Improving Kerry can end Donegal's dream in what promises to be a thriller
Kerry have a core group who are familiar with the demands of big Croke Park occasions and that could be vital, writes JOHN O'KEEFFE
THIS IS probably the most pressurised championship weekend in the Gaelic football calendar. For the first time, every player who walks out onto the pitch at Croke Park knows there is no safety net to catch them should they slip up. There is no cushion, no back door. From now on, it is do-or-die. And, of all the phases that make up the All-Ireland campaign, it is this quarter-final series of games that have the greatest potential for shocks and upsets.
There was no back door in my own playing days but I’d imagine the modern All-Ireland quarter-finals are akin to what I felt coming into a Munster final, where you know your performance is going to be forensically dissected. Of knowing that your summer could be over after all the preparation and hard work and sacrifices.
I had many a sleepless night before a Munster final and, after that, going into an All-Ireland semi-final or a final. As a full back, I always felt an extra element of responsibility, where any mistake could prove catastrophic. And, in a way, the pressure felt going into these type of matches was always added to by having respect for the players I was due to mark. Men like Declan Barron of Cork. Matt Connor of Offaly. Dublin’s Jimmy Keaveney.
In my days playing with Kerry, Mick O’Dwyer never mentioned the word pressure in the dressingroom or on the training ground. Micko was so competitive he wanted to win every match, including challenge games.
In those days, you’d have been laughed out of it if you mentioned working with a sports psychologist but, in his own way, O’Dwyer was one. He had the ability to say the right thing, to build a player’s confidence. He gelled the team together. When it came to games, he was able to get the most out of the team.
The players on the eight teams at Croke Park this weekend will experience varying degrees of pressure and all of them need to know how to cope with the realisation there is no safety net from now on in.
It helps a team to have players who have been through such scenarios over and over again, players who’ve constantly proved themselves in knockout situations.
Those players have developed their own coping skills to ensure their performances won’t be negatively affected by pressure. For instance, I see players like that in Marc Ó Sé, Tomás Ó Sé, Declan O’Sullivan and Colm Cooper in the Kerry set-up. They are players you can rely on to perform on the important days.
Will the four provincial champions feel more or less pressure than the four teams who have progressed through the qualifiers? Perhaps. But the main concern for Cork, Donegal, Mayo and Dublin is the number of weeks since they’ve had competitive tests. This is especially true in the case of Cork who, with the greatest of respect to Clare, haven’t had a serious test since playing Kerry on June 10th, all of eight weeks ago.
I don’t care how competitive their training sessions are or have been, but that’s too long without a truly competitive match and probably makes them the most susceptible to a shock. Is it possible for a team to find their best form after such a long lay-off?