Saturday 18 January 2020

Three kings display the finest of attacking past, present and future in Super 8s

Donaghy, McManus, and Clifford show their class

David Clifford and (inset) Conor McManus
David Clifford and (inset) Conor McManus
Only the boot of David Clifford is in the frame as his last-gasp strike whistles past six Monaghan players for Kerry’s dramatic goal. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

The classic in Clones was a tale of three attackers, Forward Past, Forward Present and Forward Future. The guy whose best days are behind him, the guy at his peak and the guy with it all ahead of him.

We'll start with Forward Present. All week we heard about the pressure involved in playing for Kerry. Footballers from other counties would love that kind of pressure. Being expected to win All-Irelands at least means there's a chance you might win them.

The idea that Kerry footballers have it tough probably rankles most with the really gifted individuals from less successful counties. The Declan Brownes, the Eamonn O'Haras, the Mattie Fordes. Players like Conor McManus.

Everyone acknowledges the Monaghan man's status as one of the game's finest forwards but, come September, there's hardly a word about him. Had he been born in Dublin or Kerry, McManus would be a household name.

Instead, he's like one of those musicians who has to content himself with critical acclaim while others top the charts; a Steve Earle rather than an Ed Sheeran.

Being a phenomenally talented star forward for a county where such players don't exactly roll off a conveyor belt brings its own burdens.

There's the burden of being expected to carry the team on your back and the burden of the opposition being able to concentrate on stopping you to an extent which would be impossible were there another couple of All-Stars to share the load.

Such attention means McManus had been quiet enough in this year's championship. There were even suggestions that opposition defenders had 'figured him out'. But you can't really solve a problem like Conor McManus. He's been ticking away all summer. Yesterday he exploded.

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This was probably the best performance of the Clontibret man's career. It bore a remarkable similarity to Bernard Brogan's magnificent effort on a losing Dublin team against Cork in the 2010 All-Ireland semi-final and, like that tour de force, it began with a second-minute goal.

Everything about it displayed the attributes of a born finisher, the way McManus ghosted in behind Mark Griffin, the calm way he advanced on goal, the little shimmy which gave him extra space for a shot and the clinical low drive he squeezed past Brian Kelly into the corner of the net. It all looked so easy, you'd think anyone could do it.

McManus would finish with 1-4 from play and was also fouled for a number of converted frees. He looked unplayable throughout and as the match entered injury-time seemed to have steered Monaghan to a semi-final berth and a first championship victory over Kerry. His display deserved no less.

Enter Forward Past, a billing Kieran Donaghy has been defying for some time now. Four years ago it all looked up for him at inter-county level as he languished on the bench until, with Kerry five points down to Mayo, Eamon Fitzmaurice thought, "What the hell," and threw on the Austin Stacks man.

Donaghy promptly set up a goal which rescued Kerry and he ended the year as an All-Ireland final winner and All-Star. Since then he's been football's renaissance man, a player stretching his career out to the last. But he's 35 now and as the match neared the end of injury-time, requiems were being composed for both him and Fitzmaurice.

Then James O'Donoghue hoisted one last Hail Mary high ball in Donaghy's direction. The big man was surrounded yet managed to not just get a touch on the ball but to divert it into the path of Forward Future, AKA David Clifford.

Back in 1974 a Rolling Stone journalist Jon Landau declared: "I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." They've been saying things like that about Clifford for a while now. Kerry fans looked forward to him turning senior like born again Christians anticipating the Rapture.

Sensible voices urged caution. Remember, he's only in his first year out of minor. It'll take him a while to learn the ropes. Sean O'Shea looks like he's adjusting better to senior football. Sure won't Clifford have to play third fiddle to Geaney and O'Donoghue.

Such reservations seemed eminently reasonable. But there is always something slightly unreasonable about genius.

Last Sunday as Kerry played perhaps their worst football in living memory, Clifford came away with 1-4 from play against Galway.

Sweep

Yesterday, supply was sporadic and the Fossa teenager suffered some harsh treatment from the Monaghan defence. Yet he still bagged three points from play. The final one of them, executed with a great sweep of the boot from out on the right, showed that this kid plays football of an entirely different order to almost everyone else.

In Clones he took the pass from Donaghy. At a tricky angle to the goal with defenders barring the way and about to converge upon him, Clifford had to shoot immediately. If the ball hit someone or struck the woodwork or flew wide or across the goal Kerry's season was over.

Clifford nailed it and proved that when it comes to talent of this nature, there is probably no such thing as too much hype. Kerry had managed the last word on what was Redemption Sunday for the 'Super 8s', a day when two great games put the six bad previous ones to shame.

There is so much more to Gaelic football than defensive systems and swarm tackling and big lads bumping into each other. At its best it is really about skill and pace and intelligence and daring and self-expression. And, in the end, individual inspiration can trump any system.

That is the moral of the tale of Forward Past, Forward Present and Forward Future.

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