Anything I publish will probably start there and I will follow through and re-post them here hopefully.
My emphasis will probably be going on NBA from now on, but I hope to get a bit of everything in here again!
I was never one for the blanket defence. In ways, one of the reasons I am enamoured with the early stages of a championship is because the football is free flowing and filled with scores. As well as the anticipation for another season, we get to see a new star forward, a gritty corner back or a midfield colossus grace the field for the first time. Not only did Kerry bring a bunch of new (often unassuming) stars to this year’s championship, but they did it using several different sets of tactics.
After five minutes of the final, one could notice an anomaly – Donegal were facing something they haven’t faced before – their own renowned and infamous tactics. No one has succeeded using such a precarious plan against the past masters of the system and “the chosen one” Jim McGuinness.
One must presume that McGuinness had faith in what got him there, just why there was no change of emphasis or plan from Donegal over the seventy minutes, with the exception of the introduction of Christy Toye to act as a ball winner before the half hour mark. While it has been said that Kerry “out Donegal-ed” Donegal, McGuinness must have been licking his chops at the thought of his team facing the kind of defence which they meet in training 4 days a week for the past four years. Jimmy obviously was not prepared for such a change of Kerry’s mentality as O’Connor’s inclusion was based on Kerry playing their traditional game.
One must remember that the Donaghy goal turned the game completely upon its head. It came from nowhere (well, poor Paul Durcan) and forced Donegal to chase the game again having worked for forty minutes to claw back from Geeney’s early suckerpunch. This is where the difference was in the teams today. When Kerry smelt blood they could adapt and change up their gameplan, which was in part enabled by the goals and their timing. Easily observed was how Kerry sporadically pushed up and attacked Donegal in different areas of the field, especially on kick outs, where Donegal reigned supreme against Dublin yet were beaten out by top quality zonal play by Kerry in the middle third. Donegal were allowed to win short kick outs, but the break afterwards was slow and ponderous, allowing the Kerry half backs become sweepers while the Donegal half forwards funnelled back to move the ball. This less severe version of the blanket confused Donegal as they carried ball into double contact praying for frees. Then, almost to give certain players a break, Fitzmaurice moved more men back and allowed a more direct route one form of football to be played to Donaghy at the edge of the square. The flexibility of Donaghy allows Kerry to fluctuate between and amalgamate three separate game plans which have been morphed over the past two years.
One must acknowledge how brave a decision it was by Eamon Fitzmaurice to use such tactics against the masters of the blanket. It was gutsy to believe that having played straight up man to man football for most of the year (bar the first half against Mayo in Croke Park), the players from 5-12 would have the engines to play against a team who live in such a system. Switching between direct traditional football and the modern day mania is not something that has been successfully done before, thus why Kerry did it for the first time today – it is not sustainable.
The only way to beat a top quality blanket defence is to beat it at its own game, that is exactly what Eamon Fitzmaurice and Kerry did today. Jim McGuinness and co treat their system as a Bible as opposed to a template and we witnessed what happens when they abandon the system (while behind) against Mayo last year. They stick to it no matter what and this inability to change tack and push up on Kerry proved detrimental to their cause. While it is precarious to face fire with fire against the Donegal system, it’s also hazardous for Donegal to go into every game knowing their system must beat ever changing and ever evolving gameplans.
Donegal have lived and died by the sword, now we know the result.
While Donegal were tactically beaten, confined to a system which dictates whether they live or die – they lost by one score having:
Several other things went against Donegal today, how and why, no one will know. Fifty fifty calls and balls did not fall their way. It all started early on when Karl Lacey deflected a shot at goal, forcing it short and landing in the arms of Paul Geaney who finished beautifully past Durcan, executioner style. Anthony Thompson was clean through on goal but for the sun catching his eyes and the ball catching his heel. O’Connor’s shot at goal nutmeged Kelly (off his ankle), missing the post by inches and was incorrectly brandished as a wide despite twice hitting Kerry men on its way out. One could argue Donnacha Walsh should have seen a black card early on and we all know how Donaghy’s goal came about.
Donegal’s cruel luck is summed up by their final attack. Murphy pulled five bodies towards him before laying off the ball and Paddy McBrearty’s shot was deflected. Were the ball at the other end of the field, it would have spun away from the already moving keeper towards Brick Molloy and an empty net. Instead, Colm McFadden threw one last gasp fist forwards the ball, which hit the butt of the post, again bouncing away from the target. Kerry still had to beat them, but sometimes it just is not your day.
