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GAA verdict Do I really believe Kerry are the No.1 contender to challenge Dublin in 2021?

Conservative tactics, game management and tricky draws will test Dubs challengers

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Killian Spillane was not a regular starter for Kerry last season.

Killian Spillane was not a regular starter for Kerry last season.

Killian Spillane was not a regular starter for Kerry last season.

A FELLA accused me the other day of being a cute Kerry hoor.

Did I really believe Kerry were the No 1 contender to challenge Dublin in 2021?

I will answer his question in a roundabout way.

I was absolutely convinced that Kerry would put it up to Dublin last season.

The Contender

'When I was young and I was in my day

Sure I'd steal what woman's heart there was away

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Cork’s Mark Keane after his late goal against Kerry.

Cork’s Mark Keane after his late goal against Kerry.

Cork’s Mark Keane after his late goal against Kerry.

And I'd sing into the dawning

Saw a blaze into the morning

Long before I was the man you see today.'

- Jimmy McCarthy

I believed the champions were vulnerable because it was Dessie Farrell's first season as manager and Jack McCaffrey was missing.

I still believe Dublin could have been got at in the final. But Mayo were not the team to do it.

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My hopes about Kerry were based on three assumptions and one fact.

The fact was their excellent performance in the 2019 drawn All-Ireland final.

I assumed Donie Buckley would have fine-tuned their defensive system by the time the 2020 championship came around.

I also thought that, based on his performance when he was introduced in that drawn final, Killian Spillane would be a definite starter.

And my last assumption was that Tommy Walsh would have a big role to play as a target man.

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Peter Keane.

Peter Keane.

Peter Keane.

Furthermore, I believed Peter Keane (below) would have learned well from the mistakes he made in his debut season in 2019.

Alas, I was wrong on all counts. So, I'm less optimistic about their chances this year.

Nonetheless, I still believe we have the footballers in the county capable of delivering an All-Ireland title in August. Getting the best 15 on the field, and having them better organised, are the key ingredients for success.

Keane's decision to part company with Buckley, against the wishes of the players, was a definite backward step. I note with alarm that no extra coaching expertise has been added to the back-room team this season.

Kerry have repeatedly failed to field their best 15 at any one time.

Keane has a soft spot for what I would describe as 'eager-beaver,' high-energy style footballers.

They have repeatedly been given the nod at the expense of more naturally talented players.

Then there are Keane's tactics.

In the first leg of their Europa League semi-final against Villarreal ten days ago, Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta deployed a Manchester City game plan, which he would be familiar with having worked under Pep Guardiola.

Arteta's plan didn't work. His players weren't familiar with the system.

They probably don't have the calibre of players capable of delivering the Guardiola scheme either, and most of all, Arsenal weren't playing to their own strengths.

Sound familiar? Of course, it does - because it happens all the time in Gaelic football.

Under Keane, Kerry too have stuck rigidly to a defensive, counter-attacking game plan and paid the price in three of their most recent high-profile games.

2019 All-Ireland Final Dublin v Kerry:

In the 12 minutes remaining after Killian Spillane put them a point clear Kerry didn't have another shot at goal. They never again kicked the ball in the opposition half.

On the three occasions they carried the ball over the halfway line, they were turned over. And goalkeeper Shane Ryan kicked the ball more often than any of his outfield colleagues.

And we all know what happened. Dublin equalised and comfortably won the replay.

2019 Allianz League final Mayo v Kerry:

Kerry led at half-time and were still in front with 15 minutes to go.

Yet, against a team with a proven track record of failing to close out winning positions in national finals, Kerry were unable to hold on to their advantage.

2020 Munster Final v Cork:

Kerry led by two points near the end of normal time, and were again two points in front in injury time in extra time.

They were still caught by a sucker punch of a goal from Mark Keane in the dying seconds.

There is a worrying pattern here. Granted the players' game management was atrocious.

But the real issue is that a 'have what you hold' game plan does not suit Kerry.

It didn't suit my team in 1982 - and it doesn't suit us now.

What is disconcerting is that no lessons appear to have been learned over the last two years.

The team management and the players are equally to blame.

Time is running out on two fronts. As I alluded to last week, David Moran, Paul Geaney, Stephen O'Brien, Tommy Walsh and James O'Donoghue are all in 'Last Chance Saloon' territory, as is Keane, who is in the final year of his three-year term.

Unless he delivers Sam, I fear a P45 will be winging its way to Killorglin.

