Monday 21 January 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: Kerry are in a mess of their own making and they need to take criticism on the chin

David Clifford of Kerry reacts after kicking a wide during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 1 Phase 1 match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park, Dublin.
David Clifford of Kerry reacts after kicking a wide during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Quarter-Final Group 1 Phase 1 match between Kerry and Galway at Croke Park, Dublin.

Tomás Ó Sé

I'll be on the terrace in Killarney this evening, hoping to see Kerry play with the manic edge of insulted men.

Because if there's the seed of indignation in this group, we need to see it now. We've been here before with Kerry football, listening to people talk about us living in the past. About us being naive. And even if there's a sliver of truth in any of what's being said, the only way to challenge that consensus is on the field.

Like it's over a decade since Jack O'Connor brought out his book, every page tingling with resentment at the patronising guff coming our way from Ulster. Tyrone had it over us at the time and weren't entirely shy about broadcasting the fact.

So Jack had a pop back, describing them as "flash and nouveau riche and full of it".

Well, for two weeks since the draw with Monaghan in Clones, it's like history being revisited for the Kingdom. And slap, bang in the firing line has been Eamonn Fitzmaurice and his management team.

I doubt Eamonn's been discussing this with his players, but they'd need to be living in tree-houses not to be aware of it. So it's time to see what these men are really made of against Kildare.

Like, I enjoy Aidan O'Rourke's analysis on the RTÉ website. I respect him as someone who's been to the coalface himself, whether as an Armagh player or as assistant manager to Kieran McGeeney. I may not agree with him all the time, but I do think he has a finger on the pulse of modern coaching.

After the Monaghan game, Aidan talked of Kerry being caught in a “web of naivety and wishful thinking”. Maybe most cuttingly, he said “their iconic status in the public consciousness and an expectancy of flair represent a mythical, bygone era.”

Jesus, it made my blood boil reading that. Another northern mouth trying to tell Kerry what we're doing wrong. But then I started to think about what he said. Was there something in it?

I've always believed that what you do in the present looks after the past. The only thing you can control is in that moment, because the past has no bearing on today. And I honestly think it's fair to say that teams don't fear Kerry today the way they once did.

But my suspicion too is that that specific quote about “a bygone era” was aimed at stinging Kerry's management and senior players. Because O'Rourke sees what the rest of us can see. He sees the younger players standing up to be counted. The David Cliffords, Seán O'Sheas, Tom Sullivans, Gavin Whites and Jason Foleys.

The more senior ones the likes of  Paul Geaney, Peter Crowley and David Moran??

If I was among them I'd be looking to shove those words back down O'Rourke's throat. I'd be full of it in the dressing-room this evening. Full of “You won't f**king write me off!” And maybe that's the kind of noise they've been hearing in the Kerry dressing-room this week anyway.

But unless they back it up now, that's all it will be. Noise.

Like I might be fooling myself, but I can't help but see a bit of a parallel between this Kerry team and our team of 2009. We were getting criticism from every corner that year right up to the quarter-final against Dublin. Just walking down the street to lunch, you'd be getting smart comments. I remember being needled big time by what people were saying.

But we had to dig ourselves out of that as a collective. Fly solo in that situation and it's over. And right now Kerry, as a group, need to start laying a deeper footprint in games. They have to start answering the hard questions. The second-half performance against Monaghan gives me hope because, at least, it showed they were together as a group.

Let me say this. I absolutely believe that Kerry's problems are fixable. I'm just surprised they're proving so stubborn. As a Kerry person, I suppose we're all hoping there's a perfect storm brewing with this team now. But it's hard to be convinced.

You know I was at the Limerick v Cork hurling game on Sunday and, genuinely, would have been happy for either of them to win. I was four years in college in Limerick, really liked the people and still keep in touch with a lot of the lads from my time there. But, obviously, I'm living in Cork. So, hand on heart, my preference probably would have been for the Rebels to win.

But that Limerick team is a joy to watch, the honesty of the group, the passion. They bring that almost-insane hunger to the game and, trust me, I know hunger when I see it.

But I was listening to Tom Kenny talking about how hurling has evolved. How a score that would have won you a game just seven or eight years won't win it for you now. The ball is being moved from one end of the field to the other so quickly, it's almost difficult to keep up. Look at last Sunday. Two minutes in, the scoreboard read 0-2 to 0-2.

Four scores in 120 seconds!

It means you have to man up in hurling. Because people can score at their ease from 80 yards, a sweeper can't protect you the way he might in football. Like I love it on the rare occasion you see an ultra-defensive set-up in football punished by long-range scoring. But it's a skill that's almost dead now.

Maybe the death-knell for it was that 2014 semi-final between Dublin and Donegal where, for half an hour, the Dubs gave a performance as good as anything I've seen. They looked to be scoring for fun and, had Diarmuid Connolly taken a goal chance, Jim Gavin's men would have been out the gap and gone by half-time.

But they just didn't kill the game and, as we all know, Donegal subsequently destroyed them with a counter-attacking game that profoundly changed Gavin's view of what was needed to win an All-Ireland.

So a lot of what we see in the modern game now can actually be traced back to that August Sunday. And, certainly, a lot of the criticism coming Kerry's way seems to be franked by a view that they haven't moved with the times.

I do think one legitimate question to ask today is: Does this Kerry team have a clearly established style of play? And, if so, what is it? Right now, there's no clear definition to what they're doing and people are frustrated with them.

