OpinionPat Spillane

Pat Spillane: This Kerry team will NOT beat Dublin

Pat SpillaneBy Pat Spillane
Kieran Donaghy wins a ball against Tipp in the 2016 Munster final
Kieran Donaghy wins a ball against Tipp in the 2016 Munster final

Traditionally the Sunday night of a Munster football final is one of the biggest social nights of the year in Kenmare.

There is plenty of craic as the two sets of fans mingle in the pubs. And if Cork happen to win, it would be one of the busiest nights of the year in the town. I wonder why.

It was so different this year. There wasn’t any sign of Cork, Tipperary or even Kerry fans sporting their jerseys around the pubs. 

It was like a Sunday night in the middle of winter such was the lack of atmosphere.  

No disrespect to Tipp, but nobody could bring themselves to celebrate the outcome when everybody knew what the result was going to be. A caller to Radio Kerry on Monday probably hit the nail on the head when he described the game as being a bit like washing your feet with your socks on. It just didn’t feel right.

So why were the Kerry fans so glum after winning their fourth Munster title in a row?

Well, remember the famous episode in Fawlty Towers which revolved around the visit of the German tourists to the hotel.

The hapless Basil warned Sybil not to mention the war. Of course, the exact opposite happens. Once he spots his German guests, every action and utterance from him is about the war. He simply couldn’t get the topic out of his head.

Right now, we have a similar issue in Kerry. In our case the elephant in the room is the Dublin football team. 

Since the game, one question has dominated the GAA conversation: Would Kerry’s performance against Tipp be good enough to beat the Dubs?

Kerry beat Tipp without breaking sweat to win their first four-in-a-row in more than 20 years in Munster, which is a significant achievement in its own right.

Anthony Maher and James O’Donoghue got game time after lengthy spells on the sideline, while the placing of Paul Murphy at wing-forward is an innovative weapon in Kerry’s tactical war chest. 

On occasions, the movement of the Kerry forwards was a joy to behold. I also admired how the forwards operated a ‘full-court press’ at times. 

Not alone they did put pressure on the Tipperary kick-outs, they also successfully hassled the Tipp backs when they tried to carry the ball out of defence.

However, Kerry will NOT beat Dublin if, as anticipated, they clash in the All-Ireland semi-final.

Any team with aspirations of beating Dublin must possess pace in the middle third of the field. Kerry’s current midfield pairing of Kieran Donaghy and Bryan Sheehan don’t have sufficient pace to match Dublin in Croke Park.

Having said that, I believe both players should keep their places on the team. Sheehan has to be retained for his free-taking prowess. Donaghy also has a role to play – but it must be in the full-forward line alongside Paul Geaney. 

I have concerns, too, about the pace of forwards Colm Cooper, Darran O’Sullivan and Donnchadh Walsh.

I thought they looked tired and had lost that vital yard of pace required to take on the Dublin defence and, more importantly, track back when the Dubs defenders go on their high-tempo forward runs.

However, Kerry’s Achilles heel is their defence. Once again the back line was badly exposed when Tipperary ran at them at pace through the centre. 

The two Tipperary goals were created as a result of such runs, but thankfully from a Kerry perspective the underdogs used this ploy sparingly.

Far too often they were content to build up slowly by moving the ball laterally, which meant that all too often they ran into Kerry ‘traffic’ and were forced to recycle. 

It took Tipp so long to get the ball across the halfway line that Kerry had ample time to funnel back and get sufficient bodies behind the ball to frustrate them. Ultimately Tipp didn’t ask enough questions of the Kerry defence.

I never imagined that one day I would use ‘Kerry’ and ‘blanket defence’ in the same sentence, but all the indications are that Gaelic football’s aristocrats have embraced a system which is the antithesis of our football DNA.

I would be the first to acknowledge that if Kerry do win the All-Ireland in September the fans won’t gave a hoot about how it was achieved and I accept that Eamonn Fitzmaurice is a pragmatic manager, operating in a result-driven business.

He has obviously decided that deploying a blanket defence is the key to sorting out Kerry’s defence and launching a successful bid to secure the All-Ireland.

I take issue with his strategy on three counts. 

Firstly, Kerry are at least three years behind Dublin, five years behind Donegal and more than a decade behind Tyrone in terms of developing an effective blanket defensive system.

The Kerry project is still very much a work in progress. At times last Sunday it looked totally shambolic, with players unsure of what specific job they were supposed to do. 

Secondly, when Kerry secure possession in defence they don’t break out at pace as Dublin and Tyrone do, nor do they counter-attack in numbers like Donegal.

For the most part when they win the ball the Kerry defenders are content to offload it via a back pass to a nearby colleague and none of them are willing to cross the halfway line.

It looked like they were playing in a tactical straitjacket and opting for a safety-first, no-risk strategy. I don’t think such an approach will cut any ice against Dublin.

Granted they are still probably trying to get the balance right between defence and attack, but, overall, I don’t think this system is getting the best of out of the players.

Bringing back bodies in numbers simply allows the opposition to play the game on the front foot, which is a huge error when it comes to facing Dublin.

The Kerry players need to be let off this leash and play with a bit more freedom. They need to get the ball fast into the forwards instead of worrying about the opposition.

In a week during which Kerry won their 78th Munster title and secured a place in the All-Ireland quarter-final, everybody down here should be happy. Not a bit of it. 

As Basil warned Sybil: “Don’t mention the war.”