Saturday 18 January 2020

Tomás Ó Sé: Kerry's last line of defence must take responsibility and man up

Kerry don't need a sweeper but must get a lot of individual improvement from players who were below par the last day

Andy Moran of Mayo has his shot saved by Mark Griffin of Kerry in the drawn game
Andy Moran of Mayo has his shot saved by Mark Griffin of Kerry in the drawn game

Tomás Ó Sé

A special era for Gaelic football will have come and gone before we get around to truly appreciating what we have in front of us right now. That thought struck me again as I got around to digesting another epic All-Ireland semi-final this week.

We spend all season bemoaning the lack of quality and competition the elite teams face but, pit them against each other and inevitably, the various sub-plots and storylines take on lives of their own.

I was breathless coming away from Croke Park last Sunday evening, exhilarated.

I know there's an element of snobbery perhaps about wanting to see the best teams against each other at this time of the season but isn't that the case with almost every sport?

Put it this way, there'll be a lot of damp-squib Champions League games on foot of Thursday's draw before the wheat is separated from the chaff.

When Kerry and Dublin were in their pomp 40 years ago only Cork could really keep pace with them. Was it really ever that different?

Mayo's Aidan O'Shea and Kerry's Kieran Donaghy Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea and Kerry's Kieran Donaghy Photo: Sportsfile

Now there are four teams in the mix and the capacity for intrigue and entertainment come in equal measures.

A poor Kerry performance for the second successive game has left some in the county questioning their ability to dominate the big teams. Winning the league arguably bucked that trend but really, what merit is there in that if there is not a sustainable follow-up?

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The perception is that Éamonn Fitzmaurice is getting more out of them than maybe he's entitled to, that the quality of player isn't what it was.

I always hated comparisons between the team I played with and our predecessors, so it's not something I'd ever delve into but I will say this: my appreciation for how Tom O'Sullivan, Mike McCarthy and Marc Ó Sé defended in the full-back line, in an era of so many great forwards like Peter Canavan, Pádraic Joyce, Steven McDonnell, Stephen O'Neill and Alan Brogan, has grown.

These guys had acres of space in front of them too. O'Sullivan spent a lifetime calling for it to be swallowed up by green and gold shirts but, more often than not, he didn't get his wish.

For the Kerry full-back line to collectively concede 1-9 to their direct opponents simply wasn't good enough and they don't have immunity just because of the crisp service Mayo's inside forwards got into that space.

Whoever fills that last line now for Kerry needs to take more personal responsibility and man up.

As much as Kerry would have been content with Aidan O'Shea picking up Kieran Donaghy I wonder how it impacted on the match-ups.

Mark Griffin struggled badly on Jason Doherty, Tadhg Morley did better in the second half and I can see Morley remaining in the full-back line now.

Maybe Griffin will hold his place, possibly at half-back, but defensive options are limited and questions will be asked about the progress of some of the All-Ireland minor winners from recent years and why they are not further up the pecking order.

Brian O'Beaglaoich has had injuries but Jason Foley and Tom O'Sullivan have had little exposure.

Personally, I like O'Sullivan and wouldn't be afraid to throw him in and let him sink or swim. Invariably a player like him will find his stroke in the rapids quite quickly.

Fitzmaurice has already had two replays over the last five seasons and he's got it right at the second attempt each time.

The question of committing a sweeper has been raised but I don't think it is something Fitzmaurice will resort to, certainly not at such short notice.

When such a tactic hasn't been deployed for Dublin by now, it won't be here.

Anyway, when Aidan O'Mahony played a variation of the role a few years ago I felt it didn't work. I just don't think it's Kerry's style to play an out-and-out sweeper.

I'd admire them for having a go and committing so many players in more advanced positions to stop the Mayo runners through the middle last weekend but it didn't strike the right balance and they'll need to be a little more reserved.

In that sense, I can see Jonathan Lyne coming straight in for Michael Geaney and offering some level of protection.

Donnchadh Walsh's loss was sorely felt for the outlet that he provides and his instinct to seal off gaps.

They need those eight or nine players in the middle third tuned in better to what's going on around them.

Collectively and individually Kerry need better balance with their positioning.

