Sunday 15 September 2019

Peter Canavan: 'Kerry system is flawed, not the personnel'

Criticism of Morley and Foley is unfair - the defence must work as a collective

Hands full: Cathal McShane made hay in the first half of the semi-final, but with so much space around him close to goal, and quality ball going in, Jason Foley was always going to be up against it. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Hands full: Cathal McShane made hay in the first half of the semi-final, but with so much space around him close to goal, and quality ball going in, Jason Foley was always going to be up against it. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

For most people, three weeks is the ideal amount of time between championship matches, but if you're trying to plot the downfall of probably the greatest football team of all time then it's not even close to enough.

But that's what Peter Keane and Co are trying to conjure down in Kerry. They'll have been looking at Dublin and looking at themselves, seeing what they can do to make all the pieces fall into place.

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It's a difficult puzzle to solve. Kerry have brilliant individual talent. They even outstrip Dublin in certain positions but even on those occasions the combined Dublin line is stronger.

For example, David Moran is in the form of his life but would you take the Moran and Jack Barry/Adrian Spillane combination over Brian Fenton and Michael Darragh Macauley? The same is true of the respective full-forward lines. David Clifford, Paul Geaney and Killian Spillane are a potent force but are they a stronger front three than Con O'Callaghan, Paul Mannion and Dean Rock? Not to my mind.

Go through every line and it's the same story. Kerry might win an individual battle here and there, but when it comes to it, you'd expect Dublin to win that area of the pitch.

Still, Keane can take heart from the fact that his side have shown a remarkable ability to learn on the hoof. From the first day in the league against Tyrone, they played like a team in a hurry. They were much more inexperienced than Tyrone that day but set the terms of engagement and made it clear they weren't going to be bullied.

When Dublin came to Tralee a few weeks later, they took the chance to bloody their nose too. And while Mayo outmuscled them in the league final, they had made the necessary adjustments by the time the first round of the Super 8s rolled around.

Talent

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They have big-game players too. Moran is the heartbeat. When he plays well, Kerry do too. And David Clifford showed against Tyrone that he is more than just a huge talent. He's a leader too.

He was poor by his own standards in the first half. He had taken bad options and kicked some ball away. What impressed me most was that when he came out for the second half, he kept showing for ball and played his way into the game. A lesser player would have retreated into his shell but Clifford met the challenge head-on. They will need all that mental strength on Sunday week.

In that second half against Tyrone they were ruthless. There are not many teams who could turn the screw on Mickey Harte's men the way Kerry did. Along with their opening 35 minutes against Mayo, that was probably their best half of football of this year.

The flip side of that is that they cannot afford to have the slow start that they did against Tyrone. Dublin showed what they can do in just 12 minutes against Mayo. Kerry can't afford to give them an entire half.

Their back line has been a cause for concern for much of the year. Cathal McShane made hay, particularly in the first half, while Meath's rookie full-forward Shane Walsh also gave them plenty to think about in Navan.

Tadhg Morley and Jason Foley have come in for plenty of stick on the back of those games but for me it's a system issue, rather than a personnel one.

Morley and Foley are more than good enough. But even the best defenders can only do so much if there's quality ball coming in and no cover.

It's too simplistic to say that Kerry should use Paul Murphy as a sweeper and that will solve their problem. Modern players are too sophisticated to be flummoxed by an extra man in front of a full-back line. Instead, Kerry need an improved collective effort.

There were times in the first half in the Tyrone game that Cathal McShane couldn't believe the amount of space he had close to goal. Kerry figured it out after the restart. On one occasion McShane was turned over with four Kerry men around him. They'll need that sort of controlled aggression against Dublin. And they'll need it for at least 75 minutes.

Kick-outs will be a huge issue too. They don't have too many six-footers around the half-back and half-forward lines. Shane Ryan will need to pick his way carefully around the Dublin press. Meath and Donegal got some joy off him but they'll have to keep the Dubs guessing and mix it up. Go short and long, overload one side and then the other. Give Dublin cheap possession and you've signed your own execution order.

No one is under any illusion here. For Kerry to win, absolutely everything will have to fall their way. When goal chances come, Kerry need to hit the back of the net and they'll have to see Dublin's efforts flash wide or be saved.

But, significantly, Kerry will believe. Justified or not, there's a natural confidence Kerry footballers carry. Regardless of opposition or circumstances, they'll give themselves a chance. And that will be important if they are in the game coming down the home stretch.

When it comes to the importance of mentality, I always think of the 1986 All-Ireland final. Tyrone had a penalty to go nine points up early in the second half. They would have planned for many eventualities that day but a nine-point lead wasn't one of them. They chipped it over the bar and Kerry recovered to sweep to another three-in-a-row.

That's where self-belief kicks in. If Dublin are within striking distance, do Kerry have that ruthless steak? Will they believe they're not just going to compete, but going to win? So far, this Kerry team haven't be found wanting in that regard. Give them the chance and Kerry will relish the chance to be remembered forever.

But for Kerry to pull this off they are going to need the performance of a lifetime.

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