This was probably the poorest final I can remember in my fifteen years of remembering them and was saved by the fact it was a close game. Kerry’s unfrequented gameplan left them with a lack of options in the final third compared to what we associate with them, even sacrificing the obvious player of the year James O’Donoghue to be a facilitator and grafter.
In my eyes, no one stood out for Kerry today whatsoever as I find it difficult to reward a man who’s Christmases came at once (Donaghy). Their backline was a unit that worked as exactly that and Murphy (in getting his Man Of The Match Award) was rewarded for being the most notably solid cog in the unit.
This section was saved for one man who deserves no criticism, the finest footballer in the country: Michael Murphy.
Murphy’s brilliance comes from the fact that he can play in any system and is simply a quality footballer. Even more so than this, he sacrifices himself for his squad. Scoring a modest (for him) 0-4 (3F) in All-Ireland final does not stand out, however his overall contribution was magnificent in what was a putrid game.
Aidan O’Mahony did what he has done for years, hit his marker as hard as he can. Murphy as a robust strong man is given no protection as he roams the field under McGuinness system, occasionally taking breaks at his best position, full forward. While in the modern game, star men like Bernard Brogan and James O’Donoghue are afforded protection, loitering near the watching umpires, Murphy was exposed in the air jumping for kick outs with the promise of having a lump taken out of him as he returned to ground. Murphy has played nearly every minute for McGuinness over the past four years (up to two All Ireland Finals, one semi final and one quarter final), yet still had the hunger and power to create a final chance for Donegal to salvage a draw. He did not panic as the overly high hand pass came toward him, bypassing one wall of defence before bouncing off two Kerry men, unselfishly passing the ball off.
The chance was not converted, but despite all their warnings, Kerry still could not prevent Murphy from creating it, doing a Captain’s part and playing to the final whistle. What is not realised is that without Murphy, Donegal may not have even got through Ulster. It is a tragedy that Murphy cannot play in a man on man, traditional football team where he could do havoc, but even so, he does enough of it now.
See, we were all idiots. Why? We wrote Kerry off early in the year.
Amidst a backdrop of retirements, injuries, poor league form and low expectations, Éamonn Fitzmaurice pointed his Kerry team towards the championship at the start of this summer. We ignored them, even when they demolished Cork in James O’Donoghue’s masterpiece. We ignored them when they schooled Galway for the opening twenty minutes on the undercard of Mayo v Cork. What Fitzmaurice has achieved since then has been remarkable and is a marvellous feat of management.
He saw his Kerry team defeat two of the last four All-Ireland champions as well as prevailing in a two-game saga against a team that lost the last two deciders. His gameplan was heroic today in toppling Donegal and he shaped a team with few superstars which had nine players starting their first All-Ireland senior final into becoming champions. Much like Donegal and McGuinness, Kerry believe and act on everything Fitzmaurice says and their belief in their history, tradition and one another tells them that everything will work out. It’s not a cocky bravado, it’s just simple confidence.
Never write the bastards off.
Even without Gooch.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
Ireland’s rugby heroes have come away from their opening two Six Nations games with perfect results. A workmanlike effort against Scotland was followed by a ferocious onslaught of the Welsh dragons in the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Resultantly, we sit atop the table on point’s difference with previously injured players returning and a triple crown to play for in Twickenham next weekend. It all sounds perfect, right? This Irish team has greatly underperformed since Declan Kidney’s troops delivered a Grand Slam in Cardiff four years ago. Joe Schmidt shall face his biggest test in the coming weeks, not preparing for the gargantuan English pack, but tempering Irish expectations.
Saturday’s pragmatic and uncharacteristic 26 – 3 win over Wales is the first time Ireland have won their two opening matches since the aforementioned Grand Slam. We, as Irish people, have an odd relationship with expectation and reality, always saving our best performances for when we fear annihilation or anticipate immortality. The golden age of Irish rugby, filled with names like O’Connell, O’Gara and King O’Driscoll have changed the culture, but it re-emerges from time to time. For example, no one needs reminding of the Australian walloping from the Autumn. When we expect great things of ourselves, we often come up short. None the less, it is difficult now to become a slight bit guilty. Addressing the mentality of a nation must become Schmidt’s goal. The sobering reality is that Ireland have not won in both Paris and Twickenham in the same year since 1972. In addition, some may say Wales played shockingly poorly on Saturday. When one looks at it this way, perhaps the lofted expectation and bandwagon support need not be so enthusiastic.