For instance, when the ball is on one side they need defenders on the other side cheating their way across without committing too much to create an obvious overlap. O'Mahony's ability to hold the right position and balance that with the need to man-mark was exceptional.

Johnny Buckley of Kerry on his way to scoring his side's second goal past Mayo goalkeeper David Clarke

My sense of it was that at least six Kerry starters didn't play up to scratch. Shane Enright, Johnny Buckley and James O'Donoghue are three I'd expect big improvement from and I feel O'Donoghue will benefit from the drier ball, if it materialises.

Paul Geaney scored three points, nailed his frees and set up Paul Murphy for the lead point near the end but I feel there'll be more in him too.

If it's a case that the tackle count is running at almost two to one in Mayo's favour then Kerry really have to take stock.

That said, there's much improvement in Mayo too. As much as they will have deliberated long and hard this week over O'Shea's role, Lee Keegan presents them with a conundrum too.

By playing to their strengths they'll restore him to right half-back and give him that attacking platform he thrives on, regardless of who he displaces.

Paul Murphy got the better of him but I'm not sure it would suit Kerry to push Murphy on him if he reverted completely to defence. I feel Kerry get much more from Murphy as a half-back.

But for Keegan there'll be quite the motivation not to have two quiet games back-to-back.

You can't blame O'Shea for the damage Donaghy did on Sunday. He's not an instinctive defender and I know, from experience, that any time I found myself in the full-back line with the length of the field in front of me I was at sea.

They left him in there too long and on such a wet afternoon, the odds shift against the catcher.

O'Shea will have benefited from the experience but when Mayo weighed it up this week I expect they came up with a different plan for Donaghy that strikes a better balance between what he can do in the air and on the ground.

Look at how Tyrone have dealt with him in the past through a collaborative approach with Colm Cavanagh sitting in front. Or how Dublin have dealt with a similar threat from O'Shea himself, flooding numbers around him to minimise damage.

Donaghy is a much more complete footballer now than he was when he burst on to the scene in 2006.

For that lay-off to Stephen O'Brien for the first goal, I'm convinced he'd have gone outside and offloaded quicker if it was then. Now? He had the patience to hold and switch inside.

To my mind, Donal Vaughan has always been a tough customer who would relish a challenge like Donaghy. Okay, there'll be some concession in the air and Kerry will surely test it, especially if it's dry, but with help and discipline it can be brought under control.

I've heard it said this week that the Mayo attack was more fluent without O'Shea holding things up but his work in winning frees, drawing in tacklers and subtly laying off the ball is invaluable and difficult to defend.

Mayo's work at both kick-outs too has to improve. David Clarke continues to get far too much elevation on his longer restart, making it too inviting for opponents to come on to it.

At the other end, they just didn't put enough pressure on Brian Kelly, despite some success, and they need to go after that a lot more.

Mayo did so much right, put so many impressive passages of play together but still didn't close the deal and that will have nagged away at them.

For me, the greater scope for improvement lies with Kerry because so many individuals fell short of the standard they can go to, some for the second successive game. That's a concern for Kerry that leaves question marks hanging. But on a dry day, Geaney and O'Donoghue might just find the going easier.

Meanwhile, Dublin's quest for three in a row is scarcely featuring in the conversation and that strikes me as odd given what a powerful achievement it would be. I know if it was me it would be prime motivation as an opponent to stop it.

Dublin won't have met anything for a few years like the defensive wall they'll face tomorrow and with such an impressive sequence of league results Tyrone have every reason to be confident.

Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin

The big question for Dublin is whether Diarmuid Connolly will start. I'd like to see it, games like this need players like him, I think it should happen but on the balance of it, he probably won't.

This is a game Tyrone have been building towards and refining a carefully-planned system for.

Their set-up is heavily fortified but the key for Dublin is not to panic and that is something they have become really good at over the last three years.

We've seen them wait and wait until the time is right to commit to getting a shot off, most notably against Monaghan the last day.

They can play the long game, as in patience, better than anyone.

Tyrone have been racking up big scores but the higher the level they go, the more their absence of quality finishers inside will test them, I feel.

In their biggest games last year, against Donegal and Mayo, they scored just 13 and 12 points. For sure, they have developed but not enough to take down Dublin and it's something I feel will catch up with them tomorrow.

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