Sitting in the crowd in Killarney on Sunday, it was very obvious just how much of a running game football has become. In Kerry, we’d like you to think we’re the last keepers of the flame when it comes to kicking the ball but the reality is any team who tried to get by these days through mainly kicking the ball just wouldn’t last very long. The game is about running now – hard, fast, clever running to break down defences and make space for your scorers. The strongest teams are the ones who can do it best and keep it up longest.
Cork weren't at the races on Sunday at all. The only times they made any inroads into the Kerry defence, it was down to their running game. Paul Kerrigan, Mark Collins and Ian Maguire were able to do it occasionally and Cork made chances off the back of that hard running each time. When I saw them do that – and get joy from it – two thoughts sprang to mind.
One, when it's done right, it's almost impossible to stop. If a guy is running at you full-pelt with the ball, you have to do a fairly quick bit of thinking to work out what you're going to do about it. You're like Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, contemplating the ifs.
Possession is ten-tenths of the law. That's the thinking behind every serious team now
If he goes straight for me, how am I going to tackle him? If he goes past me, have I cover in behind? If he goes down, am I getting a black card? Meanwhile, he’s coming at you at top speed and the inside forward is looping out around you for the shot. Lots of luck, gentlemen.
And two, Cork don’t have the fitness to do it well enough for long enough. That was obvious to everyone who was in Killarney on Sunday. Whatever Cork have been doing since they came together at the end of last year, they either haven’t done enough of it or it hasn’t been geared towards this style of football. You could see a visible difference between the shape of some of them and the Kerry players. They haven’t been built for this kind of game.
Possession is ten-tenths of the law. That’s the thinking behind every serious team now. Since every team gets men behind the ball when they lose it, kicking it into a forest of bodies usually just isn’t a clever strategy. You have to be so accurate – it makes more sense to hold onto it and move it around until the space opens up inside.
Watch how Dublin and Kerry move the ball. It's all fist-passing around the middle third until someone comes onto it at pace, almost running a rugby line. Be that Jack McCaffrey or James McCarthy for Dublin, or Peter Crowley or Mikey Geaney for Kerry – that injection of pace comes from behind and they pop it off to a James O'Donoghue or a Paul Mannion when they draw the opposition defence.
The reason it works so well is there’s not a lot that defences can do about it. If Jack McCaffrey is running in at pace, you can’t wave him through and you can’t stick to your man. He’ll go from the 45 to the penalty spot in under three seconds – you have an on-the-spot decision to make. You have to either go to him or be 100 per cent sure that someone has him covered. While you’re making up your mind, the guy you’re marking has moved into position.
I was sitting there watching Kieran Donaghy on Sunday full sure he wouldn't make it 70 minutes in that heat
Kerry's first three points on Sunday were scored without Cork getting a hand on the ball at any stage. For their first, David Moran caught the throw-in and ran right through the heart of the defence and laid off a handpass to O'Donoghue on the loop. For the next two, the Kerry inside forwards just tapped the initial ball down to a Kerry player sprinting past without even catching it. For the first, Mikey Geaney stuck it over from 30 yards out. For the second, Mark Griffin put O'Donoghue in again.
Cork didn’t know where to look. There wasn’t even three minutes gone and Kerry were just completely rampant. And it was all based on a fast running game, on and off the ball.
People were telling me afterwards they thought Donnchadh Walsh had a poor game. I said they mustn't have been in the stadium if they thought that. The amount of running he did off the ball to make space for Paul Geaney and O'Donoghue inside was outrageous. Over and back and up and down, always with the purpose of drawing the Cork defence one way and leaving room for the scorers.
If you do that well enough, it makes room for successful kick-passing into the forwards. For Kerry’s fourth point, they turned Cork over on their own 20-metre line. Kerry had eight or nine fellas back – Donnchadh was one of them. As soon as it was turned over, he turned and sprinted back up the pitch towards his usual wing forward position.
