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Happy to be a couch potato

My binge watching of club games threw up many contrasts between football in Dublin, Cork & Kerry

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Kerry’s Jack McGuire (left) in action for St Jude’s against Na Fianna

Kerry’s Jack McGuire (left) in action for St Jude’s against Na Fianna

SPORTSFILE

Kerry’s Jack McGuire (left) in action for St Jude’s against Na Fianna

AFTER months of writing about Covid-19 and how the government and the GAA have responded to the pandemic, this is a back-to-basics column.

I cannot overestimate the positive vibes I feel as a result of being able to see games again. It is food for the soul.

Granted there have been, and will continue to be, hiccups. But, in terms of the good it is doing for the mental health of GAA fans, the restart has more than justified itself.

On Sunday, March 1, I watched two Allianz League matches on TV. Kerry fell over the line against Mayo, while an in-form Donegal put Monaghan to the sword.

I was really looking forward to the remainder of the League.

In Round 6 there was the possibility of Galway sending neighbours Mayo into Division 2, while in Round 7 Kerry were hosting Donegal in Killarney - raising the prospect of another cracking game in the mould of their classic Super 8s clash in Croke Park last year.

The Championship was fast approaching, with the prospect of an early summer Ulster showdown between Donegal and Tyrone. I was like a six-year-old on Christmas Eve.

Then a deadly invisible virus landed on our shores. It transported us to an abnormal world, where sport didn't matter anymore.

Last weekend, for the first time in nearly five months, I sat down in front of the television to watch and analyse a game.

And, in a strange quirk of fate, the game involved my beloved Templenoe taking on mighty Dr Crokes in the Kerry club championship.

My pre-match fears about the outcome were realised. Templenoe were on the receiving end of an 11-point hammering - and it could have been a lot worse.

Crokes missed five goal chances, kicked 11 wides and played in second gear in the second half. So what went wrong?

I keep thinking about the often-quoted remark made by the late Fianna Fáil minister Séamus Brennan during government formation talks with the Green Party in 2007: 'Lads, you're playing senior hurling now.'

Dominate

And, sadly, that's what Templenoe discovered to their cost. Playing senior championship football for the first time in their history was a different kind of experience.

At junior and intermediate level the club's county players were able to dominate matches and carry us through.

But this strategy doesn't work at senior level against better balanced teams with stronger panels, whose tactics are far more advanced and whose fitness levels are higher.

Our lads discovered that the time and space available at the lower grades simply does not exist in senior championship football.

Due to the congested fixture list for club and county teams, the stronger club and county sides will be even more advantaged this year.

Templenoe's schedule means they play four games in five weeks - three in the club championship and one in the county championship.

We will be without Kerry full-back Tadgh Morley and two other first-team players for the three remaining games as they're injured.

We simply don't have the reserve of talent to cope with these losses.

I ended up being the proverbial couch potato watching four full games and the second halves of two more.

Aside from Dr Crokes v Templenoe, I watched Kenmare v Kerins O'Rahillys (Kerry), St Jude's v Na Fianna (Dublin) and Castlehaven v Carbury Rangers (Cork), as well as the second halves of two other Cork ties: St Finbarr's v Ballincollig and Bishopstown v Douglas.

It was interesting to note the different styles and standards between the three counties.

The football in Kerry was primarily traditional, while in Cork the standard was very poor.

In terms of fitness, physique and athleticism, the players from Na Fianna and St Jude's were way ahead of their southern counterparts.

Their game was more tactical, with an emphasis on defensive play in particular.

Both teams deployed a zonal press for the kick-out, while their overall defensive play was excellent, particularly the tackling technique of the players.

On the other hand, their forward play left a lot to be desired. Minimum use was made of kick passing.

There was no spike in injuries during any of the games.

But it was significant that most teams were missing first-choice players - obviously as a result of knocks picked up during the hectic pre-season period.

Last Sunday I mentioned how Kerry players rarely stand out in club football any longer - though David Clifford, Paul Geaney and Sean O'Shea were exceptions.

They must have read what I wrote. Clifford scored 2-6 from play for Fossa against Ballyduff; Paul Geaney hit 1-6 of Dingle's total of 1-12 in their draw with Austin Stacks and O'Shea gave a masterclass for Kenmare, scoring all but one of their nine points in their 2-9 to 0-13 win over Kerins O'Rahillys.

Anybody who wants to see forward play at its best should get a copy of the tape. O'Shea didn't dominate the game like he usually does - indeed, he wasn't on the ball that much.

But the mark of a great player is their ability to influence proceedings, even if they're having a quiet day.

He had nine shots at goal. He scored five points from play - four with his right foot and one with his left. He converted two frees and a mark and was narrowly wide from a 45.

In terms of the wider picture for Kerry, it was all forwards who caught the eye locally.

Form

Jack Savage and James O'Donoghue put their hands up in terms of form. Indeed, at the moment, Kerry could field two full-forward lines.

Take your pick from Stephen O'Brien, David Clifford, Paul Geaney, Tommy Walsh, Killian Spillane and O'Donoghue.

But I reckon I found a new Kerry defender - in Dublin.

The best defensive display I witnessed last weekend came from Kerry-native Jack McGuire, who gave a masterclass for St Jude's.

A Sigerson Cup winner, he was briefly on the Kerry squad when Éamonn Fitzmaurice was in charge.

He is tall, athletic and physical - and didn't give Dublin's All-Ireland medal winner Conor McHugh a look-in. He has all the attributes needed to be a top-class county-standard defender.

This was my first opportunity to have an in-depth look at how the new rules will impact on club football.

Things may change - but they had minimum influence last weekend.

The new kick-out rule resulted in the majority of restarts going long. This helped speed up the game and resulted in a lot of aerial battles in the middle third of the field.

David Moran (Kerins O'Rahillys) (pictured) underlined the value of having a proven fielder, as he achieved more marks than any other player in the games I watched.

The advance mark was used sparingly, possibly because the kicking technique of many of the players is still very poor - they are not following through on their kicks - and, secondly, teams haven't had enough time to work on how best to utilise it.

Redundant

Only St Jude's made a real effort to utilise it, scoring three points via marks.

The sin bin was virtually redundant as well, with the first black card being shown to a Carbery Rangers' defender in the 49th minute.

There were at least three other cases where the player should have seen black, but the referee took the easy option and booked him instead.

As for the implementation of the GAA's Covid-19 regulations, it was a mixed bag.

Clubs ignored the rules that: (1) substitutes should be positioned on opposite sides of the pitch and (2) there be no huddles.

The water breaks are a waste of time.

The majority of players didn't take any water on board. Essentially, they're used as 'timeouts'.

Of course, the biggest farce is the continuing restrictions on attendance.

I'm tired writing that the government's one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work.

Basically, the size of the crowd should be based on the capacity of the venue.

The 200 limit might be okay at a small club venue, but it's ridiculous in places such as Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney or Limerick's Gaelic Grounds.

But, all told, the relaunch has been a success and allowed us to forget all the gloom and doom. Long may it continue.

Irish Independent