Saturday 17 August 2019

Tommy Conlon: 'Old sparring partners Kerry and Mayo prepare to get serious in rumble under the Reeks'

The Couch

Kerry’s David Clifford tackles Mayo’s Chris Barrett during the League final but Kingdom forwards struggle to fulfil the defensive duties of the modern player. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Kerry’s David Clifford tackles Mayo’s Chris Barrett during the League final but Kingdom forwards struggle to fulfil the defensive duties of the modern player. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

Not even Seán Cavanagh stirring the old Tyrone pot last week could make one wish for anything other than the fixture that is coming down the tracks in Killarney this afternoon.

If the contemporary Kerry-Mayo rivalry hasn't quite got the dynamite in its gloves of Kerry v Tyrone in the noughties, it has built up enough stormy weather in recent years to presage this latest instalment with the sound of rolling thunder. Two heavyweight teams will be getting off their stools today.

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If it might be a tad premature to confer this new Kerry generation with heavyweight status yet, given their physical development is still at the coltish stage, there is more than enough thoroughbred talent in their ranks to deem them so.

They are full of running, loaded with firepower and possess a scatter of game-changing individuals. Playing at home today more or less guarantees that their bloodstream will be coursing with the proverbial piss and vinegar of pure, amped-up adrenaline.

They know what's facing them; they have faced it twice already this season and succumbed to it on each occasion. The prospect of losing thrice on the spin will surely have been a galvanising theme in the camp last week.

And maybe more galvanising than the statistic will be the manner of the defeats, a general perception that they were 'bullied' by opponents who were too strong, too streetwise, too long on the road. In the National League final in particular, on March 31, Mayo just swatted them aside in the second half.

In truth, there should be no stigma attached to that defeat, bar whatever Kerry wish to extract from it in terms of motivational anger. It was simply a classic case of a young team on the up not being ready for the power and experience and athletic capacity of an outfit that has been built for all seasons and all manner of hardship.

Mayo were like a bunch of marines that had done a dozen tours of duty in Vietnam, Kerry like a highly-trained, highly-skilled corps that were only getting their first exposure to jungle warfare.

Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Sportsfile

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This will change as Mayo eventually, finally, end up in one battle too many, and the current Kingdom crop mature into their frames and eat up the essential hard yards. It could even change as soon as today.

They've had 15 weeks since the league final. They'll have learned good lessons from the coalface then, and from the previous meeting in Tralee two weeks earlier. And playing in Killarney might give them the extra few ounces to tilt the scales their way.

But whatever spike it gives to their emotions, it won't spook the visitors one whit. Mayo are well used at this stage to parachuting in behind enemy lines and coming away with the spoils.

And while Kerry have been more or less treading water in Munster again, Mayo managed once more to shoot themselves in both feet in Connacht only to find their fabled mojo again in the qualifiers.

Down in Newry, Armagh in Castlebar, Galway in the Gaelic Grounds: three wins three Saturdays in a row and they arrive in Fitzgerald Stadium today with the wind in their sails and their engines cooking.

Better still, instead of going grey together in one fell swoop, they are currently enjoying a youth transfusion that seems to have rejuvenated the old salts just at the very moment when it looked like they might be running on empty.

What's more, the transfusion has been injected precisely where it was needed most: Mayo's attack suddenly has real verve and menace with the infiltration of Darren Coen, Fionn McDonagh and James Carr. Whisper it, but this might just be the cutting edge, the final part of the jigsaw, that has been missing from their almost decade-long odyssey.

Obviously this new-model Kerry squad has been on the road for only a fraction of that time but already their problems in defence have become part of their identity. This is an unusually lopsided formation, top-loaded with stellar attacking talent, bereft of even one outstanding defensive linchpin.

They are all good footballers at the back, which of course is a different thing from being good defenders. They love to get forward, which seems a bit indulgent given the forwards they have already.

To be fair, they can scramble well in defence and presumably they will be augmented by their half-forwards tracking back religiously to fill the channels. The collective swarm actually repelled a lot of Mayo attacks in the first half of the league final.

But maybe a couple of their habitual raiders from the back will be instructed to sit tight and mind the house today at all times. And maybe even they will post an extra sentry there permanently, on the basis that they will still have ample ammunition in attack.

If they are vulnerable to goals, they know that any team, Mayo included, is vulnerable to the Kerry goal threat too. Maybe they are banking on winning a shoot-out. Either way, we will see today if they have mustered a solution to this ongoing issue at the back.

In all likelihood there will be spills and thrills in both goalmouths.

And while it's not do-or-die, we expect both sides to crash into each other like it is; there will be some almighty wallops and collisions amid the drama; probably a fair few cheap shots too. Kerry will not want to be "bullied", so they say, and Mayo will want to do a bit of bullying - or a lot, as the case may be.

A packed Fitzgerald Stadium will not be a place for faint hearts, and that's just in the crowd. The atmosphere should be tremendous, the action likewise. If it was boxing, we'd call it the rumble under the Reeks; it's not, but we're getting ready to rumble anyway.


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