Wednesday 23 October 2019

Peter Keane's case for the defence at heart of Kingdom rebuild

Conor McCarthy of Monaghan loses possession after the Kerry trio of Peter Crowley, Kevin McCarthy and Gavin Crowley put the squeeze on during their clash in Killarney earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile
Conor McCarthy of Monaghan loses possession after the Kerry trio of Peter Crowley, Kevin McCarthy and Gavin Crowley put the squeeze on during their clash in Killarney earlier this month. Photo: Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Peter Keane hasn't made any secret about what he has wanted from his Kerry team over the last two months, consistently reiterating the need for them to become harder to beat.

In that sense, the league can already be deemed a success, irrespective of Sunday's Allianz Division 1 final with Mayo.

Kerry have lost just once and conceded just four goals, their lowest goal concession rate since the two they coughed up in their final two regulation games in 2009, to Dublin and Galway, when they were already qualified, having kept five straight clean sheets in their opening games that year, the first of Jack O'Connor's second coming.

This time the clean-sheet count is four, again the most since 2009, a marked improvement on last year's league campaign when they conceded 10 goals. There are other positive pointers around the concession of 4-80 (identical to Mayo) this season in the same sequence of games.

Topping

It's not far off Galway's 1-80 in topping the group last year and Dublin's 4-72 and 4-75 in the previous two years, when they also headed Division 1.

For some though the jury on Kerry's defensive repair work remains out.

Former Armagh footballer Aidan O'Rourke has suggested in recent weeks that he was "alarmed" at Kerry's inability in the tackle, their lack of "collective will to defend", especially in the wake of their only defeat to Mayo.

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O'Rourke also posed the question as to who Kerry's dedicated man-markers would be if faced with the likes of Conor McManus and Paul Mannion.

It's a question that repeats in a Kerry context, even with the stream of All-Ireland minor medal winners now in full flow.

Jason Foley is the most likely recruit for that man-marking role when he gets back up to speed, something Tadhg Morley has also been attuned to as his head-to-heads with Ciaran Kilkenny in 2017 illustrate.

Graham O'Sullivan has much promise and featured on an All-Ireland-winning minor team as a corner-back but he has some developing to do yet.

Stefan Okunbor was the likely project at full-back if his departure to the AFL hadn't happened.

The regeneration of Jack Sherwood has been one of the most interesting angles to Kerry's league, complementing some of Tommy Walsh's successes at the other end.

Last October, the former Kerry great Pat Spillane suggested that only three players - David Clifford, Gavin White and Paul Geaney - were certain of their places. At a push, he was prepared to add Paul Murphy to that list.

It's safe to say that a few more have made themselves indispensable.

It was hard to imagine even last October that Seán O'Shea would fall into that category but after playing every minute of all seven league games and amassing 1-50 by every means possible, his importance speaks for itself.

Tom O'Sullivan has joined those ranks too, helping himself to six points from wing-back in the course of a productive campaign.

But one of the points raised by O'Rourke is worth considering and begs the question as to whether Kerry do have a lot of defenders similar in style.

White's return gives them even more attacking power and pace but what does that do for their capacity to lock down opponents at the other end?

Keane has kept his defensive selections tight during the campaign.

Murphy and O'Sullivan have, like O'Shea, started and finished every game; Peter Crowley has missed just a few minutes, at the very end of the Roscommon game; Sherwood's recall has been fruitful with six starts; while Brian Ó Beaglaoích has started five, missing one through suspension.

Of the rest, Morley and Gavin Crowley have been most prominent with four starts, though the latter also came in as a substitute twice and Shane Enright, Graham O'Sullivan and Foley have been more peripheral.

That amounts to 10 defenders covering seven games. From the 31 Keane has given game time, it's low by comparison to 15 different forwards who have been deployed. But so far Keane has been as good as his word to make Kerry harder to beat.

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