Kerry has the depth and firepower that can rival Dublin
A fast and wild summer is just around the corner and I believe Kerry will have the Sam Maguire again after this All Ireland Championship.
On the surface, that sounds like a radical proposal: the end of Dublin’s domination after seven years of glory. But more precisely, it’s just the other side of the spinning coin we’ve seen over decades of the all-Irish seasons. Kerry versus Dublin is a force that is both great and depressing. I think we will see the pendulum swing in the green and gold country.
There is a clear feeling, after the strange harmonious league, that Kerry has clearly closed the gap with Dublin. Likewise, they have moved into a different sphere than all other contenders. They are ahead of Mayo, the county that has fought hardest against Dublin’s supremacy in the past decade. And they are certainly acting on a different level than Donegal and Tyrone, the potential contenders.
So what can we expect from the 2021 All Ireland Championship? I’ve been into Gaelic football since I was a child, but this year already brought me one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen. It was before the Donegal-Monaghan game, itself a surreal and worryingly lavish display of goals from both teams known for their stingy defenses. Just before the throw-in, I saw the Monaghan troop walking up the main street in Ballybofey, their gear on, some of the players walking into the stands in socks. The city was empty. In normal times, of course, that couldn’t and would not happen. Due to the Covid protocols, they had neither a team bus nor a changing room. It was a living reminder that we are going through improvised times in Gaelic football. It was a riveting sight and left me with this agonizing question: can we believe what we see in this league? The game itself turned out to be a lot of fun and excitement. But could we trust that it would even remotely resemble the reality of a knockout championship game between Monaghan and Donegal? I’m not sure. And I think the same was true for other games. The league was a law in itself.
Still, there were subtle indications of the factors that could determine the fate of the teams in the summer. I would argue that every year has league goals and this year in particular. Maintaining league status was vital, and with the teams falling behind in terms of collective fitness and training while trying to stay injury-free, it became more difficult. Cavan and Tipperary provided the most impressive example of this: shining heroes in the depths of last winter and slipping into the fourth division after a hapless league. Once again the league has proven what I like to consider eternal truths. The strongest counties with the deepest resources usually occupy the best seats in the house. So Kerry, Dublin, Donegal and Tyrone were in the semi-finals of the major league, while Mayo galloped out of the second division. Galway and Monaghan did a few things to raise their eyebrows. And we could have predicted all of this before a ball was seriously kicked.
Some trends have emerged. The idea of the art of one-on-one defense is clearly disappearing. Teams learn they need to get massive insurance. Mayo and Dublin are arguably the only remaining teams who trust their defenders to deal with one-on-one situations. Most teams simply don’t have the defenders to cope with the quality of the ball delivered to isolated attackers. Galway football people may now begin to understand why Kevin Walsh set up his teams the way he did. But we saw that all the leading teams conceded staggering sums of money. Mayo, for all her lauded defensive valor, often coughs high scores – even her 2-18 concession against Clare was worrying. Galway fell a staggering sum on day one against Kerry but felt a little better when Tyrone did the same in Killarney. Donegal gave Monaghan four goals – and Conor McCarthy a hat trick – in that Ballybofey game. Teams will – and cannot – give up such numbers in knockout championship games. So it is likely that systemic, zonal defense will be the order of the day.
Statistics on penalty conversions, as the new rules put the ball 11 meters from goal instead of the old 13 meters, are interesting read
And there are big question marks about the availability and health of marquee players. We haven’t seen Michael Murphy, Donegal’s eternal talisman, since the beginning of this Monaghan game. If he’s not in full health, Donegal’s visit to Down next Sunday will be a much more dangerous assignment. We know Cillian O’Connor gives goose bumps and is irreplaceable to Mayo. We haven’t seen Stephen Cluxton at Dublin Gate yet. This is not the usual shape. He hasn’t played a minute since the All-Ireland Final and while Leinster should provide a smooth launch pad it’s still a very unusual situation. Could it be that arguably the most influential player in the history of the game has just slipped silently out of the picture? It would be a breathtaking and very characteristic finish. Darragh Canavan’s injury is a major dent in the Tyrone Project. Galway’s Shane Walsh appeared to be in trouble after the Monaghan game. These weren’t illusions. These injuries were the result of a shortened league and limited training.
