THERE must be logic in it somewhere. We’re merely struggling to identify it. Or understand it.
Just months after parting company with the most respected defensive coach in the business – and deciding not to bother replacing him – the Kerry selectors opted to vigorously present the case for the defence in their last three outings, putting a real emphasis on shutting up shop before everything else. Bizarre? What else is it?
The services of the astute Donie Buckley, a man said to have made the tackle an art form and who had earned the respect of almost every player he coached, were dispensed of last March for reasons best known to those at the helm of the GAA in the county.
There was no shortage of theories or telling insider information regarding the circumstances of the split but, apart from a rather terse statement, team management and the county board hierarchy have kept their lips pursed and continue to feed supporters a paltry diet of information crumbs.
“It is not intended to make any further appointments to the senior football management team. The existing management team will continue to take responsibility for all aspects of team preparation and selection,” the brief statement on the Buckley issue read last March.
In the circumstances, the last sentence is worth repeating: “The existing management team will continue to take responsibility for all aspects of team preparation and selection”.
So take responsibility they must and they therefore need to be held accountable for Sunday’s disastrous performance against quite a limited side, just out of division three, which was illustrated by their ability to muster just five points from play in over an hour and a half of football before Mark Keane availed of the single chance that came his way and fortuitously scrambled the winner to the net in overtime.
Peter Keane was right. It was a sickener.
The fans shared his sentiments.
The players did too.
But it didn’t have to be that way.
The Kerry selectors were obviously overcome with a severe bout of paranoia on the journey over the county bounds on Sunday or they had an inexplicable rush of blood to the head somewhere between Macroom and Ballincollig. By opting to drop a reliable, experienced attacking player, capable of changing a game, and replacing him at wing forward with an out and out defender, in a must-win, no second chance encounter was either going to be hailed a downright daft decision or a great stroke of genius. It wasn’t the latter.
It might have made some sense against the Dubs, or a full strength Donegal or possibly even Mayo. But opting to put safety before flair against a side that had the likes of Offaly, Louth, Leitrim and Longford as playmates in the third tier of the league was a woeful miscalculation that backfired desperately.
What message was that fear factor sending to the players? It seemed to inject a real element of doubt and uncertainty into not just one but Kerry’s entire starting fifteen who looked way out of sorts against opponents they would be expected to out-perform every time with quite a bit in reserve.
Forget all about this traditional hype that suggests anything can happen in the white heat of a full-blooded provincial championship knockout tie – this game pitched the national league winners and defeated All-Ireland finalists, featuring some of the country’s marquee players, against a young and inexperienced side that looked more than decent against division three minnows representing a county that hadn’t won a Munster Championship title since 2012. There really should have been only one result.
To Cork’s credit, they gritted their teeth, flexed their collective muscle and went hell for leather. And they succeeded. There’s a message there somewhere. Cian O’Neill, the former Kerry and Kildare coach now with the Rebels, had obviously done his homework and passed the exam with an A+. Kerry, meanwhile, will have to repeat the year.
Every team has an off day, of course – and they are fully entitled to it – but for the entire Kerry side to appear to lose their way in a crunch championship clash that should have been more than there for the taking is just bewildering.
There are several questions that must be answered.
Why did the Kerry selectors opt to travel to Leeside top heavy with defensive cover on the bench and so alarmingly short of attacking options?
In a week during which the media was informed that Kerry had a full panel to select from, where were Paul Geaney and James O’Donoghue? Presumably, they were injured. But why the mixed messages?
In a game in which Kerry were finding scores desperately hard to come by, was it really wise to withdraw Tony Brosnan, always capable of conjuring up a little magic, with 20 minutes remaining and Dara Moynihan who was doing well and covering acres of ground, in keeping with the defensive duties required of a player named at corner forward as part of the new Kerry approach to football?
After starting the game with a wing back at wing forward, Kerry later introduced a full back to operate on the half forward line as the game entered its most crucial period. Yet Micheál Burns, a specialist, strong-running wing forward, capable of single-handedly turning a game, was left in his tracksuit. This game was crying out for a player like Burns who can run, at pace, at opponents, hold possession and is never shy about having a pop at the posts – or the net.
Killian Spillane did exceptionally well when introduced but he couldn’t do it on his own on a day best forgotten by the Kerry forward division.
In the post Donie Buckley era, it really is difficult to comprehend why Kerry would choose to adopt a defence-first-at-all-costs approach, as evidenced against Monaghan, Donegal and Cork, so soon after the Castleisland man, who knew about such things, was out the door.
In a must-win game, three of the subs introduced by Kerry on Sunday were defenders and even when Tommy Walsh was sprung from the bench – a player who causes terror when he appears in front of opposing goalkeepers – he spent more time back in his own half of the field, helping to keep the Trump-style wall in tact. When Mark Keane pounced for that last kick of the game winner who was the Kerry player closest to him? You’ve got it in one.
It’s not pretty and it’s not Kerry but if it had worked then loyal supporters might have been able to show a little more understanding.
It didn’t work on Sunday, however. It failed miserably and, as Keane remarked, it really was a sickener in a year when supporters could do with a boost, with Fungie gone AWOL and tourists at home stockpiling their dollars.
It wasn’t so much that Kerry were beaten, it was more the manner of the defeat and how they allowed a side from a lower division to completely dominate proceedings for much of the game, particularly around the middle third.
Given the amount of breaking ball swept up by men in red shirts, there is some merit to suggestions that Kerry were bullied into submission by a more determined Cork side hell-bent on proving a point. Several former Kerry inter-county stars have insisted that Cork were the far hungrier side and that Kerry’s bellies looked full from the outset. Some merit there too. Desire creates the power. And Cork had it in abundance.
The normally swashbuckling Kerry style that sees Gavin White, Tom O’Sullivan, Paul Murphy and Peter Crowley repeatedly surging forward at pace and with purpose was nowhere to be seen on Sunday. They were pinned back by the tenacious Cork attackers and yet nothing was done to address it by those patrolling the sideline. Or at least it seemed that way but they might wish to tell us otherwise.
A player of David Moran’s experience shouldn’t have rushed into two ‘Hail Mary’ attempts for points when the game was in the melting pot and so many options were available to him.
The two best forwards in the country, David Clifford and Seanie O’Shea, were becoming more frustrated as the afternoon progressed following a succession of uncharacteristically missed chances.
That said, Clifford scored one sensational point from distance and his audacious shot at goal, which crashed back off the angle of the crossbar, would have probably qualified as the greatest GAA goal of all time had it gone in. An inch from everlasting fame.
Maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the stillness of an empty stadium, maybe it was a sense of fear and paranoia in a game they were expected to win at ease and maybe it was because Cork had nothing to lose but, for some reason, many of the Kerry players seemed to play with their heads down on Sunday.
There was something not quite right and that was very obvious when the normally cool and chilled Paul Murphy was seen admonishing a team-mate during a water break and again when Dara Moynihan made no attempt to disguise his displeasure when being substituted.
Much has been made by breathless headline writers about the ghost of Tadgh Murphy coming back to haunt Kerry in Pairc Uí Chaoimh on Sunday.
But ghosts don’t really exist. They’re right up there alongside fairytales in works of fiction.
But nightmares are real. And, although it’s only a game, in footballing terms, Kerry experienced a particularly horrid one last Sunday.
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