Rarely does a Schmidt team play the way that Ireland did against Wales. They adhered rigidly to a pre-ordained game-plan from their New Zealand talisman. It was designed to beat specifically the Welsh opposition by not maintaining possession but by winning the trench warfare of the breakdown before kicking the leather off the ball. This is to be applauded as it shows a real belief in their leader. Of course, this is helped when he is certainly one of the top tactical coaches in the world (unlike his predecessor whom Ronan O’Gara recently slated in his self entitled documentary.) As required, Ireland attacked the breakdown while chop-tackling the bruising barrage of red. Even Gordon D’Arcy’s biggest of critics (such as myself) must acknowledge how valuable he is in such a salvo, going as low as players ankles to ensure they are grounded. The field was littered with outstanding Irish performances. As what is now expected of him weekly, Rob Kearney delivered a top drawer performance against his opposite number, the “best full back in Europe”, Leigh Halfpenny. Jonathon Sexton is finally starting to look like a polished tactical kicker and one must assume that is the influence of coach O’Gara in the south of France these days!
Although the backs were, in their own way (mostly defensively) outstanding, this was a game won by forwards and namely the back row. The most thrown around phrase in rugby continues as: “forwards decide who wins the game while the backs decide by how much.” As the backs upped their aerial bombardment, Ireland reduced collisions and breakdowns on the ground against a much bigger side. They rarely went beyond a few phases before resorting to the air. This meant that the back row could save their energy and use it to attack the ruck when it was prudent to do so. Enter Peter O’Mahony. While the camera panned across the team during the national anthem, one could hear an enraged man roaring the blas over the rest of the stadium. It has since been revealed that was O’Mahony. He engaged in an incensed manner, playing warlord as he has for Munster on countless occasions. What made this performance so outstanding however, was how the Corconian engaged with a controlled ferocity where he continued to pick his spots with manic aggression as opposed to burning out early. When the absence of Sean O’Brien is not noticeable at the breakdown, it is a sign of wonder. The thought of O’Brien, O’Mahony and Jamie Heaslip (another strong performer Saturday) or his successor in waiting Jordi Murphy composing the back row for another six or seven years is a very promising product.
This is another area where Schmidt deserves praise. During his time at Leinster, he brought through some excellent youth talent which was evident against Wales. Marty Moore and Jack McGrath both playing crunch time minutes this weekend and were joined by Dave Kearney and Devin Toner. The former two especially show how Ireland is well equipped for the future; especially in a position we have suffered epidemically. Irish clubs experimented with the purchase of top southern hemisphere props over the past ten years. Finally we are starting to grow props. Even more to our benefit is the ever changing scrum laws which will benefit our smaller and dynamic props.
This is where Schmidt is pulling the wool over the eyes of the public. While we shall all pre occupy ourselves with talk of a Grand Slam, he is quietly building a very strong squad for Rugby World Cup 2015. When one adds the returning Sean O’Brien, Simon Zebo, Tommy Bowe, Keith Earls, Donnacha Ryan alongside the ever growing Craig Gilroy, J.J Hanrahan and Robbie Henshaw to the squad, the competition for places will be astonishing. This stands, even with the departure of “the Great One” at the end of this year.
The Irish media were never too pragmatic. Everything is all well and good right now. Warren Gatland and Wales acknowledged that they were not ready for Irish tactics Saturday and that it was the worst performance of Gatland’s reign. It perhaps is also prudent to consider how much this Irish team had to play for. Gatland dropped our national darling whilst he was in the course of his swansong Lions tour. It is a naive man who believes that was not used to fuel the Irish performance. It is only the true class of O’Driscoll never to mention it.
The real challenges of this tournament will come away from Irish turf, accompanied by daunting expectations. If a win comes in Twickenham, expect the expectations to rise inordinately. It must be stated that without a doubt, Ireland have the talent to win this tournament. Schmidt may have beaten a team stacked with Lions, but the real test may be maintaining the top two inches of each man’s head in Paris come March.
His battle against an Irish mindset and mentality echoes the famous words which answer the question, with this squad, what frightens us? “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
If Schmidt liberates a nation from its fear, there is no telling as to what can happen.