Everything comes back to brass tacks eventually. We can come up with structures and formats and tiers and all the rest of it until we’re blue in the face, but there comes a time every summer for every team where today is the day. Speak now or forever hold your peace. Somewhere along the way championship always becomes championship.
That is what is happening in Killarney on Sunday. Forget the Super 8s, forget the two games that come after it. It looks fairly clear-cut to me that only one of Kerry and Mayo will make it through to the All-Ireland semi-final. Lose on Sunday and you're like a racehorse with a bust leg. You're not dead yet but the vet knows where to find you.
In Kerry we don’t know what we have yet. That’s why the visit of Mayo is the best thing that could have happened. Peter Keane’s team beat Cork eventually but what was that worth? Cork might be coming good finally but hammering Laois proves nothing and there’s a fair chance the Dubs will remind them of their place in the world on Saturday night.
So we can’t say for sure yet what Kerry beat the last day. We’ll have a much better sense of it at teatime on Sunday. Playing Mayo is like getting a dose of cod liver oil. You don’t enjoy one bit of it but you’re the better for it afterwards.
In Kerry winning the war is always measured in terms of the All-Ireland, and right now that means how they are fixed to play Dublin if and when it happens. But the right to fight in that war is earned by coming through a battle like this one against Mayo. If they’re not good enough for this, there’s no point wondering how they would cut it against the Dubs.
Ups and downs
What makes this such an exciting prospect is that you can say the same for Mayo. They've had their ups and downs under James Horan in his second spell but they are where they're supposed to be, safely in the Super 8s with a few old ghosts buried along the way.
They won the league – and loved it, which was important. Beating Kerry that day and lifting a cup in Croke Park wasn't a small thing. They enjoyed every bit of it, and damn right they were too. And even though they lost in Connacht they've come through the qualifiers and have beaten probably the two best teams outside the Super 8s in Armagh and Galway.
Are Mayo All-Ireland contenders?
Hard to say for sure just yet, but you’d imagine so. They’re on the road long enough and have proved themselves enough times to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Nearly all the old soldiers are still on the go in one shape or another, and they’ve added good new players who are making an impact in games.
Sunday is where we find out one way or the other. If they don’t win then the answer is probably a no. Whereas if they do then it’s on for them.
Imagine the bounce Mayo will get coming out of Killarney with a win and then heading to Croke Park to play Meath the following Sunday. You couldn’t send away for it.
One thing we know for sure is that Mayo will love the thought of having this game first up. Look around the Super 8s and outside Dublin is there another team you can see relishing the challenge of playing in Killarney in the first Super 8s game? Or put it this way – given the choice would Kerry pick Mayo as their first opponents, coming in cold after a three-week break? Maybe they would all say they would, but I reckon there’d be a bit of bravado in the answer.
Horsed out of it
Kerry have played Mayo twice so far this year and were horsed out of it twice. When you’re playing Mayo you need to boss the physical battle. Or you need to make a right shape at it anyway. That’s not just a matter of strength and conditioning, it comes down to mindset and personality.
You'd love to have Kieran Donaghy around the place this week for Kerry. Mayo always hated seeing him coming, and had to try a million different things to contain him. That wasn't just because he was able to expose a weakness under the high ball in the full-back line, it was about his personality too.
Mayo are great at bullying – and I say that in full admiration. But Donaghy wouldn’t be happy in any game unless he was annoying fellas all around him. Catching high ball and laying it off and throwing his arse around the place was only part of it. Being full of lip and bad manners, living in the ear of the referee, making sure Kerry got their share of justice and everyone else’s as well – that was what made him a kind of a force of nature.
When you’re playing Mayo you need all the fellas like that you can find. Someone who is going to stand up and cause a bit of wreck even in the face of the brilliant support they bring with them. That’s where Donaghy was a great weapon for Kerry. He didn’t give a fiddlers how loud the crowd were or how much they thought they hated him. He was going to plough into everything regardless.
The Kerry set-up he has left behind is lacking in that force of personality just at the moment. Stephen O'Brien showed plenty of leadership against Cork but he's a different sort of animal to Donaghy. Most people are, says you. But even when you look at Kerry's two best players – Seánie O'Shea and David Clifford – they're still only 20. You can't be expecting them to bring that kind of presence on top of everything else.
Lee Keegan treatment
Keane has a decision to make with young O’Shea. In the league final he got the full Lee Keegan treatment playing at centre-forward. That will do him no harm in the long run – players with more years behind them and more medals won have had to endure it and came out with very little to show for their day’s work. But in the biggest game of the year, do Kerry really want that for O’Shea on Sunday?
I'd move him out to midfield and kill a few birds with one stone. For a start Kerry's midfield is looking shaky at the minute. David Moran isn't back up to full tilt yet after he was out with injury, and Jack Barry hasn't kicked on after that impressive first season a couple of years ago. With a new goalkeeper in there in Shane Ryan there are glitches that need working out. So it's an area that's in need of improvement however Keane goes about it.
The big thing for O’Shea himself if he moves out to play in midfield is that it changes both his position and body shape when he gets on the ball. Even if Keegan is sent out to do the usual job on him, at least now O’Shea isn’t spending his day taking possession with his back to goal and Keegan taking lumps out of him from behind.
I’m not saying it’s an easier job out around the middle, just that it’s a different one. For someone as good on the ball as O’Shea, facing forward as soon as you get the ball might feel like a nice luxury. Let’s say he gets on five balls a half where he can get his head up straight away – I’d make a fair bet he’s going to serve Clifford with at least three of them in space. I wouldn’t have the same confidence in him getting that opportunity playing on the 40.
Kerry need to make the best of their best players. The feeling down here is that we don’t have the pure one-on-one defenders that other teams do – and we certainly don’t have them at the level that Mayo do.
Go through the Mayo defence and look at the defenders they are able to put their trust in – Chris Barrett, Brendan Harrison, Keith Higgins, Colm Boyle, Keegan. And all that with Aidan O'Shea patrolling around and filling in when he is needed.
I’m not saying those defenders won’t get burned from time to time. If good forwards get served with decent ball they’ll do damage. But in general, game after game and year after year, the Mayo defenders tend to come out better than 50/50 in their direct battles.
That’s what allows Horan – and the managers who have been there in between his two spells – to send Mayo out to play the sort of football you need to win an All-Ireland. The rest of the team have confidence to play open football, to have a go, to make those forward runs in the knowledge that if they get caught and turned over, the likes of Barrett and Harrison and Higgins will be up to the job.
Kerry don’t have that yet. There isn’t a proven, aggressive lock-down defender in the team. There are quality footballers and fine athletes and lads who can be expected to turn into what’s needed in time. But it does take time. All those Mayo defenders have been on the go for the guts of a decade. More in some cases. That’s where I see a huge edge for them on Sunday.
How will it go?
I'm hoping is the best way I can describe it. For Kerry this is all duck or no dinner. This could all be over very quickly. Lose to Mayo and they go to Croke Park the following Sunday against a top-class Donegal team. We could feasibly be looking at a winter that starts on July 21st. That can't really be allowed to happen.
So I’m hoping. I’m hoping that a Donaghy figure emerges to stand up to the bullying. I’m hoping Kerry can start well and quieten the crowd that will travel in numbers like no other county.
I'm hoping David Moran goes after Aidan O'Shea and that Kerry find a couple of man-markers for Darren Coen and Cillian O'Connor.
In the cold light of day a betting man would have to go with Mayo. But as a Kerryman, I’m hoping. We are a championship county, and this is the time to show it.