Sunday 18 August 2019

Pat Spillane: 'Kerry's new management team have done nothing to correct Kingdom's most obvious flaw'

Kerry manager Peter Keane. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Kerry manager Peter Keane. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Pat Spillane

HAVING lauded the football championship all summer, it is only fair to acknowledge that the provincial finals were rather mundane.

There were no seismic shocks, only a series of minor tremors, including Cork’s spirited performance against Kerry in the Munster final and the one-sided nature of the Ulster final. Forget the scoreline of a five-point victory for Tyrone, Cavan were on the receiving end of a drubbing.

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Instead, it was mostly negative stuff which dominated the headlines, as the demise of the Leinster Football Championship as a meaningful competition continued.

The debate over the GAA’s policy of investing the bulk of their Games Development budget in Dublin, even though their County Board is by far the best resourced in the country, occupied much air time.

Then there was the miserable 18,000 at the Munster final – the lowest since 1983 – and although the 47,000 who turned up in Croke Park for the Leinster final mismatch was bigger than expected, don’t forget that the two counties have a combined population of over 1.5m.

As for the results whetting the appetite of the nation for the rest of the football championship, don’t make me laugh.

Dublin are further ahead of the chasing pack than ever before and they won the Leinster final in second gear. I would venture to suggest that their warm-up routine took more out of them than their first-half performance.

With the exception of Donegal, all the other contenders for their crown have taken a step backwards and have done absolutely nothing to suggest that they will offer a meaningful challenge.

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The current state of the race for Sam is summed up by the odds. Dublin are 1/2, while joint-second favourites Donegal and Kerry are 6/1. As Miley used to say in Glenroe, ‘well, Holy God’.

By the way, if you fancy backing Dublin to win the six-in-a-row they are available at the miserly odds of 2/1. This sums up how feeble their competition is.

So what did we learn from the three provincial finals?

In Munster, Cork achieved a moral victory of sorts as their much-maligned players showed great heart – their heads never dropped until the final whistle.

They had more attacks than Kerry, 35 to 33, and had more shots, 27 to 26. But here’s the rub: they chalked up 13 scores whereas Kerry got 20.

Cork got four points from play – that’s why they lost. The erratic refereeing performance from Anthony Nolan has nothing to do with it.

Kerry won while playing badly, which is always a positive. They displayed great character in holding out for the win despite playing for nearly 25 minutes with 14 men.

As I pointed out, their attack was much more efficient than Cork’s, with all six starting forwards scoring from play.

After their underwhelming performances in Munster they will come in under the radar to the Super 8s.

Last year they blew away everybody in Munster, but were flat when they reached the All-Ireland phase.

Nothing much has changed as regards where their problems exist. There might be a new management team in place, but nothing has been done to correct their defects in defence.

Essentially all their defenders are ball players who want to be half-backs and they lack man-markers and all-round physicality.

Unlike Donegal, they don’t have a system in place where players flood the central defensive positions and pressurise the ball-carrier. As a result they are wide open down the centre when run at.

Technique is a major issue as well, as far as I can see. Their body position, positioning of their feet and tackling is very poor. 

Tactically, they are pressing high up the field but when the opposition ball-carrier breaks free, with runners on the shoulder, Kerry are wide open at the back.

Centre-field is another concern – they simply don’t have the athleticism or pace to match the Dubs in this department.

And while the forwards did well at the weekend that sector has issues as well. Paul Geaney has been struggling for the guts of a year now. I believe he’s not the best player to operate alongside David Clifford as they are too similar in style. Kerry need a pacier forward to complement Clifford.

Finally, they need quicker ball, but the problem is that their half-forwards are lying too deep to deliver it, so Clifford and Geaney are getting isolated.

As for the non-event in Croke Park, the less written about it the better.

Meath were game, but woefully limited. They reminded me of a juvenile team who arrived at a venue and discovered they are facing an adult side. I’ll give you one statistic to underline the poverty of their performance.

They had 25 shots at goal and scored 0-4. At any level of football this is abysmal.

Since 2011 no team that lost to Dublin in a Leinster final was won a Round 4 qualifier. Ouch!

Dublin hardly touched third gear in winning their ninth Leinster title in a row, which for all the advantages they have in terms of population and finance is a remarkable achievement.

However, I would insert the word ‘caution’ in terms of their five-in-row ambitions. It takes more than football ability to create history. They also need luck, refereeing decisions to go their way and the key players to stay injury free.

I’m tired of telling people that if Jimmy Deenihan had been fit in 1982, Seamus Darby would never have scored his famous goal.

Despite the size of the Dublin squad they have key players that they can ill afford to be without and James McCarthy is one of those. I imagine the collective heartbeat of the team management missed a beat when he limped off in distress last Sunday

Their other key players are Stephen Cluxton, Brian Fenton, Ciarán Kilkenny and Paul Mannion. If any of them was unfortunate enough to pick up a long-term injury then the race for Sam would be much more interesting.

The Ulster final provided an interesting perspective on how football has evolved in the last couple of years: the teams set up as mirror images of each other, with countless bodies behind the ball.

So, all the ingredients were present for another dour, low-scoring Ulster final. Instead the game was the second-highest scoring final on record (Cavan 2-16; Donegal 1-24), surpassed only by the 1971 decider between Derry and Down which the Mournemen won 4-15 to 4-11.

Why did this happen? Even though the teams set up defensively, they did not play a possession game. Instead the ball was moved quickly and when a team had the ball they committed a lot of players to attack and were more willing to take shots.

Cavan lost the game because, essentially, team boss Mickey Graham lost his nerve, replacing two of his full-forward line with two defensively minded players.

Then they sat back, inviting their opponents to come at them. Donegal’s physicality, strong running and ability to kick long-range points meant that Cavan’s twin-track approached totally backfired.

By the time they had rectified the situation by introducing the likes of Cian Mackey the damage had been done. There is a message here for all team managers: concentrate on your own strengths and don’t change a winning formula.

While I continue to be impressed by Donegal, I remain to be convinced that they can test Dublin this summer. They are still a work in progress, even though they do tick a lot of boxes.

They know when to defend and when to throw caution to the wind. They have an excellent defensive system in place, though they have a tendency to lose focus near the end of matches.

They also have an excellent blend of youth and experience and goalkeeper Shaun Patton has the most accurate kick-out in Gaelic football after Stephen Cluxton. Throw in marquee players like Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Ryan McHugh and the fact that Jamie Brennan has scored 2-11 from play in the Ulster series underlines their quality.

Right now they’re the best of the chasing pack. They might rattle the Dubs if they clash in the latter stages of the All-Ireland, but I doubt if they would beat them.

One of the best managers in the business, Malachy O’Rourke, stepped down in the wake of Monaghan’s exit from the All-Ireland series last weekend. I have nothing but admiration for what he achieved with Monaghan.

They were playing in Division 3 when he took over in 2012. He turned them into a team of warriors who won two Ulster titles, two league promotions, reached last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and played for five consecutive seasons in Division 1 and will be there again next season.

I took a bit of flak for suggesting a couple of weeks ago that I saw no hope for them this summer. Ultimately inter-county football is a numbers game. Monaghan has the fifth smallest population in Ireland and as is the case with all small counties and clubs, success is cyclical.

This summer they bore all the hallmarks of a team that had gone to the well once too often. They played like they still harboured huge regrets about not availing of their once-in-a-lifetime chance of reaching last year’s All-Ireland final.

However, I imagine O’Rourke will be back in demand once he has a well-earned rest.

Read Pat Spillane every week in The Sunday World.

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