Thursday 14 December 2017

Tomas Ó Sé: Football's smartest minds now go into battle for Sam

Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice (pictured) and his Donegal counterpart Jim McGuinness will go head to head. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice (pictured) and his Donegal counterpart Jim McGuinness will go head to head. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE
Donegal manager Jim McGuinness (pictured) and his Kerry counterpart Eamon Fitzmaurice will go head to head. Stephen McCarthy / SPORTSFILE

Tomas Ó Sé

I thought this punditry lark would be easy, but now I'm coming to the conclusion that it's harder than trying to explain Pythagoras through Latin.

Honestly, who could have predicted last weekend? If there's been two better days of Gaelic football back-to-back, I haven't lived through them. Saturday in Limerick was extraordinary. Looking back now, I would say the Gaelic Grounds turned out to be the right replay venue for the wrong reasons.

I still think the GAA got it wrong in essentially denying one All-Ireland semi-final the same status as the other. But that's water under the bridge now. You couldn't move ten yards on the Ennis Road without seeing great players of the past. It was wonderful.

I saw so many ex-county men, all of them giddy and upbeat, like kids thinking ahead to Christmas. I've been to a Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United in London; I've been to big basketball games in America, but the atmosphere in Limerick was like nothing I've ever experienced.

I played in that Thurles game against the Dubs in '01 and I still hear people talk about the famous Cork-Dublin replay at Pairc Ui Chaoimh in '83. This was of the same calibre with the sheer electricity of the gathering.


The one place it differed was in the game, because this was one of the most intense I've ever seen played. For two teams - after just a six-day turnaround - to produce what they produced brought it home to me how the whole thing is gone to another level again.

Like the individual tussles were epic. Donaghy against Cafferkey. O'Donoghue against Higgins. My God, all these extraordinary little battles blazing away inside a bigger war. Not to mention Fitzmaurice against Horan on the line of course.

Fitz was brave in his team selection. I knew my brother Marc was upset at not starting but, in fairness, it drew the right reaction. This year Marc possibly hadn't been reaching the high standards he's always set for himself. But he reacted brilliantly, which is what a manager wants.

It was hard on Marc for a fella who's been there for so long, but I suspect it was equally hard on Fitz. We'd all be pretty close. But it's a tough job he's doing and the decision paid off.

Mayo had something special under James Horan and I've nothing but immense respect for how they behaved throughout the two games. I didn't really want to meet Mayo supporters after because I didn't know what to be saying. The last thing I wanted was to sound patronising.

Let's be honest, there was nothing between these teams. Maybe the key decision was starting Donaghy, who was excellent. Mick O'Dwyer was sitting in front of me, turning around at one stage to say t'was just like old days, when you could fire any kind of ball in on top of 'The Bomber'.

Eamonn is cute out. He hammered the hammer as we say, targeting Mayo's strengths around the middle third. He deserves great credit too because, at the start of the year, the outlook for Kerry wasn't positive. So many big players were gone and, of course, arguably the greatest forward any of us has ever seen was going to be missing for the year. So he's turned everything around and put an incredible work ethic into the team.

They brought a manic aggression to Saturday that surprised Mayo.

And what can you say about David Moran? For a fella who has come back from two cruciates, who has carried the burden on his shoulders of always being compared to Ogie, his father, the man was incredible - 47 touches? When the next one down was in the 20s?

Since Darragh left, the Kerry midfield has been much maligned, but Moran and Anthony Maher were outstanding.

Some people seemed to think Kerry would not be able to live with Mayo's physicality on a tighter field than Croke Park. I was surprised by that view as I could never see the physical stuff being a problem for Kerry. So it turned out to be the other way around. I mean Paul Geaney had the highest tackle-count on the field. And did you see Mark Griffin upturning Aidan O'Shea? Mother of God, that stuff lifts a whole team.

But they'll have their hands full on the 21st. If anything, they're going to have to be even more physical now against a Donegal team that shocked Croke Park to the core on Sunday. Because if Kerry lose, believe me the Mayo win will be forgotten so quickly. All-Ireland final appearances aren't remembered with any fondness in Kerry if the Sam Maguire isn't brought home at the end of it.

Donegal were a 7/1 shot before the Dublin game and I couldn't see them winning. We all bought into the idea that Dublin were far more street-smart than they proved. They were going for their third title in four years and we reckoned they knew what it would take to put back-to-back titles together. I think everybody was hoodwinked too by the size of their panel.

The key thing about Donegal was that, unlike any other team that played Dublin this year, they didn't fear them. I made a judgment on the flatness of Jim McGuinness' men in the Division 2 final and certainly got that one wrong. But I don't buy into this thing that they were just gearing for an All-Ireland. It doesn't work like that.

Look hindsight makes us all clever. I couldn't believe how naïve Dublin looked on Sunday, but Donegal exposed that naivety brilliantly. They landed ball after ball on top of big Neil Gallagher, then got three or four fellas exploding past together to try to break the defensive line.

McGuinness deserves huge credit for a really clever game-plan. For me, himself and Eamonn Fitz are the two smartest managers around.

Ryan McHugh was tremendous. Physically he looks like someone still in secondary school, but the boy has some engine.

And Donegal will now take serious confidence from the win. I remember them saying after the All-Ireland in 2012 that it was beating Kerry in the quarter-final that convinced them they could do it.

Now they're after beating a team that some said could win five in a row, an unstoppable machine, we thought. Imagine what that will give them.

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