Wednesday 23 October 2019

Sinéad Kissane: 'Mayo hold power in changed dynamic but Killarney 'conflict' might be making of Kingdom'


Threat: Darren Coen in action against Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh of Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Threat: Darren Coen in action against Sean Andy Ó Ceallaigh of Galway. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Sinéad Kissane

The cracks were showing down in Kerry. In a team meeting one Monday evening in Killarney, the Kerry manager split the players into groups and asked them to address any issues because their form wasn't what the championship demanded. One list from a group of players raised the following concerns:

  • Something missing in squad. Spirit? Atmosphere?
  • Not fighting for each other, not supporting.
  • All wary of each other, looking after themselves. Need to pull together.

That was the summer of 2006. The previous day Kerry escaped the Munster final with a draw against Cork and Jack O'Connor wanted the players to air any hang-ups. Never too far from a Kerry panel was the usual speculation of unrest.

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"According to the rumours, we are running a madhouse," O'Connor said in 'Keys to the Kingdom'. Kerry would go on to lose the replay to Cork. Two months later, Kerry beat Mayo 4-15 to 3-5 in the All-Ireland final.

Conflict is a curious condiment in a team environment. There's the assumption it's a negative when it could also be a positive. England rugby head coach Eddie Jones said recently that he likes to manufacture conflict as it's also good for creativity.

Conflict When he was Japan head coach he was known to secretly cancel the team bus just to see how players would react.

"(I've) set up team meetings and not turned up, set up training sessions and not turned up. Allow the opportunity for your players to fail, for your staff to fail because that's the way that they learn the most," Jones said in an interview in the LifeTimes podcast.

"Sometimes, if I think we're going well, I'll artificially create a conflict just to make sure everyone's right on the edge of their seats."

When it comes to an edge-of-seat environment, Mayo take care of that business for Kerry. As soon as Mayo were drawn to play Galway in the All-Ireland qualifiers, it seemed to yank Kerry's championship on to a tightrope and that tightened even more with the manner of their win over Galway.

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Like any team - or any person - there are those who naturally put you on edge and those who don't. Galway beat Kerry in the first round of the Super 8s last year, but Kerry have a different dynamic with Mayo.

Historically, it's always been there with Dublin, but Mayo are a team that have humbled Kerry, like Tyrone have done in the past.

In December 2012, Tyrone secretary Dominic McCaughey wrote in his annual report about how Kerry played and celebrated their win over Tyrone in the All-Ireland qualifier in Fitzgerald stadium the previous July.

This game was bigger than a result - it was also about reputation and revenge after two All-Ireland final defeats to Mickey Harte's team.

"When the final whistle sounded, Kerry had a 10-point winning margin that was greeted, amazingly, with tears of joy by some players and wild scenes of jubilation among highly vociferous supporters," McCaughey wrote, before adding a dig.

"Their desire to win was exemplified by urgency, intensity, skill, physicality and some other features not normally associated with Kerry players."

Make no mistake, Tyrone helped make who Kerry were that day.

Tyrone coming to Fitzgerald Stadium seven years ago felt big, but Mayo going there tomorrow feels bigger again. There are power shifts in any relationship. An easy assumption is that the power between Kerry and Mayo changed on August 26, 2017, after Mayo won the All-Ireland semi-final replay, but it began to shift long before that.

Kerry had the power after the All-Ireland final wins in 2004 and '06 (also an All Ireland semi-final win in '11). In the '14 All Ireland semi-final, the dynamic began to get a makeover. Mayo - down to 14 men after Lee Keegan was sent off in the first half - should have beaten Kerry.

The replay the following Saturday evening at the Gaelic Grounds saw Kerry get out alive after extra-time. Semi-finals are there to be immediately forgotten, but I've never seen Kerry people celebrate a semi-final like that evening in Limerick.

For every bit of joy that win created, there must have been an equal but opposite amount of hurt for Mayo.

After another draw in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2017, there was an opinion that Mayo had missed their chance after a run of eight championship games. But Mayo's powers of renewal further emboldened their reputation.

After beating Kerry by five points in the replay, Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice said Mayo were "hungrier". Tomorrow is the first time they'll play each other in the championship since that day. Mayo are the only team Kerry have lost to this year - in Tralee in the league and in Croke Park in the league final.

It's Mayo who have an aura about them now. Only Mayo could have had Kerry people out scrambling for tickets as early as a Monday morning for a game in Killarney.

Only Mayo could have Kerry people fearing they could be outnumbered in their home ground because of the might of their support, in what will be the first time a championship game between the pair will be played at a home venue.

Only Mayo would probably relish more the prospect of travelling to Killarney to take down Kerry in their own back yard and end an unbeaten run there. David Clifford wasn't even born the last time Kerry lost a championship game at Fitzgerald Stadium.

So how will Kerry deal with Mayo tomorrow? In a statement on the Mayo GAA website, James Horan said that "Mayo's positive approach and attacking game will be on display" - as it was with the likes of Darren Coen and James Carr in Limerick last Saturday.

Knack With their power runs from half-back, their support play, their relentless tackling and knack for a turnover, Mayo have a confrontational style of play that Kerry have allowed get under their skin. Kerry finished the All Ireland semi-final replay two years ago with 13 men, with Peter Crowley and Kieran Donaghy sent off.

Even before the ball was throw-in, Tadhg Morley and Jason Doherty were rolling around on the pitch with each other. It's a chaos Kerry ultimately couldn't handle.

Coming up against a team like Mayo can make you fall down a rabbit hole with all the concerns around this Kerry team. A vulnerable defence. A not-dominant-enough midfield (Aidan O'Shea, for example, won every throw-in in the two games in 2017 - he lost the first one to Johnny Buckley but quickly harried him over the sideline for a Mayo ball).

There are questions over a lack of leadership. The young players are only getting used to this level, but there are times when they show signs of some of the concerns the '06 team raised above.

Despite all that, tomorrow is a real opportunity for Kerry. The Kerry team in '06 was stacked with leaders like the Ó Sé's, Galvin, Gooch, Declan O'Sullivan. But even they needed a bit of conflict to sort themselves out.

And some creativity, with O'Connor moving Donaghy to full-forward. Along with the chaos and uncompromising attitude that Mayo bring, this is a day for Kerry to manufacture a creative tactic which starts with the positioning of David Clifford and how to get him into the game as much and often as possible.

Mayo hold the power over Kerry. But coming up against quality can also be the best way to discover your own.

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