Tomás Ó Sé: 'Measuring anybody against Dublin right now seems pointless - someone needs to come out swinging'
You know, the more football I've seen lately the more I find myself thinking of the predicament boxer, Kenneth Egan, faced when trying to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
He’d become so dependent on instruction from his corner, the coaches noticed he was almost looking at them mid-fight to tell him what punch he needed to throw. Egan, in other words, had stopped thinking for himself. Solving his own problems.
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When the penny dropped, Billy Walsh and his coaching team decided basically to withhold all instruction to Egan until they saw him using his own initiative again. Because all the resilience that made Egan an elite athlete in the first place was, essentially, in lockdown.
Once that happened, he was a man transformed, not alone qualifying for those Games, but coming home with a silver medal. That’s a lesson I suspect wouldn't go amiss with a lot of today’s football teams.
Put it this way, I thought Galway were shocking last Sunday. But what really struck me was their inability to simply win a high ball. It strikes me that people are overloading on tactics and spatial management and control of opposition kick-outs when the most basic skills are being neglected.
So I would ask an honest question here. Does anybody practise high-fielding anymore?
Galway could not catch a clean ball to save their lives when it was needed in Salthill. That’s something the players should be questioning themselves strongly about this week. Systems are very important, I’m not blind to that.
But if you cannot play off the cuff too, you’re in trouble. Somebody, somewhere had to take that game by the scruff of the neck for Galway last Sunday. Just do something to lift the team. Step outside all the pre-rehearsed lines of running and defensive formations and just do something inspirational.
Sometimes that can be as simple or fundamental as winning a high ball.
Tyrone’s virtual collapse against Donegal was as bad an example of this as I have seen. That’s what I was getting at in last week’s column. Sometimes you look at modern players and find yourself thinking, ‘Mother of God, will you just toughen up!’
Because people are getting bogged down in systems and losing all sense of self-sufficiency. Of thinking on your feet. Of actually dealing with what’s in front of you as distinct from what you were led to expect. Whether that’s dealing with mass defence or someone pushing up on your kick-outs, are you able to solve that problem?
It strikes me that the modern appetite for almost trying to intellectualise the game is getting chronic. Accordingly, sometimes the football being played today just doesn't look natural. And some of what we saw from Galway on Sunday was nothing short of pathetic.
It’s easy to blame Kevin Walsh for that, but the players have to take responsibility in my view. Walsh can’t run onto the field and catch that high ball for them. He can’t force a turnover. His team looked absolutely rudderless when the pressure came on against Roscommon.
Same thing happened Tyrone against Donegal. No mettle, no steel when it came down to it.
These teams almost look like they need a time-out in the middle of games. The opportunity to have a group talk.
One thing I will admit is that, having witnessed the scenes in Salthill last Sunday, it’s very hard to make a compelling argument against the provincial system. What the day meant to Roscommon people hit home very powerfully. We've seen a great championship in Ulster too, some outstanding games.
The flip side, of course, is that Dublin are unbeaten now in 44 Leinster Championship games. Kerry have lost just one Munster tie in a decade.
So what’s the solution? Hand on heart, I don’t see things getting much better in Leinster any time soon. Cork, I expect, will come back and challenge Kerry in Munster. They have to. But that’s two provinces in which far too many games are, essentially, trips to a coconut shy.
What I will say is that measuring anybody against Dublin right now seems pointless.
Like, in Kerry, I’m constantly hearing this expression, 'Jesus will these minors ever come through?'
Well, my answer to that is that two of those All-Ireland-winning groups essentially came through at U-20 level and didn’t get the job done. Kildare won last year, beating a Kerry team without David Clifford and Seán O’Shea. Now I happen to believe that Kerry really could have done with winning that because it might have brought some of the other players on a ton as they headed up to senior level. But there’s something else at play here that can’t be disregarded either.
Look at the Tipperary team that beat Dublin in the 2011 All-Ireland minor final. A team with Evan Comerford, Colin O’Riordan, Seamus Kennedy, John McGrath and Michael Quinlivan. The likes of Kennedy and McGrath are hurling with Tipp now, O'Riordan is in Australia.
But look at the Dublin team. Their half-back line that day was Eric Lowndes, John Small and Jack McCaffrey. They had Cormac Costello and Ciarán Kilkenny at half-forward, Paul Mannion in the full-forward line.
All of those Dubs then graduated into a successful senior county dressing-room that had the Stephen Cluxtons, the Michael Darragh Macauleys, the Brogans, Alan and Bernard, these leaders to take them under their wings. The All-Ireland-winning Kerry minors haven't had that experience.
They've walked into a dressing-room that has known largely struggle in recent years and that makes their development more difficult, I believe. Those Dubs could be nurtured, treated with patience because of the calibre of men around them. The Kerry minors have come under instant, sometimes hostile, scrutiny.
