Thursday 19 September 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Attack is Kerry's best hope of causing an upset against the most ruthless team the game has seen'

  • Go for broke on Stephen Cluxton’s kick-outs
  • Put David Moran on Brian Fenton
  • Turn it into a shoot-out
  • Stay in it until the home straight
  • And do it all without taking a backward step
Kerry's David Clifford will have a big part to play against Dublin on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Kerry's David Clifford will have a big part to play against Dublin on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I met Jack O’Connor in Waterville last week and he said something that’s been rattling around inside my head since.

"I bet you the five-in-a-row is more of an issue down here than it is above in Dublin," he said.

There's been so much focus on the pain and frustration of ’82, it's almost as if we've nearly started looking inward here in Kerry, thinking about what might have been and how the Dubs might now do something that we haven’t.

I'd be lying if I said it wouldn’t bother me, that very thought of the Dubs getting five-in-a-row considering how close Micko's Kerry came.

It would bother me as a proud Kerry football man.

One thing the Dublin and Kerry players will almost certainly have done this week is put their phones in a drawer.

I presume there's a ban on any social media engagement because that stuff can be mind-altering, mood-altering even in a week like this. Almost without knowing, it can snare you.

Maybe you have to play in an All-Ireland final to understand just how cocooned you can feel inside that group of people. It's almost a business environment because it has to be.

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The outside world might be close to meltdown with speculation about team selections and match-ups, but in there the priority is to keep the structures and routines unchanged.

It’s a sacred place to be in many ways, but you don’t necessarily want it to feel that way. You want normality. You want clarity.

Maybe above all you want composure from those driving it, a sense of certainty almost.

Of course it's not a normal week, it can't be. But your routines need to be normal. Your convictions have to stay unchanged.

And, believe it or not, my fear is that Dublin are in a better position to do that even with the weight of history pressing down on them.

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This Dublin team are the most ruthless in the history of Gaelic Football Photo: Sportsfile

This group is already the first from the city to win four in a row and that challenge didn’t seem to unduly discommode them last year.

Most of these players know intimately the unique energies of All-Ireland final day.

In my view, they are the coldest, most ruthless group of footballers the game has ever seen.

They’ve probably a little tickled too by our pre-occupation with a game that took place 37 years ago and probably the most iconic goal in the history of Gaelic football.

But that day in ’82 had a huge and lasting effect on Kerry people. It’s like a scar that never healed.

I found it interesting talking to Mick O’Dwyer last week about how, with the game apparently under control against Offaly, Kerry almost unwittingly began to drop deeper.

They slipped into this mindset of defending what they held. Micko’s view is that somewhere in the subconscious, history came tapping them on the shoulder; that when they just couldn’t shake off Eugene McGee’s men, they started looking behind.

That’s the dream for Kerry now. That with maybe 12 or 13 minutes to go tomorrow, they’re still right in the game and Dublin feel a cold breeze on their necks.

All that said, I’m just not sure there’s too many valid comparisons between then and now.

Remember that that Offaly team had tested Kerry’s pulse in ’81 before crossing the Rubicon.

Not just that, they’d established themselves as top dogs in Leinster, breaking Dublin’s six-year stranglehold by winning three provincial titles on the bounce.

They were hard-nosed and street-wise.

This Kerry team is brand new. You could say it’s just like ’75 again when Micko coaxed what was virtually an under-21 team to plunder Sam Maguire.

Except, I’m just not sure that kind of come-from-nowhere All-Ireland win is possible in the era of Jim Gavin’s Dublin.

Like I’d be fairly confident that there will be Celtic Crosses down the line for this group of Kerry players, but it’s hard to see them getting their hands on any tomorrow.

To prove me wrong? Absolute priority number one has to be cracking Stephen Cluxton. Do that and I think you immediately ask questions of the defenders in front of him.

As I see it, Mick Fitzsimons isn’t on top of his game; Cian O’Sullivan isn’t the player he was; Philly McMahon is no longer starting. Davy Byrne? Eoin Murchan?

If there’s a weakness in Dublin, it’s clearly at the back. But you don’t find it unless you ask the right questions.

I’ll admit that John Small, Jack McCaffrey James McCarthy and Jonny Cooper are still top class, but rattle Cluxton and you’re looking straight into their souls.

One thing that strikes me very forcibly about tomorrow is that, on paper at least, both forward lines have the beating of the opposition backs.

That could mean we get a thrilling contest but, in a possession game, the most important players on the field will be the goalkeepers.

And no end of county loyalty will convince me that that’s an even contest.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s team did manage to rattle Cluxton for a seven-minute spell approaching half-time in the 2016 All-Ireland semi-final and that was a sight to behold.

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Shane Ryan. Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
But no-one’s done it since and I’m not sure it’s actually possible anymore. The problem with pressing up high on Cluxton’s kick-outs is that he can go long to Brian Fenton.

In other words, you can commit all those bodies forward and, suddenly, find yourself undone by a radar-guided 70-yarder.

Kerry will get maybe 10 kick-outs where their press will be in place. They have to, in my opinion, win at least six of those.

On the other hand, their lack of confidence on short kick-outs of their own really worries me.

I’d be very surprised if Jim Gavin and his selectors haven’t been putting a big focus on Shane Ryan in the last couple of weeks.

Their conviction will be that he hasn’t really been properly tested in this championship with a full press.

When you consider the pressure Dublin put on Rob Hennelly in the first 10 minutes of the second half against Mayo, it’s hard to be confident about Ryan’s chances of coping if they go after him.