Black cards have become real turning points in games. It’s now a penalty that really hurts the team: losing a player for 10 minutes. As soon as you go to 14 – or 13 – men, you are immediately forced to change strategy. You cannot push up on a kick-out. Your attack strategy collapses completely. You’re basically trying to kill 10 minutes of your time and limit the damage on the scoreboard. But even if you do, you expend extra energy and it eventually catches up with you. The dilemma of the black card represents an additional complication for the manager. The water breaks must also be used carefully. They were introduced as a Covid precaution and with the virus still around us there is no talk of removing them. And they are now essentially tactical breaks. They are de facto time outs. You must be exploited.
So the manager’s workload on the line has never been so heavy. You have seven substitutes who need to be filtered in over five ways. There is no Maor Foirne to share the burden. There are new rules to work on – the kick-out, the cynical foul, the new advantage rule. And while the offensive brand hasn’t had much of an impact yet, I think it could change the outcome of some championship games this summer. I don’t like it: it doesn’t bring anything into play. But it could have a huge impact if teams decide to take advantage of it and build an offensive around it.
Funnily enough, the early penalty foul furore didn’t really appear in subsequent rounds of the league. But it still lurks as a stick of dynamite. An attack, a hasty pulling down of a defender and a sudden black card and penalty: That could have a massive impact on a knockout game. So coaches and managers have to look at these last gasp fouls in a completely new light. The statistics on penalty conversions are interesting since the new rules brought the ball to the goal at 11 meters instead of the old 13 meters. It used to be a little better than 50-50. Right now, I feel like eight out of ten penalties will be converted. So a defender is probably better off giving the attacker the live shot.
I remember talking to Tomás Ó Sé about it and he theoretically agreed, but indicated that the defenders will be instinct to prevent the shot at all costs. Still, the cuter game is to stay disciplined and get the attacker to take his goal out of the game if he has it in him. Unless that attacker is David Clifford! Kerry’s stocks and hopes have soared on the back of his Supernova League form. There’s a black joke in Kerry that Colm Cooper destroyed a generation of Kerry defenders because every kid wanted to play number 13. Imagine the impact Clifford must have on Kerry’s future generations.
Criticism within the county last winter was likely to have come to a head, but no one will have been more critical than the cadre and management
Clifford is the main reason Kerry thinks this is her year. Take a look at the raw rating numbers. Obviously, to beat Dublin in an All Ireland championship game, you have to get 20 points. A couple of years ago, 1-14 would win a lot of games. That just keeps you competitive these days. Where does this 1-19 or 2-18 come from? It’s the old ASS number (Attacks. Shots. Scores): 40 attacks: 30 shots: 20 scores. Many teams aim to do this, but Dublin routinely achieves it. It’s only an accuracy of 66 percent, but they can beat that because their shot selection is of such high quality. And many teams just can’t generate that number of attacks – especially against Dublin.
The league has shown that Dublin can be aggressive high on the field and they are very careful with these pressing tactics. For example, they will use a free kick to prepare to put pressure on the subsequent kick-out. And when the opponents score a goal, they are fantastic at repeating their attacks and destroying the opponent’s momentum. They rarely allow a team to achieve a flow of results. They are so tall and athletic that when you push up, the space on this field disappears.
Kerry has the depth and firepower that can rival Dublin. And I don’t think Dublin is as good as it was three seasons ago. When Brian Fenton peaked in 2018 and 2019, there was no stopping them. Not sure if they improve as a force. They are unreal in their energy, hunger and enthusiasm to continue this extraordinary winning streak. But we are dealing with the human condition. The motivation at Kerry is of a different order of magnitude. Criticism within the county last winter was likely to have come to a head, but no one will have been more critical than the cadre and management. You know. There was a sense of revenge and atonement as they attacked the league. I assume that this will continue in the championship. You are ready to win anything now. And given the culture of fanaticism that drives the Kerry tradition, they must win everything now.