Kerry people want these minors to come in RIGHT NOW and make the difference. It isn't reasonable. So Clifford, O’Shea, Dara Moynihan, Diarmuid O’Connor, David Shaw and Gavin White have been parachuted into a dressing-room that isn't exactly brimming with confidence. I mean the leaders of 2014 are, largely, gone now.
So the almost cultural ruthlessness you can sense in Dublin today isn’t evident anywhere else. How could it be? They’ve won the last four All-Irelands. They've a virtual monopoly on a winners' mentality.
Back in '07, I remember Monaghan having us in trouble in the All-Ireland quarter-final. They were grinding us down and at half-time my brother Darragh told everyone to sit down and stop complaining. He told us we needed to hang tough, trust the system. And people listened. Why? Because of who he was. What he had done.
That’s what Dublin have over everyone else now. Men to take charge.
For Saturday evening in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, I think Paul Murphy and Gavin White will improve Kerry from the Clare game.
Kerry's defence and midfield left a lot to be desired that night, but the inside attacking line of Clifford, Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue looked tremendous. Actually, they looked very, very close to wiping Clare out in those first 15 minutes. And yet, Kerry got tangled up in a second-half scrap that Clare essentially won. That actually left me in bad form coming away from Ennis that evening.
The real measure of a team is when they're met by something they don’t like. Are they able to think on their feet? To improvise? To take control.
When David Moran went off against Clare, Kerry’s midfield looked distinctly lightweight. That said, I've always believed it’s your middle eight, not simply your two midfielders, who set the physical agenda in a game. If your midfielders are breaking ball, who is under it?
Now I'd be very surprised if big chunks of that second half haven't been recycled in recent Kerry video sessions. The turnovers, the passive body language, the repetition of being behind their man. If you don’t have a solid base in defence and midfield, you’re goosed. Had Galway got those last Sunday, they'd have beaten Roscommon.
As for Cork, they've lost their public. That's as clear as day.
I saw them twice in the National League and they were abysmal. But something seems to have flipped down there since being relegated to Division 3. I've been arguing for a long time that there's far more ability in that dressing-room than they've been tending to communicate.
And my understanding is that the players have taken control. The soundings were positive after a few challenge games even before they hammered Limerick. I'm told the players are in a good place now, that they really fancy this shot at Kerry. But why should anybody trust them?
Have they the kind of on-field leaders we saw from Roscommon, standing up and being counted when they were needed against Galway last Sunday? Five points down and playing into the wind, it was Roscommon who started laying down the markers. Tadhg O’Rourke's catch towards the end when it was needed actually gave me goosebumps. That's leadership. Diarmuid Murtagh taking the one goal chance that came his way.
Have Cork those men? I hope they show up, I really do. But isn't it a sad day that we don't really know whether or not they will?
I like a lot of their defenders, men like Nathan Walsh, Liam O’Donovan, Matthew Taylor and Kevin Flahive. I really like Killian O’Hanlon in midfield, just the type of player they've been lacking in recent times. Someone who doesn't give a toss about reputations. A man who will rattle into any opponent.
I saw Eoin McSweeney kick three points against Donegal in the League at Páirc Uí Rinn and remember thinking, 'This fella has a bit of cut about him!' And, trust me, whoever ends up marking Ruairi Deane tonight will get their fill of it.
We all know too what Mark Collins and Brian Hurley are capable of in the full-forward line.
But I always feel with Cork that, if one pebble falls out of the wall, the whole thing collapses. Few teams in Ireland have more form in that regard. They crumble too easily.
The point I'm making is that, while every team needs a plan, they also need the stomach to meet a setback. It's like the old Mike Tyson line: “Everybody's got a plan until they get punched in the nose!”
So don’t be doing what Kenneth Egan used to do. Don’t be looking to the sideline.
Kerry will win tonight but, if I'm honest, I don't have high hopes for them this year. They've shown no real spark so far and, you know, maybe expectations will be more realistic because of that. Eamonn Fitzmaurice alluded to this after the Clare game. To the fact that, having cantered to a Munster title last year, the hype around Kerry went into overload.
There's certainly more pressure on them than Cork going into this Munster final. And they'll have seen what’s been happening all of the other so-called challengers to Dublin. Mayo, Tyrone and Galway all knocked on their a***s. Embarrassed. If that happens Kerry now, Lord God we might as well just hand Jim Gavin and his men the cannister and cancel the 'Super 8s'.
Because the league, we now know, told us precisely nothing. And, even thinking about that Dublin minor team of 2011, it strikes me that this dominance of theirs could go on for some time yet.
I was speaking to Rory Gallagher in Salthill and he made the point that young Dublin players are seldom built up as superstars because the competition is so fierce. So they’re actually forced to keep developing or they'll be lost.
Listening to him, it struck me more forcibly than ever before that the possibility of Dublin dominating long-term is right there in front of us.
For the sake of the game, someone needs to come out swinging now. I hope it’s Kerry.