Friday 17 January 2020

Martin Breheny: It's backs to the walls for Fitzmaurice and Rochford

Poor security levels remain a worry for Kerry as Mayo are forced into desperate measures

Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Stephen Rochford will live and die by their side line calls in Saturday’s replayed semi-final. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Stephen Rochford will live and die by their side line calls in Saturday’s replayed semi-final. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Bryan Sheehan had pointed Kerry's last-minute free last Sunday, imagine the dynamics that would apply this week.

The win would have been classed as a typical example of Kerry cuteness, which kept them in contention during a frequently sloppy performance before an instinctive ability to nod at the precisely the right time took them over the finish line first.

Defensive lapses would be attributed to a lack of sharpness, caused by their easy advance to the semi-final, followed by confident predictions of much-improved security in the final.

Meanwhile, Stephen Rochford would have had to go into hiding, waiting for the tornado of criticism over Aidan O'Shea's siting at full-back to pass.

Sheehan's kick didn't make it, the game was over and a new scenario emerged. It still left Rochford in the firing line but now it was more a case of facing a tribunal of inquiry than angry assassins.

The verdict on Fitzmaurice was more benign. Granted, his defensive set-up was questioned but not to anything like the same degree as Rochford's call on O'Shea. That's assuming, of course, that the Mayo manager and his assistants, Tony McEntee, Donie Buckley and Peter Burke, were solely responsible for it.

Could it have been a squad initiative, a meeting of minds among players that the best man to mark basketballer Donaghy was basketballer O'Shea?

Former joint-managers Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly revealed last year that attempts were made by some squad members to influence team selections in 2015.

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If it happened then, presumably it could happen again, even if it didn't work first time.

Whatever the origin of the decision, the switch certainly generated a major talking point in Sunday's semi-final.

Indeed, if Mayo had lost, it would have joined the inexplicable dropping of goalkeeper David Clarke for last year's All-Ireland final replay on an intrigue list of 'why on earth did they do that?'

Now, Rochford and Co are facing another big choice. Do they persist with O'Shea at No 3 or move him upfield and assign someone else to mark Donaghy? Either way, it's a risk. Kerry altered their approach once they saw O'Shea at full-back, with Donaghy resorting to a ground campaign, taking his opponent into unfamiliar territory.

If they move O'Shea elsewhere, who will mark Donaghy? And will he be able for the aerial bombardment? If not, and Donaghy thrives, Rochford will be back under fire. And if he sticks with O'Shea at full-back and Kerry win, he faces criticism too.

A tough call but, either way, its success or otherwise will be judged by whether Mayo win. There's also the question of who loses out for what will surely see the return of Paddy Durcan.

He made way for Lee Keegan, who missed the replay with Roscommon, but did well after coming on as a sub for Colm Boyle, who had made a sizeable contribution before being replaced in the 43rd minute.

Seamus O'Shea could be the unlucky one, with Lee Keegan joining Tom Parsons at midfield. Fitzmaurice has important selection and tactical issues too, not least how to provide more protection for goalkeeper Brian Kelly.

There were times in the first half last Sunday when he found himself behind panic-stricken colleagues who looked as if they were playing together for the first time.

But then, this isn't exactly new. Cork's rapid decline has made it much easier for Kerry to win the Munster Championship in recent years and, by a stroke of luck, their All-Ireland quarter-final opponents have been quite accommodating too.

Cavan (2013), Galway (2014 and 2017), Kildare (2015) and Clare (2016) were beaten by a combined total of 59 points, leaving Kerry heading into semi-finals without a real test.

And it showed. With the exception of 2015 when they restricted Tyrone to 1-11, they were unimpressive in defence in the other five (including a replay) semi-finals. Dublin hit them for 3-18 in 2013 and for 0-22 last year, Mayo scored 1-16 and 3-13 (draw and replay) in 2014 and 2-14 last Sunday.

Those are very high concession rates for a top-three team over five successive seasons and while Kerry managed to win one and draw two of the five games, it was essentially down to their attack.

Of course, Fitzmaurice can only pick from what's available so we can assume that there are no John O'Keeffes or Seamus Moynihans being overlooked in the Kingdom.

Still, it's surprising that management haven't improvised in some way so as to tighten the defensive bolts. After all, that's their job.

Interestingly, Kerry managed it against Dublin in the 2015 All-Ireland final when they conceded 0-12, the lowest score to win the final for 12 years. However, it came at a cost for the Kingdom, who scored 0-9, their lowest in a final for 50 years.

Winning the 2014 All-Ireland title released the pressure on Kerry but it was building again this year until the Allianz League final success over Dublin in April.

Even then, the defence was vulnerable, conceding 1-16, a total that would almost certainly have been higher except for Diarmuid Connolly's departure on a black card in the first half. And prior to reaching the final, only Roscommon had a worse defensive record than Kerry in Division 1.

Essentially then, Kerry have had defensive problems for five seasons, a trend that continued last Sunday. If it wasn't solved up to then, how can it be fixed in six days?

Looks like it's back to the forwards again to keep the All-Ireland dream alive.

Irish Independent

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