Wouldn’t it be great to go out witnessing a classic in the mould of the hurling final?
Hats off to Limerick and Kilkenny for demonstrating what a true sporting contest should be.
When hurling is played like it was last Sunday it is really the greatest field game in the world.
It had everything: skill, endeavour, passion and tension. It was a proper game with the outcome in doubt until the final whistle.
What made it great? The two teams believed in themselves individually and collectively.
They were not burdened by the kind of conservative, safety first approach which prevails in Gaelic football.
I’d love to see a similar approach from Kerry and Galway where they would concentrate on their own strengths rather than focusing on the opposition and their star players.
These counties have the potential to give us that classic this afternoon.
Both are endowed with pace and skill and prefer to kick the ball.
Jack O’Connor and Pádraic Joyce have managed to blend these traditional traits with the modern features of the game.
I have a confession to make; I didn’t expect Galway to reach the final.
In fact, last April, they weren’t in my top six picks for the Sam Maguire.
I expected them to lose to Mayo in the Connacht Championship. I’m surprised at their progress.
At the start of the season I predicted that the REAL All-Ireland final would be the semi-final between Kerry and Dublin.
So far, so good. It came to pass, gave us a great match and now Kerry are favourites to win today.
But then I thought Kerry would beat Dublin in the 2019 final.
I expected the Kingdom to win the ‘Sam’ in 2020 but they were caught on the hop by arguably the poorest ever Cork team to beat a Kerry one.
I definitely believed their time had come last year. But they were out cute-hoored by Covid and Tyrone and came into the semi-final undercooked.
The Connacht champions are what could be loosely described as a traditional Galway football team characterised by their flair and pace.
They transition the ball very quickly and have four marquee players: Damien Comer, Shane Walsh, Paul Conroy and Seán Kelly.
But what I liked about them is how their so called unsung heroes stood up in their last two games.
Against Armagh it was Cillian McDaid, Rob Finnerty and Matthew Tierney.
Centre back John Daly was outstanding against Derry, setting up 2-2 for Comer while Liam Silke excelled at corner-back.
They have an effective defensive system in place thanks primarily to the influence of Cian O’Neill.
Galway’s use of a double sweeper caught Mayo on the hop in the Connacht quarter-final and they completely snuffed out the Derry scoring threat in the semi-final.
Derry’s only goal of that game came in injury-time – remember they hit five against Clare – and Galway restricted their starting forwards to two points from play.
Even though they defend as a unit, individually their six backs are all excellent defenders. As a team they trust their system and stick to it.
Though they didn’t open the scoring against Armagh and Derry until the 12th and 21st minutes respectively, Galway didn’t panic.
As a team they work ferociously hard; they turned Derry over 18 times and all but 0-4 of their 2-8 tally came directly from turnovers.
This team has now strung together two decent Croke Park performances for the first time.
Cian O’Neill has intimate knowledge of a lot of the Kerry players – having been team coach when they won the All-Ireland in 2014.
But Paddy Tally was in the Galway backroom team for the 2018 season.
My list of Galway negatives is nearly as long as their positives, which is surprising for a team preparing for an All-Ireland final.
I have already alluded to their slow starts against Armagh and Derry. They might not get away with that against Kerry.
Their vulnerability in the full back line was exposed by both Roscommon and Armagh.
Surprisingly Derry never tried that tactic in the All-Ireland semi-final, but Kerry will not be shy in testing their resilience under the high ball.
Defensively they have improved. But I keep thinking of the 3-10 and 2-17 that Offaly and Cork hit against them in Division 2 League games this spring while Armagh notched up 3-18, albeit after extra time, in the quarter-final.
Then there is their inexplicable failure to see out games.
In their last three matches they have conceded 4-4 without reply in injury time.
Armagh achieved 43 turnovers against them; Derry chalked up 45 – both are on the high side.
Four of their forwards failed to score from play against Derry; only four players got on the score sheet and 2-8 is a very moderate return for a semi-final in the modern era.
The other nagging worry about Galway is the possibility that, despite their usual competitiveness, there is a suspicion that the standard of the 2022 Ulster Championship was no better than average.
And it was two Ulster teams Galway beat on their way to today’s decider.
Kerry are no different to Galway in the sense that the list of negatives attached to them is lengthy.
They failed to perform for 70 minutes against either Mayo or Dublin and continue to turn over too much ball in the attacking third of the field.
Of the 35 turnovers Tyrone managed against them last year, 30 were in the final third. Nothing much has changed.
Sixteen of the 24 turnovers they coughed up against Mayo were in the same area of the field and all but three of the 19 turnovers Dublin achieved against them came in the final third.
There is a simple explanation for this. When Kerry are not allowed play their favoured kicking game, they then have to transition the ball through the hands. This is where they are vulnerable.
Kerry struggle when opponents deploy a blanket defence against them, and I imagine Galway will do just that today.
For all the talk about Kerry’s attacking flair some of their scoring statistics make sobering reading. They have scored only three goals in their four Championship games.
Worse still they are not creating goals – by my calculation they have created just five chances in the Championship.
Seánie O’Shea and David Clifford scored 1-10 of their 1-14 total against Dublin which underlines how dependent Kerry have become on this pair.
Kerry might survive if one has a poor game today, but if both were held it would spell trouble for Kerry.
Against Dublin only one other starting forward, Paudie Clifford, scored while three forwards failed to score from play against Mayo.
Against Dublin, Kerry managed only 0-6 and didn’t score from play in the last 15 minutes.
Another worry is the possibility that Galway will man-mark Paudie Clifford, as Tyrone did in the 2021 final and as Mayo did in this year’s quarter-final.
Given that his link up play with his younger brother David is crucial this could blunt the Kerry attack.
But I remain convinced Kerry will win because their strengths now lie in what could be termed untraditional Kerry traits.
Their work-rate, tackling, tracking back, defending, achieving turnovers and getting their kick-out strategy right is what sets this team apart from their recent predecessors that failed to land the big prize.
They have conceded an average of just 0-12 per game in the Championship.
Goalkeeper Shane Ryan has conceded just one goal in the series and they have conceded only two goals from open play in all competitions this year.
Their discipline and tackling technique is first class.
Mayo scored only 0-3 from frees in the quarter-final.
Dublin’s Dean Rock did likewise in the semi-final and one of those frees was originally a mark.
Their ability to translate both turnovers and their own re-starts into scores is second to none.
Against Dublin 1-8 of their 1-15 tally came from winning their own kick-outs and another 0-5 was secured via turnovers.
Against Limerick 16 of their 28 points came via turnovers while 1-11 of their 1-18 against Mayo also came from turnovers.
Last Sunday I wrote about the resilience they demonstrated when eking out that one-point win over Dublin.
The significance of that victory cannot be overemphasised.
It was only the sixth time in Championship football since 1960, and their first win since they beat Westmeath in a Round 2 All-Ireland qualifier in 2012 by one point, that Kerry has won a Championship game by the minimum margin.
They had the best scoring and defensive record of any Division 1 team this year. They are physically much stronger than the Kerry team that contested the 2019 final – and are now mentally stronger too. So all the ingredients are present for them to deliver.
I predicted at the start of the year that Kerry would win the 2022 All-Ireland title and I have seen nothing in the meantime to change my mind.