Cluxton has been stress-tested countless times over the last decade. Ryan is a rookie.

When I was playing, we had natural scrappers for 50/50 possession. People like Declan O’Sullivan, Paul Galvin and myself, all going for that ball as if your very life depended on it.

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Stephen Cluxton's kick-outs on Sunday have to be targeted by Kerry. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
I'm not so sure Kerry have enough players with that kind of rage inside them now.

And when you watch Cluxton, he nearly has his kick-out taken before the opposition can even start their press.

Dublin are the most streetwise team around and to have any chance against them, Kerry have to be streetwise too.

I’m not talking about overt cynicism. I’m talking about eking out even the tiniest advantages from any place possible. That’s what serious teams do.

But don’t try to be too cute with clever, short kick-outs and end up getting caught by Dublin’s high press.

Bomb it out and fight for it because, if you win it, that’s about as open as the Dubs are going to be.

Anyway, if we accept that defence is possibly the weakest department for both teams, how come Dublin are so hard to beat?

It's because their possession game means the opposition simply don’t have the ball enough to ask the critical questions.

I think it’s a shame Peter Crowley will be missing tomorrow because he’d be the ideal man to pick up Ciarán Kilkenny.

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Kerry's Paul Murphy, left, will probably be tasked with shackling Ciarán Kilkenny on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
In his absence, Paul Murphy probably gets the job. To me, Kilkenny, Paul Mannion and Con O’Callaghan are Dublin’s three key forwards.

Tom Sullivan could be given the job of going in on O’Callaghan. Why? Because I think the best defenders in the modern game – fellas like Lee Keegan – make sure their markers are wary of allowing them break up the field. They get inside their forwards’ heads.

Mannion could be Kerry’s biggest problem. I’d have given him man of the match against Mayo and you know it strikes me that Dublin are kicking in more 50/50 balls to their forwards than they've done previously precisely because the likes of O’Callaghan and Mannion are now physically strong enough to win them.

It’s worrying that Mayo threw the kitchen sink at Dublin in the first half of that semi-final, yet you always sensed something bad was coming their way.

For me, Mayo tortured themselves working it through the middle third, refusing to kick it long.

To me, James Carr was their only forward who had the pace and beating of his man. Trust me, Kerry’s attack will present Dublin with a far broader range of problems.

I wouldn’t start Tommy Walsh because I think he presents yet another precious option off the bench

What happened James Horan's men immediately after half-time tells me that you maybe have to try and shut down the game in that third quarter if you’re still in touch.

I know it's easy be wise after, but it was obvious that that would be an angry Dublin dressing-room at half-time and that some kind of reaction was imminent.

The scale of that reaction is maybe what caught everyone by surprise. On live television, I was inclined to throw my hands in the air and say 'This championship is over!'

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Aidan O'Shea of Mayo is tackled by Jack Barry of Kerry
Because I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything like that 10 minutes of football.

But here’s the thing.

Almost precisely because of Dublin’s brilliance through those 10 minutes, this is a free shot for Kerry. The sense of inevitability is everywhere now.

Nobody really believes Kerry can win this, so where’s the pressure? Losing isn’t going to leave them open to any condemnation.

The more people say that this Dublin team is unbeatable, the more Peter Keane and his players should be rubbing their hands together and saying, ‘Bring it on!’

If I was Keane today, I’d be saying:

'Lads, expect things to go against us!'

'Lads, expect David Clifford to be out of the game for long periods!'

'Lads, expect David Moran to be struggling against Fenton!'

'Lads, expect Dublin to get at least one goal!'

'But lads, we keep coming!'

Look, I suspect Kerry will come up short tomorrow. But there’s always that little sliver of hope that Dublin might be marginally off and these Kerry boys play the game of their lives. Put it this way. This isn’t Watford against Manchester City in the FA Cup final. Not even close.

If Kerry can stay alive until we reach the home straight, they have the firepower to throw a real spanner in the works. And face it, even if Mayo got that far, the firepower just wasn’t there for them. That’s a crucial difference.

One thing Mayo did show us is that you can rattle this team physically. You can force turnovers against them.

So what Kerry cannot be here is indecisive. Whatever strategy they adopt, they need to do it with absolute conviction.

If Jack Barry is picking up Fenton, he needs to make sure it’s not a one-sided conversation; make sure he gives him something to worry about too.

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David Moran and Brian Fenton are likely to come head-to-head in the heat of battle in Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
In other words, choose your moments to make a run yourself; to pick a hole in Dublin’s defensive lines.

Personally, I’d let David Moran – a man in great form – have a go off him. He’s our main man in the engine room just as Fenton is for the Dubs.

It’s a challenge Moran should relish.

All that said, if the Dubs get on top of Stephen O’Brien, Clifford, Seán O’Shea and Paul Geaney, there’s only going to be one winner.

Look, at the start of the year, I wouldn’t have fancied this Kerry team to beat Tyrone in an All-Ireland semi-final. So I see their place in this final as huge progress.

And that second half against Tyrone will have lifted those players hugely because Kerry got an impact off the bench I didn’t think was available to them.

In that I see some parallels with Tipperary’s last 20 minutes in their hurling semi-final against Wexford.

Tipp found out something about themselves. They found they had an inner dog and that’s what Kerry found against Tyrone.

If it comes out of them again tomorrow, this is no foregone conclusion. But Dublin are the best team I’ve ever seen, given I never saw the Kerry four-in-a-row team in their pomp. I think they’ll get their place in history.

I just hope Kerry keep them honest all the way.

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