them in 2015. But the team that maybe most intrigues me this year is Tyrone.

I honestly believe they could contend at the business end of the Championship if they can unearth a natural goal-scoring forward. Kerry were lucky enough to get past them last year and I don't think anyone will really fancy playing them. I'd say they'll win.

Irish Independent

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