Old School Football Leads to the Game of 2014

00096c91-642That was a true epic, the likes of which has not been seen since the Dublin-Tyrone series and the immortal Dublin and Meath (Holy) Trinity. 

As someone who was in Croke Park for the prelude last weekend, the game did not strike me as “great”, and games rarely can be when one team only plays well for 20 minutes.  Today, however, was the reverse. 

Ultimately and tragically, (and not to belittle the epic Kerry performance) the two teams were only separated by two things: (i) the impact of the Kerry bench, (ii) the less demanding style of Kerry play.   

So many points of contention and discussion come from the Gaelic Grounds today:

 

Kerry, did we underestimate them?

When one watches back over this year, perhaps Kerry were showing signs of potential all along?  While their league performances were nothing special, they stuttered past Clare (by four) and hammered a Cork team whom we wrote off as awful in the final game in the old Pairc Ui Caoimh.  In the All Ireland series, the Munster Champions discretely played on the Mayo v Cork undercard, dispatching Galway using a strong, efficient first half performance and a lacklustre second.  The final clue came in Croke Park last week where Kerry’s overall assertiveness was dismissed as poor Mayo play combined with the loss of the red carded Lee Keegan.   

That’s where the excuses ended.  Like a good investigative drama, the clues started to wind together and the audience was hit with the shock thriller in the Gaelic Grounds that (Cludeo-esque) it was Kerry; in the Gaelic Grounds – with the superior overall squad, manager and sustainable game plan – that murdered Muigh-Eo. 

Tactics

Sometimes, simple football is the best.  As I tweeted during the day “GAA tactics can be as complicated as they like, but the long high ball to a talented big distributor plays havoc.”  Anyone watching could see that Kieran Donaghy was dominating the Mayo full back line with James O’Donoghue gravitating around him, amassing possessions and scores from his transcendent Star’s knockdowns.  One could be forgiven for guessing that Donaghy had contributed more than one solitary score, but his influence was stamped all over the game and his inclusion by Eamon Fitzmaurice was a masterstroke.

The simple question must follow this: why could Mayo not deal with Donaghy, either last week or today?  To a simple question, comes a simple answer – tactical ineptitude.  James Horan has persisted with a sweeper all year, yet he failed to replace the usual player in this role with one of his talented midfielders who could drop back and jump with Star.  They in turn would have shielded the forever injured Ger Cafferkey from the bludgeoning that was never stopped. 

The influence of the target game plan cannot be undermined – Mayo resorted to a ball carrying game (Keegan Boyle, Mc Loughlin) as the full forward line (bar O’Connor) struggled mightily to win clean ball.  That game weakened as they ran themselves into the ground for the second time in six days.   On the other hand, Kerry played beautiful direct football, winning primary kick out possession and finding their target men.  This is of course not half as labour intensive as Mayo’s break neck speed running attack and scenes were alike when they ran out of steam against Dublin almost one year ago.

One cannot however, discredit the play of Kerry (or Mayo).  It was ever so fresh to see fifteen men taking each other on straight up without complicated defensive systems, blankets and non competed kickouts. 

 

Performances

 

  1. James O’Donoghue

James O’Donoghue is the new Gooch Cooper.  Simple as.  Gooch was a prodigy and a proven match winner from an early age, but we have never seen him score like Messer O’Donoghue.  The present Kerry forward line is nothing as talented as the ones Gooch headlined – and even if he did not catch fire on a certain day, he had numerous All-Stars around him.  After today’s 2-6, O’Donoghue has 4-24 scored in five games – a whopping 2-20 of which have come from play.  That is over five points a game from play and seven per game overall.  To put such figures in perspective, (per Hogan Stand) the next best average of any player who has scored more than thirteen points in the Championship is Conor Lafferty of Down with 3.5 points per game over three games.  O’Donoghue’s persistent brilliance as the primary scorer and playmaker whilst oft being double marked is remarkable.  The scary thing is, over 160 minutes (the best corner back in the country) Keith Higgins had a highly commendable effort against the Prince.

2. Kieran Donaghy

The Star ruined a brilliant performance with dishonourable antics at different points, but the simple gigantic target man proved to be so simple, that Mayo couldn’t deal with him.  Whether James Horan’s denial of the colossal problem at the edge of the square benefited Kerry tactically or not, Donaghy simply bet everything in front of him.  The bit that will be forgotten of course, is that without Star, Kerry would not have made a miraculous come back in Croke Park.  One thing is for certain, their revival from their early hole would have been much more gruelling were it not for the big option.  The versatility, vision and toughness of the basketballer make him a lethal weapon who changes an entire game plan by presence alone.  As much as any, he is the man whom Kerry need to be at his frustrating best to have any hope on the third Sunday in September.

