WHEN played properly, Gaelic football is the greatest game on the planet. It was played properly in the drawn game, and there is no reason to suspect we are not in for another treat on Saturday.
The emphasis with these two counties is skills, which is why they produce footballers like O’Callaghan, Clifford, Howard, O’Shea, McCaffrey, Moran, and Rock. When I think of it, I could go on until all 30 players were listed.
The game is exciting, exhilarating and sparks talking points, and vigorous debate when it is played the way it is meant to be played. It excites kids and coaches, and all of us. It inspires us to savour the skills of the game and create football teams that allow our young players to express those skills. It is no coincidence that these two teams are in the All-Ireland final. Before Kerry, it was Mayo who graced the greatest game, playing with adventure and skill and sending us away thrilled and wanting more. Again, no coincidence they contested so many epic finals.
These truths are still falling mostly on deaf ears, and particularly in Derry, where we have become a laughing stock around the country. Continuing in that vein, the county board and its Director of Football have appointed Rory Gallagher to look after our prized senior team.
Rory Gallagher’s main footballing achievement, and I say this with respect and affection, is that he forced Arlene Foster to sit through 80 minutes of the dullest Ulster final ever played. Back, back, back, back, back, back. Handpass to the keeper. DON’T KICK IT, DON’T KICK IT, DON’T KICK IT, lulling the viewer and spectator to sleep.
It must be pointed out that this sort of tactical genius does not come cheap. To achieve the appropriate levels of backness and non-kicking, one must train at least six times a week, including gruelling strength and fitness training so that one’s body begins to resemble a bow legged, heavily muscled loyalist paramilitary posing in the pages of the Sunday Life under the heading “ SEX CHANGE OP CHANGED MY LIFE. NOW I’M LEARNING IRISH.”
Once this six days a week regime has taken hold, with regular positive updates being provided by the management to the County Board eg “Caolan is beginning to hand-pass the ball more often and only kicked the ball once at training last night after which he was immediately sent to the changing rooms” and “Enda has finally accepted that being chosen at full-forward means he will play as a fourth full-back and do a lot of shuffling sideways and pointing. He is not happy with this but on the plus side he is beginning to look like a bouncer.”
This also involves ingenious drills such as:
1. Soloing out to the 21 and back
2. Soloing out to the 45 and back
3. Soloing to the opposing 45
4. Soloing back from the opposing 45
5. Soloing to the sideline
6. Soloing back from the sideline
7. Hand-passing sideways to the right (the player is fitted with a version of blinkers that prevents him seeing to the front)
8. Hand-passing sideways to the left
9. Hand-passing backwards (recommended)
10. Surrounding the man in possession with four players, bracing themselves like bodybuilders, then punching the air and trash talking the opposing forward when he over-carries (this is a real crowd pleaser).
The only exception to the non-kicking rule is the free-taker, who ideally must be able to score a free anywhere from 75 metres out. If even a few frees are missed, this will bring the total scores for the team to under 0-8.
A good example of this was Gaoth Dobhair v St Eunan’s the other night in the Donegal championship where the final score in an outstanding game of backwards and don’t kick was 0-6 to 1-3.
John Haran of St Eunan’s, who used to be a football lover and a very fine player in his own right, has been indoctrinated by the backwards cult and tweeted afterwards “Happy with the performance but disappointed with the result.” You don’t say John. His old St Eunan’s team-mate Brendan Devenney meanwhile tweeted “Here’s an idea. Let the two teams go at it. Maybe a 1-13 to 0-16, instead of this. Playing with such fear and numbers (back) creates a really poor spectacle.”
Owenbeg will soon be ringing with shouts of BACK, BACK, BACK, BACK and DON’T KICK IT, DON’T KICK IT, DON’T KICK IT. We should change the title from Owenbeg Centre of excellence to “Owenbeg Centre of we really don’t know how to describe what goes on here anymore, ps don’t send your kids.”
No problems with this sort of cultish anti-coaching in Kerry or Dublin. After an exhilarating, life-affirming drawn game, it can be seen that Dublin have problems.
