Monday 19 March 2018

This time Kerry need Cooper to be the hunted, not hunter

Philly McMahon dictated terms of engagement in All-Ireland final, negating Kingdom's prize asset.

Philly McMahon and Colm Cooper in conversation at the end of last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Philly McMahon and Colm Cooper in conversation at the end of last year’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile
Colm Keys

Colm Keys

What best frames the 'modern game'?

Is it the geometry of Stephen Cluxton's kickouts, so accurate and so short that twice, at the business end of last year's Championship, he actually delivered them behind the 13-metre line from where he had set up?

Is it the man in front of him, the now departed Rory O'Carroll, and how he kicked just once from the five times (excluding frees) that he had ball in hand in last year's All-Ireland final and didn't put ball to boot at all in the previous year's All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Donegal, yet he stands as one of the primary exponents of the position?

Is it Tyrone, as a team, kicking the ball (again excluding frees, sidelines, kickouts and shots at goal) just 13 times in general play during their All-Ireland quarter-final with Monaghan last August?

How about Michael Murphy, one of the most celebrated forwards of the game, committing himself to in excess of 20 tackles during Donegal's League match against Kerry in Tralee last month?

Or maybe it was that eighth Dublin point just before half-time in last year's All-Ireland final when Colm Cooper, the bespoke forward of the modern age, found himself in a position where he was facing Philly McMahon 22 metres out from his own goal as the Ballymun man, his marker, prepared to pull trigger to put Dublin ahead at the break by 0-8 to 0-4.


That Cooper found himself facing, not chasing, McMahon at that position in that moment was the perfect microcosm of Dublin's dominance and how out of sync Kerry were.

It surely represented Kerry's biggest systems failure that Cooper was forced to play almost as much ball in his own half and was on the back foot for far too long.

Perhaps nothing compounded the hurt of defeat more than the way this particular duel turned so much in Dublin's favour, and against Kerry's most treasured asset.

The snapshot of the Kerry selector Diarmuid Murphy in such animated pose as he made his point to manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice came just after that McMahon point. No lip reader was required to understand the message; his furrowed brow said everything.

A look at the graph attached here paints its own picture. McMahon, nominally a corner-back, had possession just once inside his own 45. Much of his business on the ball was done in the middle third or at the other end. From the 10 times he had possession, he was past the half-way line and into Kerry 'territory' for five.

Cooper was on the ball 18 times, eight in his own half. Not once did he get a shot off on goals.

The signs were ominous as early as the fifth minute when McMahon made his first raid into enemy territory with a pass that eventually set up a free for Dean Rock.

By the mid-point of a most frustrating half for Cooper, McMahon was revelling in it. At one stage he had gathered the ball inside Kerry's 13 metre line but was thwarted, allowing Cooper, by then in full defensive mode, to come away with it.

All the time McMahon, almost irreverent to the reputation of Cooper as one of the great forwards, sought to probe and push forward, just as he had done with Aidan O'Shea in the replayed semi-final with Mayo.

With Cian O'Sullivan locking down the defence in a sweeping role it was the platform for McMahon to be so ambitious and for so long it worked spectacularly.

Donnchadh Walsh, Stephen O'Brien and Johnny Buckley were too busy fighting their own fires across the Kerry half-forward line with the athleticism and burning pace of James McCarthy and Jack McCaffrey to track McMahon.

When McCaffrey booted Dublin's seventh point 'Gooch' was the closest defender, a credit to his diligence and team ethic for sure but not the terms of engagement that Kerry wanted or needed.

Cooper, whose intention was surely to drift out but just not that far, did manage to get positions higher up the field in the second half, notably winning an early free before supplying Darran O'Sullivan for a point and assisting with James O'Donoghue's third point.

But by then McMahon had quelled his own exuberance somewhat and engaged in closer and more abrasive combat, not to Cooper's liking.

When Cooper brought McMahon's 'handling' to the umpires' attention in the 61st minute McMahon was yellow-carded.

At the end there was clear frustration in Cooper as McMahon attempted to shake hands. Admitting there had been a "stand-off" McMahon claimed there had been a hand-shake after his explanation.

"When we step up and we mark, we look the man in the eye and we're saying, 'We're going to war today, me and you, and let's see who comes out on the top end', said McMahon, explaining his philosophy the following morning.

Tomorrow Cooper and Kerry have a chance for some redress on last September. Cooper has been in very decent form since returning for the third League match and Kerry will have a much better grasp of McMahon's movements and, presumably, a back up plan if McMahon does pick him up again.

They need him to be the hunted again, not the hunter.

But it may not even develop that way. Arguably Jim Gavin's finest tactical ploy as Dublin manager may be locked away for another day.

Irish Independent

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