But, as I stressed at the outset, I am not ruling the Kingdom out of the running - not at all.

Outside Kerry there are, at most, four counties - Donegal, Galway, Mayo, and Tyrone - that if everything went perfect for them on a given day, then they could beat Dublin in a one-off encounter.

In terms of pecking order, there is nothing to choose between this quartet, though they are a distance behind Kerry in the overall rankings.

Mayo

Though they were in transition in 2020 and lost their place in Division 1, the season was a success.

They won the Connacht title for the first time since 2015 and contested another All-Ireland final.

They unearthed a quartet of gems in Oisín Mullin, Eoghan McLaughlin, Tommy Conroy and Mark Moran, who was injured for the final.

These newcomers will have learned a lot from the 2020 campaign.

And they have two handy warm-up matches against Sligo and Leitrim in the Connacht series this year.

On the other hand, playing in Division 2 is not the ideal preparation for championship football.

Their game management at the business end of All-Ireland finals continues to be their Achilles heel.

Remember they were level with 20 minutes to go against Dublin - but, frankly, the Green and Red never looked like pushing on for a win.

The retirements of Keith Higgins, Chris Barrett, Seamus O'Shea, Tom Parsons and David Clarke have robbed them of a huge bank of experience, while there are doubts about the fitness of Aidan O'Shea due to a knee injury.

Worryingly for James Horan, only two of his starting forwards - Cillian O'Connor and Ryan O'Donoghue - scored from play against Dublin last December.

Then there is Horan himself. His innate conservatism is a liability.

When Patrick Durcan was forced to retire at half-time in the final Horan opted to replace him with Michael Plunkett rather than Keith Higgins.

The latter would have been the ideal player to force Dublin onto the back foot early in the third quarter, when Mayo knew the Dubs would be down to 14 men.

Great managers occasionally gamble. Horan always takes the conservative approach.

Galway

This is Padraic Joyce's second season in charge, so his management team are well bedded in by now and playing top-flight league football is always a bonus.

We saw evidence of their potential prior to the Covid-19 lockdown of last spring, when they led Division 1 after five rounds.

However, by the time inter-county football returned, the momentum had been lost.

Gareth Bradshaw has now retired; Killian McDaid is out with a long-term injury and Ian Burke is taking a year's break.

On the other hand, Joyce will blood players from their 2020 All-Ireland-winning U-20 side, and in Shane Walsh they have a potential match winner.

The presence of former Donegal boss Jim McGuinness at a training session last year was an indication more work needs to be done on getting their defensive system in place.

And they need a more reliable free-taker - Walsh missed two vital kicks in the dying minutes of the Connacht final - if they are to challenge for the All-Ireland.

Donegal

They tick so many boxes: they are blessed with physically powerful and athletic footballers, as well as ball-winning and accurate forwards.

Where Mayo and Galway have lost top players for 2021, the return of Odhran McNiallais to the panel is a big boost for Donegal.

And, of course, the leadership and versatility provided by Michael Murphy remains a priceless asset.

The negatives are mounting up, however.

They have the draw from hell up north - a preliminary-round away tie against Down, followed by a quarter-final to Derry, with the prospect of a semi-final against Tyrone. And then there would still be the Ulster Final to win.

Donegal's game plan has become a tad predictable. I believe they need to introduce more variety to their play, and one wonders how much longer can the mighty Murphy, who made his championship debut in 2007, continue to be their talisman?

Most worrying is their mental frailty. They haven't reached the last four in the All-Ireland series since 2014, and have now blown three chances on the spin - against Tyrone in 2018, Mayo 2019 and Cavan 2020 - of reaching the All-Ireland semi-final. Methinks they need to take a hard look in the mirror.

Tyrone

They will surely get a bounce from their new management team of Brian Dooher and Feargal Logan and will benefit from a more attack-oriented game plan.

Former AFL player Conor McKenna, who was a revelation when he returned from Australia last year, ought to be even more effective this season, while the return of 2019 All-Star Cathal McShane will give them more firepower up front.

Their players have the pace and athleticism required to win big games. Yet it might take more than one season to rid themselves of the conservative approach favoured by Mickey Harte. When the pressure comes on, there's every chance they will revert to type.

The draw hasn't done them any favours either and they will have to beat Ulster champions Cavan and probably Donegal to reach the provincial final. Crucially, Tyrone haven't beaten any of the three big guns - Dublin, Kerry or Mayo - in championship football since 2008.

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