That frustration, I believe, comes from a suspicion that they're actually not that far off the pace here if only they could play with more tactical clarity.

Now, Fitzmaurice doesn't need me defending his smarts here. Kerry won the 2014 All-Ireland essentially on the back of a masterplan he drilled into the players inside a narrow three-week window. It was a momentous achievement that spoke of a man not afraid to go against the flow.

Kerry people wouldn't have entirely liked the type of football that beat Donegal in that final, but they would have recognised its intelligence.

That's why I couldn't believe what I was reading recently when Donegal's Eamon McGee implied that that victory was a fluke. Lord God Eamon, it was actually the very opposite. It was a victory for extremely smart football.

But back to this year and we all saw how Kerry devoured Clare and Cork in Munster with what I was naive enough to believe at the time was a thrillingly attacking philosophy built on pace and imaginative moment. And next day? They deployed a sweeper against Galway and lost.

I believe that Kerry have better footballers than Galway and, if that's the case, they've got to be taking a long, hard look at how they set up against them on July 15. Deploying that sweeper suggested to me that they just didn't really believe in what they'd done against Cork.

And one thing that game against Galway told me is that Kerry have yet to master the use of the sweeper. Now, to be taken seriously in the modern game, they may have to eventually.

I say that on the basis of what I'm seeing from them in terms of work-rate among the forwards and in midfield. Because the reason they're left looking wide-open at the back is because of that deficit of work at the top end of the field.

Compare the work-rate of Dublin's forwards and midfield to what we've seen from Kerry this year. Then factor in Cian O'Sullivan as sweeper. Is it any wonder the Dubs look so solid at the back when they've all those different layers of defensive support in place? Kerry, right now, have none of them.

We have some of the best footballers in the country today and I'll admit I was fooled by the Clare and Cork performances into thinking that Fitzmaurice had cracked it. Those performances had pace, directness and a willingness to work. To me, they're the three most vital ingredients in the modern game.

But then they stepped up in quality against Galway and Monaghan and all of those qualities receded, specifically the last one.

I touched on this last week. Kerry's 28 tackles against Monaghan compared to Dublin's 56 against Tyrone. There and then, in that single line, resides a massive issue for Fitzmaurice. The work-rate wasn't there against Monaghan.

As a footballer, I control my mental approach. I control my concentration. And I most certainly control my own work-rate. But, in controlling it, I need to be on the same page as 14 other players. And that's where we, as a group, then become dangerous animals.

It strikes me that Dublin change and adapt to every different situation they encounter. But they never deviate in terms of work-rate.

I mean work-rate is Monaghan's strongest quality. Conor McManus gets openings like he got against Kerry because of the Ryan McAnespies, the Dermot Malones and the Fintan Kellys. They create turnovers and transition quickly.

Bottom line, no matter what system you deploy, everything breaks down if the humility isn't there to work. The tactical side of things isn't rocket-science. Like concentration comes from work-rate and no team concentrates harder than Dublin. I mean O'Sullivan isn't actually a seventh defender, but he sweeps because he's reading the game brilliantly.

He will always come and meet danger as he anticipates it.

Look, I believe it's too late for Kerry to go with a sweeper this year. But it's not too late for Fitzmaurice to come down heavy on work-rate. It simply isn't there at the moment, nor is any kind of midfield platform. And, in the absence of those two things, the calls for deployment of a sweeper are understandable.

It's clear that both David Moran and Jack Barry are struggling as a partnership. Jack, I'm convinced, has massive potential, but I'd put someone in there now who might just link play that little bit better. To that end, I can't help think that Mark O'Connor going to Australia was a bit of a disaster for Kerry football. He could have been our Brian Fenton.

So who should Eamonn look to? Tadhg Morley? Gavin White? I know Kieran Donaghy will be out there for the throw-in, but I'd put a runner in there after that against Kildare's big midfield. I just think Kerry need to throw a curve ball around the middle third.

And I'd ask this question of Kerry's more senior players.

Do we have a Michael Murphy? A Lee Keegan? A James McCarthy or a Ciarán Kilkenny or a Stephen Cluxton? Do we have someone actually setting the standard during games? And if we do, does it really have to be a teenage Clifford, a kid just out of minor? Because, if it does, those senior Kerry players need to start taking long, hard looks at themselves.

To be fair, Donaghy did all anyone could have asked of him in Clones too. But the others? Honestly lads?

My job as a half-back with Kerry, Paul Galvin's job, Aidan O'Mahony's job was to go to war on a breaking ball. I remember playing Meath in the ‘09 All-Ireland semi-final and being warned beforehand that the player I'd be marking was a wizard in that department. Well, I went in with the attitude that this wizard was about to lose his magic here.

And I think I ended up in double-digits for breaking ball won that day. Why? It was down to nothing more complicated than being tuned in. Being angry almost.

Work-rate simply cannot be optional at this level and Eamonn needs to know if some of his forwards have it in them to work as hard as Dublin's. Because, if they don't, he has some big decisions to make.

The older lads need to find their mojo now, just as so many of ours found theirs against Dublin in 2009. Paul Geaney, Paul Murphy, Peter Crowley and David Moran need to start sparking here. If they do, the young fellas might even step up further.

We're in a mess of our own making this evening, playing a game in which even a victory might not be good enough to keep us in this championship. It's time for Kerry to show some teeth now.

Or spend winter being told how we've become yesterday's men.

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