The big thing to remember about the Super 8s is that it's relentless. You play your game, you eat your meal, you get on the bus and you go looking to the next game.
I thought James Horan was very impressive after the game against Kerry on Sunday. He didn't make a big deal out of it at all. Bad game, bad performance, beaten by the better team. Now on to Meath.
This is the one time of the year that managers have to react like they're in the Premier League. It's different to February and March because even though there are games week after week in the league, you're not going into any of them locked and loaded. You're trying things here and there, you're getting lads back to full fitness, you're keeping different tactics and strategies back for the summer.
But here and now in the middle of July, this is when management really comes into it. Look at Horan on Sunday – as soon as he saw the ship was going down after Mayo made no real impression early in the second half, he started taking off lads to lighten the load ahead of this week. Kevin McLoughlin, Darren Coen, Lee Keegan, all gone before the hour mark. The Meath game is huge for them now – no point flogging a dead horse below in Killarney ahead of it.
Peter Keane was very impressive in the calls he made all day. He made four changes before the game, putting his neck on the line with them. He sent in Shane Enright to do a job on McLoughlin and moved Gavin White to wing-forward. McLoughlin was subbed off in the 48th minute, marked out of the game by Enright. Three minutes later, Enright's number went up and he was replaced by Graham O'Sullivan. Keane picked Enright to do a specific job and took him off when it was done.
Playing White in the forwards was all part of the tactic that won the game – pushing away up on the Mayo kick-out with everybody involved. Keane picked out David Clarke as a weakness and Kerry put all their money down on exploiting it. They got their reward and Keane will get huge mileage out of it. He made a plan and it worked perfectly, he shuffled his deck and got a big win out of it.
In saying that, football is ultimately a player’s game. When you go out there and the ball is thrown in, you’re in a pair of boots and everybody else can wear sandals if they like. Only you and the other 14 around you can decide what’s going to happen. It’s a big responsibility and, in any intercounty career, you’re asked again and again to prove that you’re up to it.
That’s why I loved the few seconds of pushing and shoving and horsing in midfield before throw-in last Sunday in Killarney. You can roll your eyes all you like and I’m probably totally old-fashioned when it comes to this stuff. But that, to me, was as important as anything that followed it.
David Moran has had plenty of critics over the past few years. He's 31 years of age and he's been a Kerry senior since back when I was playing. He's a big man, the biggest and most senior player Kerry have. And right from the off, before the referee even bent his knees to pick up the ball, he and Aidan O'Shea had a bit of sorting out to do amongst themselves.
That’s what I mean about being asked again and again to prove you’re up to it. Here’s two fellas who have been on the scene for a decade apiece. They’ve fought all the wars and done all the dances and come out the other side. But they still had to stand up to each other at four o’clock on Sunday and go at it with everybody watching.
They knew the story. They knew this was non-negotiable. All the talk in the build-up – from me and from everyone else – was about how Kerry would be going nowhere if they weren’t able to stand up to some bullying from Mayo.
That’s all fine and well when it’s talk, when it’s just washed up old ex-players telling you what’s what. But when you’re in the middle of the pitch and 31,000 people are roaring their heads off and the referee is delaying the throw-in a couple of seconds longer than he usually would just to let you and your man blow off steam, that’s pure fight-or-flight stuff. You’re either up to it or you aren’t.
It radiates through your team. The cheer that went around the stadium when Adrian Spillane caught the kick-out after it deflected off Moran and O'Shea was massive. It actually didn't matter a damn in terms of the general play – Kerry's attack came to nothing and Mayo scored the first point of the game after 40 seconds – but it established something fundamental about the afternoon.
Moran went on to have a great game in midfield and I'd have made him man of the match
Kerry would not have won without it being obvious from the outset that they were taking no messing from Mayo. They had to show they were the physical equal of a Mayo team that had so much more experience than them. They were going nowhere unless they made that clear both to Mayo and to themselves. Everything flowed from that.
Every young team has to do this at a certain point, or else people will keep dismissing them. The general sense has been that Kerry will need another year or two. Well, a day like last Sunday speeds up that process. Not just through the football, which we know they have. But through attitude and spite and bouldness. As a Kerryman, you could only be delighted to see it.
Playing-wise, I didn't think it was perfect but it showed they're moving in the right direction. Moran went on to have a great game in midfield and I'd have made him man of the match. Stephen O'Brien has become Kerry's most consistent player and he was top-class again. And David Clifford showed again how exceptional he is.
Paul Geaney had a decent game, even though he still has a few kinks to iron out. His shot against the crossbar that went over for a point probably separated a good day from a great day but he still scored 1-2. He gets a fair amount of stick in Kerry and you hear plenty of fellas saying they wouldn't have him on the team. But you can see he has a bit of class about him that's hard to choose to be without.
His fist-pass to James O’Donoghue in the first half that should have led to a goal was a little piece of quality that probably went under the radar. It’s just a punch-pass, so what about it? But I’d love to put 20 inter-county forwards in that spot and see how many of them could pull it off successfully. It’s fewer than you think.
Geaney got in around the back of the Mayo defence with a lovely dummy-run that outfoxed Keith Higgins. Moran spotted him and put in a long kick-pass from his own 65 that landed on the Mayo 20-metre line. Geaney had to stutter his run to collect the ball so that when he got it, he was right on the point where the D meets the line. O'Donoghue was 20 metres away, with three Mayo bodies between him and Geaney.
For Geaney to collect with his back to goal, turn and play that pass right into O'Donoghue's chest without James having break stride was some piece of skill. If you watch it again, he has to put a whole turn of his body into it to get the distance. Brendan Harrison is sprinting across to cover O'Donoghue so it has to be right on the money. David Clarke makes the save in the end but Geaney couldn't have done any more.
Right there is the difference between a fella who is finding his game and one who is still a bit below his best. The James O’Donoghue who was player of the year in 2014 wouldn’t have given Clarke a sniff there. You can tell he’s not as confident as he was back then because of the way he just put his boot through the ball and tried to find the net as quickly as possible.
Now, far be it from me, a man whose only goal for Kerry went in off his shin, to be telling James O’Donoghue how to do his business in front of goal. But when he was full of confidence, he was curling that sort of chance in with the side of his foot, passing it to the net. He still has a bit to go to get back to his that point.
Kerry can't go to Croke Park and push 13 men up against the Donegal kick-out
Donegal will be a totally different challenge for Kerry this Sunday. Everything is horses for courses now. Kerry can't go to Croke Park and push 13 men up against the Donegal kick-out because Shaun Patton will just kick it over their heads. He has a monster kick of a ball and could bypass most of the Kerry team if they did that.
It will be interesting to see do Donegal try to suck Kerry into pushing up, maybe by taking the first six or seven kick-outs short. Like they showed against Dublin in 2014, all they need is one chance and it will be a long kick from the goalie, a knock-down from Michael Murphy and suddenly Ryan McHugh is breaking into a world of space.
Everything this week is foot to the floor, trying to out-think the next crowd. The video analysis would have been manic since Saturday afternoon and by the time teams landed into training on Tuesday night, the game plans had to be in place, ready for action. Sunday’s games would have been hardly mentioned at all.
Time is short and getting shorter.