3. David Moran

Ogie’s son will deservedly get the bulk of today’s plaudits.  Moran must also acknowledge the effort given by his counterpart Anthony Maher.  The two were devastating in midfield, covering massive amounts of ground and distributing the ball at a level much higher than they have been previously.  Before the first clash, Kerry were written off at midfield as the frequently injured Moran and Maher were seen as a duo the O’Shea brothers (& Gibbons/Parsons) and should clear out in the air but that was far from the conclusion. Moran rose to claim 9 clean kick-outs while taking a mammoth 47 possessions, which is a huge figure despite the extra time.  In both the air and on the ground, he saw off the challenges of both O’Shea’s and was never found wanting in the tackle.  He dominated the game for long periods and it was unjust that he was not presented with the Man of the Match.  His clash (as classier footballer of the Kerry duo) opposing MD McAuley or Neil Gallagher will be fascinating come September 21st

 4. Cillian O’Connor

Over the past two years he has emerged as the leader of this forward line despite his tender age surrounded by veterans.  Sympathy must be had for O’Connor as he received no help at all from Dillon and only one opportunistic flick from the frequently beaten Moran.  The Mayo full forward line was much maligned for years and that has been remedied (at the expense of the half forward line) by inputting O’Connor and the aging Dillon closer towards the square.  This move has only put more pressure on O’Connor as he appears to be the only Mayo player capable of creating and poaching goals bar Andy Moran.  He is the most under rated work horse in the Championship as his constant work-rate and tackling seem to go unnoticed albeit whilst performing all the duties of the marquee forward.  Had O’Connor received help (bar a solid showing by Jason Doherty with 0-3) one must ask would the game have reached extra time at all? 

 

But What Won This Game

Due to their style of play, Mayo were exhausted.  Their Achilles heel was struck as their lack of depth behind their usually brilliant half back line and Kevin McLoughlin was exposed.  Those four players are depended on for ball carrying, scrapping for possession and winning breaks off kick outs and high ball.  In sacrificing his usual starting fifteen for his best fifteen, James Horan was screwed over by the extra period of play.  His “breaking ball” players were not as effective as usual and their replacements were lacklustre. 

On the other hand, while Kerry lost players like Captain Fionn Fitzgerald (black), Donnchadh Walsh (fatigue) and the battling Aidan O’Mahony, the bench stepped up magnificently.  Barry John Keane won ball in front of his man more than any of the starting opposition forwards, Pa Kilkenny mopped up and distributed ball and the unheard of Jonathan Lyne popped over the two winning points.

At the end of the day, Mayo were too dependent on their stars, too many of whom were found wanting (the O’Shea’s in the latter stages, Dillon, Boyle, Vaughan).  The impact substitution of an Andy Moran would have been perfect for Mayo, but alas never came as Horan went gung ho in an attempt to survive until September.  Most imperatively, Kerry were not as needy and received their most significant contributions from the likes of Murphy, Crowley and their undervalued midfield duo.  Fitzmaurice has built the confidence of all of his ranks and in not expending energy with numerous carries Kerry were not as wasted when they pushed on.  Coming from two points down in the additional time, the energetic bench players won out the war, kicking on where Mayo could not, holding the lead and doing whatever it took to make the final.

The sportsmanship displayed by Kerry in the final stages of both ordinary and extra time was something we are not used to seeing from them.  It was extremely disappointing to see a team who play like purists (albeit tough ones) betraying their DNA like Kieran Donaghy and co did today.  Their one goal was to make a final and survive – and that is what they did.  It may be a talking point today, but if they pull off a miracle in HQ on September 21st, will anyone remember?  Semi final’s are there to be won and no one remembers their loser (with the exception of when it produces a game of the year i.e Dublin v Kerry 12 months ago).

Whether Kerry are good enough to beat (presumably) Dublin is the real question.  Direct football to an inside deadly big-man little-man combo is not something Dublin have played frequently before.  It’s the end of the road for Horan and Mayo and one must ask whether or not they have enough to come back next year, especially being so dependent on the ever growing Cillian O’Connor. 

On review of both teams year, Mayo never really hit top form for 70 minutes all year, struggling through Roscommon, having an easy day with Galway and only touched the gears against resurgent Cork and Kerry.  Unlike Dublin, Mayo don’t have the real star power nor can afford to play for portions of games and their inability to kick on via a second option (to O’Connor) meant that they fell on their own sword, athletically being wasted in a true epic. 

Worryingly for Kerry, the goal-anaemic Mayo full forward line stabbed three goals out in the Gaelic Grounds.  If Dublin smell blood, Kerry’s backline won’t keep the ball kicked out in three weeks time.  If we see a better game of football in this championship than we saw today, it will mean that Kerry are All-Ireland Champions. 

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