Sunday 18 August 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Sometimes the best (maybe only) way of unsettling this Dublin team is to just throw the kitchen sink at them'

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Con O’Callaghan epitomises the level of personal drive in this group of Dublin players. Photo: Sportsfile
Con O’Callaghan epitomises the level of personal drive in this group of Dublin players. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

Jack O'Connor wrote in 2007 that, for a Kerry person, losing to Tyrone was "worse than losing to almost anybody else".

The scars of 2003 and '05 ran deep in the county and, of course, another was just about to open. Tyrone, essentially, changed the terms of engagement in modern Gaelic football.

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Aidan O’Shea has been a constant for Mayo all and, if anything, seems to be growing this season. Photo: Sportsfile
Aidan O’Shea has been a constant for Mayo all and, if anything, seems to be growing this season. Photo: Sportsfile

That image of eight Tyrone players penning in a grounded Eoin Brosnan during the '03 semi-final, a poker-faced Mickey Harte in the background, acquired iconic status.

In Kerry, we just didn't see that big change coming. It caught us cold.

And reading various stuff on a flight to Portugal last Monday, I was transported right back to that time. To a time when Harte basically told Kerry how much of a privilege it was simply to share the same field with us.

In doing so, Mickey had us exactly where he wanted us. Up on a pedestal. Liking the sound of what we were being told.

Anyway after last Sunday's so-called 'Coma in Omagh', he was quoted thus: "Kerry are still the top team in the country as far as the Sam Maguire is concerned!"

Now I actually started laughing out loud when I read that line. Top team in the country, no less. Tyrone, he hoped, could make tomorrow's semi-final "a very competitive game".

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And sure, after that, who knows?

Reading it, you'd have been forgiven thinking it was the Kingdom pushing for five-in-a-row here. Now either Mickey thinks we're a small bit slow in Kerry or he's confused about what's been happening since we last had Sam down south in 2014.

Given I very much doubt the latter's the case, I can only imagine he thinks we love plámás.

Maybe on some level we bought into the idea 16 years ago that Tyrone regarded us as superior beings. Legends in our own lunchtime. But I look back on that time now and have absolutely no doubt that Harte was confident they'd beat us. He had a plan. And that plan was, basically, to fill us with oceans of self-regard, then come out swinging.

Ferocity

Tyrone's ferocity shocked us to the core in '03. But there's absolutely no reason why it should do so tomorrow.

Listen, I have no issue with Mickey firing out that guff. Jim Gavin and Peter Keane have been doing much the same. After that farce of a contest in Omagh, Jim assured us that Dublin would "always show absolute respect to the competition".

This after starting maybe two players (Jonny Cooper and James McCarthy) who will be on the field for this evening's throw-in against Mayo.

Maybe it's just the age we live in; managers feeling no need for their public utterances to follow any line of even the most basic logic. It's like they imagine they're just talking to the shaving-mirror, nobody paying the slightest heed.

But how they say these things without laughing I don't honestly know.

Not for a second am I suggesting Gavin should have played his strongest team in Omagh. Why on earth would he when he could give them that week's rest? But don't cod us, Jim. Don't treat the public as simpletons coming out with stuff that, patently, makes little sense.

Right now, it's hard not to believe that everything's falling perfectly into place for Gavin. Between Diarmuid Connolly's return and people bellyaching about those dead rubbers in the Super 8s, nobody's even mentioning the five-in-a-row.

Compare that to Kerry in 1982, when the only story of that championship was Micko and the boys trying to go where nobody had gone before. Talk of five in a row was like a rash on their skin that summer. They couldn't escape it.

Every game had the feel of a ticking time-bomb. You could almost reach out and touch the pressure. Likewise with Kilkenny hurlers in 2010.

So think about this for a second. Dublin could this evening be just 70 minutes away from separating themselves from every other team in the history of the GAA, yet it feels as if they're almost coming up on everyone's blind side. Maybe it's the sense of inevitability surrounding their push for five in a row that seems to have suspended talk about it.

Nobody's digging, nobody's scratching even around the psychological challenge that might just be building in their heads.

Hey, I admire Gavin for somehow pulling this off. He's actually got Dublin pushing towards history on his terms, nobody else's. Being honest, there should only be danger for the Dubs in the fact that most of us just cannot see Mayo, Kerry or Tyrone stopping that drive for five. But that danger is hard to see here.

I saw a couple of pictures of Con O'Callaghan on Twitter, highlighting his massive physical development in just two years with Dublin's seniors. It was jaw-dropping. A bit like looking at a middleweight boxer who becomes a heavyweight almost overnight.

To me, that image confirmed the kind of personal drive in this group of Dublin players.

