Wednesday 21 March 2018

O'Connor must rekindle spirit of the past to get the most from dynamic duo

Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

Kerry football teams, at senior level, are not accustomed to being in tight corners, really tight corners.

Over the years they have been involved in many tight games, which they usually won, and they have often lost big championship games too, but they have rarely been in a backs-to-the-wall situation like the one that will confront them when they run out in Fitzgerald Stadium this evening.

Two main factors are the source of Kerry's concerns: their very poor form since the end of the National League and the presence in the other corner of Tyrone, their bogey team of the past decade. Imagine the PR campaign Sky TV would have had this week for a game like that.

It is this confluence of events that has set the whole country on an excitement alert the like of which is rarely experienced before a game in the middle of July.

After all, Kerry and Tyrone have shared an astonishing six All-Ireland titles in the past decade, a dominance not equalled since the Kerry-Dublin era of the '70s and '80s. But tonight one of them must accept a defeat that will probably mark the end of an era.

Kerry has always been associated with iconic players, going back to Dick Fitzgerald 100 years ago.

And the focal point of this game for Kerry is the well-being of the two men who have been at the very heart of their county's successes in recent years. Kieran Donaghy rapidly became a cult figure, not just in Kerry, but countrywide. That fame and admiration came as a result of his combination with Colm 'Gooch' Cooper.

They look an unlikely pair of heroes because of the disparity of their physical make-up, but they developed an almost telepathic relationship when the ball came into their area.

But then, in the past couple of seasons, Donaghy began to deviate from the style that had served the pair so well, often drifting far away from opponents' goals and acting as a link-man rather than main supplier to Cooper.

At times he seemed at odds with Jack O'Connor, which was never the Kerry football way, but it merely increased the pressure on Donaghy. So, almost unnoticed, the best dual attacking combination in the business began to fade away.

Against Tyrone, the critical factor will be whether Donaghy stays within striking distance of Cooper for most of the play.

The other star of the attack, Declan O'Sullivan, has also been under a cloud in recent games -- the combined talents of these three players has been the engine which has driven Kerry to All-Ireland successes.

Usually when a great player has undergone a period of uncertainty, the correct policy is to restore him to familiar surroundings and get him to concentrate on the things at which he has previously excelled.

On that basis, Donaghy should be staying inside the 30-metre mark most of the time, always remaining within sight of Cooper.

The same principle applies to Cooper, whose form seems to have slipped in this campaign. But such is his innate talent, that he is always a major player on the big occasion -- which this evening's match definitely is.

And there will no bigger occasion for Kerry players in Killarney than this one. Kerry people recognise and admire the power of Tyrone in the past decade because that is the way Kerry football people are. Tyrone have many of the attributes on and off the field that made Kerry great in the past, and Mickey Harte is an exceptional manager.

So too is O'Connor, whose main job will be not to fuel Kerry's motivation -- because that will be self-generating this time -- but to preserve cool heads, avoid dissent, rash behaviour and refereeing controversies, and simply get them to be real Kerry players.

In Killarney, that will probably be enough for this one game at least.

Irish Independent

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