But when Kerry picked him out five or six passes later, he was at centre forward. He had run in an arc to leave the whole of the right wing of Kerry wide open, so that Kevin McCarthy had room to play a ball in to Paul Geaney out in front of his man. Only one result there. How often between now and September will Geaney get that room one-on-one inside? That was all down to Donnchadh Walsh’s intelligent running.
I know it's no big insight to say the pace of the game now is ferocious but you can't really talk about the sport without touching on it. I look at the bigger guys now and wonder how they find a place in it. I was sitting there watching Kieran Donaghy on Sunday full sure he wouldn't make it 70 minutes in that heat.
But even someone like him is built slightly differently now than he was when I was playing. He moves out and around and back in to the edge of the square constantly, keeping defenders on their toes and moving them with him, again to make space for the other pair. And when it came right down to it, he was there to draw a couple of defenders under a high ball and set up the goal.
Or look at Aidan O’Shea playing for Mayo on Saturday night. Another huge man, another guy you’d think this sort of game would pass by. But he was Mayo’s best player the other night, a calm head when they needed one, the one guy who seemed to be able to do the right thing when it looked like Mayo might be going out. And he looked in great shape for a player who was supposed to be carrying a groin injury.
I ran into the hurling legend Eamonn Cregan one of the nights recently and he was saying he was disappointed with the standard in football and hurling these days
That Mayo v Derry game was a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This running game takes so much out of you that when a team who is well versed in playing it in big games comes up against a team who is new to that level, fitness becomes a decisive factor. Derry just haven’t played games at that intensity in recent years and on a day when Mayo’s shooting was so bad it deserved to put an end to their summer, it was their fitness that got them through.
Go back to Chrissy McKaigue's shot with two minutes left in normal time for Derry. It went narrowly wide and as the Mayo goalie David Clarke went to kick out the ball, there was a Derry player down in front of the goal stretching out his calf. Lee Keegan collected a short kick-out and when he did, every Derry player was between him and the goal at the far end of the pitch. Derry shouldn't under any circumstances have conceded a goal from there.
But they were wrecked. They had four fellas within 30 yards of the Mayo goal and none of them were pressing up on the kick-out. Seamie O'Shea ran 40 yards with the ball up the right sideline – again, nobody near him – and played a one-two with Diarmuid O'Connor before kicking the ball as he crossed the Derry 45. It was a low ball into Cillian O'Connor, who flicked a pass to Conor Loftus for a great finish.
You have to hand it to Mayo, they pulled a goal out of the top drawer when nothing else would do. It was perfectly put together thanks to hard running by Seamie O’Shea especially and clever movement from Loftus, who left his man for dead to collect O’Connor’s pass.
But they were able to do that because Derry were out on their feet. Not one Mayo player felt a Derry hand on him during the whole move. Fellas were going down with cramp, fellas were jogging back with their hands on their hips. They were in the red, with their lights flashing and steam coming out the sides.
They came back and got a goal soon after with a high ball into the square and you have to commend them for their courage. But Mayo are just more suited to this game right now than Derry, even with all their shooting problems.
On that, I saw a stat the other day that said Cillian O’Connor took 21 shots over the course of the game and that no other Mayo player took more than four. That’s fine if he’s scoring them but Mayo must know they need more variety than that. Yes, he’s their best kicker but he’s not 17 shots a game better than the next fella. Mayo need to work better shooting positions for more of their forwards if they’re going to still be going in August.
But they have been there before and they’re in the right shape to be there again. That’s so important. That’s why all the top teams are coming down with GPS data, video analysis, Pilates instructors and all the rest of it. Every Kerry player who came off the pitch the last day was handed a concoction to drink as he went up the steps to the stand. Everything is planned and nailed down to the last degree and it’s all there to feed into this running game.
I ran into the hurling legend Eamonn Cregan one of the nights recently and he was saying he was disappointed with the standard in football and hurling these days. But to me, football is really interesting at the minute. I think what Tyrone are doing is fascinating in a way. They're all about running, from all players and from all angles. Personally, I would imagine they might fall short on a day when all the shots don't sail over the way they did against Donegal but who knows?
One way or the other, running football will be a huge part of winning the All-Ireland this year.