O'Callaghan is clearly pushing himself to the absolute limit, something that I believe defines this extraordinary group of players. Yes, we can talk about the unfairness of support structures in place and we have done.

But the work still has to be done on an individual basis. And O'Callaghan is, clearly, doing it.

The physical toughness in this group makes them, arguably, the strongest team mentally I've ever seen in the GAA. Nothing fazes them. At least, nothing seems to faze them. So it's hard to avoid the sense of a group still improving relentlessly. Still stretching the boundaries.

All that said, I believe too many teams are inclined to show them far too much respect. There's almost an unspoken sense of awe there in the majority of opponents. An assumption that they'll always beat you in the end.

This leads to teams being over-tactical; playing safe, nearly robotic football. Sometimes I feel the best (maybe only) way of unsettling Dublin is to just throw the kitchen sink at them. In other words, set out to rattle them as distinct from just stay with them. Target fellas. Be in their faces.

Like, I watched Cork's U-20s come from a mile back against Dublin last weekend to win handsomely. They did it by going after them. I highlighted a 60-second clip on 'The Sunday Game' where they, basically, hounded Dublin out of possession, hunting in packs until they forced a turnover. Six seconds later, they had a scoring free at the other end.

Now when you do that with Gavin's men, their usual response is, 'Bring it on!' They can get down and dirty with anyone and you can't help but admire that quality in them. But some day, eventually, someone's going to land a haymaker that puts these fellas on the canvas.

It won't happen this evening, even though I fully expect Mayo to run them close. The fact James Horan's men have played so many games in such a short space of time doesn't worry me. Trust me, they'll be good to go this evening because they're arriving into Croker with momentum.

Put it this way, I thought Aidan O'Shea's performance against Donegal last week was incredible. Yet, that man was Mayo's stand-out performer during the National League too. He's been a constant for them all year and, if anything, seems to be growing with the season.

Tiredness only becomes a factor the moment you indulge the idea that it can.

Mayo have been the one team to consistently push Dublin in the last six or seven years. That said, I don't believe they're as strong today as they were in, say, 2017. They're still heroic, undeniably.

Can they press down on Dublin's weaknesses like they did in the past? I'm fairly sure they can. Because Mayo bring an attitude to a game against Dublin that others need to learn from. Their aggression levels go through the roof. If anything, they leave their manners at the dressing-room door.

And Horan can call on some truly outstanding players.

But old sins keep coming back to haunt them. Their shooting against Donegal brought us back to the same, familiar tune. It just doesn't seem within them to be clinical.

To beat the Dubs, your conversion rate probably needs to be north of 60 per cent. Mayo are consistently adrift of that kind of target.

Their superior work-rate carries them through most games but, against Dublin, you need more than that. You see, the Dubs will match your energy, your madness even. All day long. And nobody knows that better than Mayo.

I suspect they're facing a familiar fate tonight.

Tomorrow's game is trickier to predict. In some respects, Kerry's potential clouds the issue. If all sections of the team are as good as they can be, then we have a serious team here. But when will that happen?

Ruthless

Like, when the time comes for Dublin to fall, I do believe it will be this Kerry team that takes them down. But when that happens is anybody's guess. Right now, they're young and inconsistent.

The Super 8s performance against Mayo offered a glimpse of the ruthless group they can become. But, right now, there's an element of hit and miss in what they're doing.

I fervently believe that Donie Buckley is key this weekend.

He has an intimate understanding of how Tyrone play and the best way to yank them out of their comfort zone. My own view is that Tyrone's three key players are Peter Harte, Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane. That old expression of hammering the hammer comes to mind. These fellas have to be man-marked.

Niall Morgan's kick-outs must be targeted too but maybe not with a high press. Personally, I'd favour a blanket of bodies through the middle third, the way Donegal did it against them in Ulster.

Bottom line, Kerry's players have to show better self-sufficiency whatever's thrown at them.

They conceded five goal chances in the first half alone against Meath last weekend, something that would be suicidal tomorrow.

The key to a Kerry win is isolating Tyrone defenders in one-on-one situations, though I don't doubt that Harte will be thinking the key to a victory for them will be getting at Keane's half-back line.

And I worry for Kerry if David Moran doesn't have a good day in midfield.

All that said, they've five scoring forwards that are as good, offensively, as Dublin's.

Are they as physically imposing? No. Not even close if I'm honest.

Write it down, Tyrone will show up tomorrow and Kerry need to absolutely be ready for that. Being honest, Kerry's modern history with them will make it unforgivable if they're not. The game is probably a toss of a coin.

But I'll side with a narrow Kerry win and an old-fashioned final pairing coming down the tracks.

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