In the absence of Cian O’Sullivan’s unerring ability as a sweeper, they look very vulnerable in their danger zone. Kerry should keep Clifford close to goal with Geaney playing off him.
They only kicked in a few early balls last week and each time it caused panic, including a penalty. Without O’Sullivan the Dubs have lost that compact shape that has made them so miserly. This is something they need to solve before Saturday.
Brian Fenton is highly skilled and an excellent athlete, but somehow lacks passion. Usually he has the legs on his man and the Dubs are tearing the opposition apart, but against Kerry, this is not the case. In five attempts against them he has been more or less anonymous. Two weeks ago, he had zero impact on the game, easily outplayed by Jack Barry.
In tight games, as he showed again last week, Ciaran Kilkenny’s habit is to play laterally, across and back around the periphery of the danger zone. Johnny Cooper is not the player he was three years ago and is most certainly not suited to marking David Clifford. Where to pick him?
James McCarthy seems to have lost that searing pace that for years has allowed him to hurtle through opposing defences, spread-eagling them and opening the gate for the danger men to score heavily. In the drawn game he was turned over in possession three times, something I have never seen before. In James’s case it may be that he is still not fully fit after his injury.
Dublin were heavily reliant on five things to get them through. Firstly, Cluxton’s brilliance. Secondly, Kerry’s high press, which gave them the opportunity to score the 1-2 that opened up their five-point lead. Thirdly, Dean Rock (10 points). Fourthly, Jack McCaffrey (1-3). Finally, the fact that Kerry panicked after they went one up.
The Dubs had another very obvious strategic issue, which is the lateral malaise they settled into when in possession, playing around the outside of the Kerry defensive area without penetrating. The only time this did not occur was when Cluxton kicked long over the Kerry press.
The effect of this was that the lethal trio of Mannion, O’Callaghan and Rock were getting the ball late and in poor positions when the Kerry defence was in place. If you think next Saturday will be plain sailing for the Dubs you are mistaken.
Regardless of the many debates created by the drawn game (and many of those in the media and social media would do well to remember we are discussing a game of football not committing some heinous crime) Jim Gavin should never have left Cooper on Clifford after the first yellow. It was obvious to everyone in the stadium this was a disaster waiting to happen.
When this happens to a Tyrone defender, Mickey Harte immediately either replaces him or switches him off the player in question. Having chosen to do nothing, Jim Gavin must bear the responsibility for what followed.
Jim Gavin got some important things wrong: leaving Cooper on Clifford when it was obvious every ball was going to be an event, instead of playing him on Sean O’Shea, well away from the bright lights of the square, where handsy stuff doesn’t cause such outrage; bringing on Paddy Small when Dublin were five up, instead of Diarmuid Connolly who could have taken up his quarter-back role around the middle and controlled the remainder of the game.
Afterwards in the studio, there was a sort of euphoria that only comes from the greatest contests. My good friend Pat shed a tear, as he had every right to do after his nephew had performed with such distinction. Peter Keane, looking as calm as a farmer having his breakfast after the milking has been done, said “Yerra”, revealed that All-Ireland medals do not come in lucky bags, and described the outcome as “an anti-climax.”
Well, never has there been such delight at an anti-climax. On Saturday, they will do it all over again. Only this time, Kerry have been through the Dublin mill. And they have survived it. When it comes right down to it, they will be thinking this week about how 14 Dubs prevented them from mounting a single attack in that last 13 minutes. How Dublin ground out the draw and could have won it at the death.
As Mayo have shown on many tumultuous days in Croker, it is all well and good competing with the Dubs for 65 or even 70 minutes. It is those last five that are all-important.
The game will be dictated by how this very exciting, very skilled young Kerry team deals with the pressure of the last quarter. They have shown they have the attacking ability to damage the Dubs. Dublin have no-one to mark Clifford, who scored 0-2 but should probably have scored 0-5. Kerry broke through for goals three times, scoring once and missing a penalty. They could easily have had four goals. Had they done so, Dublin would have been beaten.
However, these are the moments that determine history. Kerry missed those chances. They panicked in the last thirteen minutes. Indeed, it was Dublin who finished as though they had the extra man.
Which is always the problem when you play this extraordinary team.