Kerry people don’t often surprise me but the few days since the Dublin game have been eye opening, let’s put it that way. I wouldn’t say there’s suddenly a load of optimism around the place but generally the reaction to Thurles has been fairly positive. I’ve lost count of the amount of people I’ve come across since Sunday who’ve started conversations with something along the lines of, “We’re not far off them, are we?”
I can’t see it, myself. To me, we didn’t learn anything new and we saw plenty of old failings in Kerry. I don’t know how you can be coming away from a game where you gave up four goals and be optimistic about the summer. What’s going to change between now and next month that hasn’t changed for the past five years?
If you're going to live with the Dubs when it matters, you'd want to be forcing them to go above and beyond to have to beat you
Maybe I'm being too much of a downer. The pandemic could be getting to me maybe. I was at the Galway game in Tralee the previous week and when everyone was going on about how brilliant David Clifford had been, I came away thinking that Damien Comer had just exposed how fragile the Kerry defence is. Galway were shocking bad in that game but Comer was able to just stand wide and cut in and the few times Galway got the ball up to him, there was no stopping him.
Same with Con O'Callaghan on Sunday. For the first Dublin goal, he had to do no more than wait out wide, time his run, make a burst and he was in. He didn't have to do anything special, there was no massively difficult skill involved. He just had to make the right run at the right time. Same with Paddy Small for Cormac Costello's goal.
That's a real weakness for Kerry. If you're going to live with the Dubs when it matters, you'd want to be forcing them to go above and beyond to have to beat you. Those were challenge match goals – and that's before we even get to the third one, where all Con had to do was outmuscle Paul Murphy under a high ball.
Paul Murphy has been around a good while now and he is one of the more dependable Kerry players. He is a great asset for Kerry to have in plenty of areas of the pitch. But the last man under a dropping ball against a bull like O’Callaghan is not one of them.
I could understand it if it came from a passage of loose play and every man had to grab the man nearest him as an emergency measure. But that Dublin move started way back on their own 20-metre line. When Mick Fitzsimons got the move going, all 15 Kerry players were between him and the goal. By rights, no intercounty team should be giving up a goal from there. But if it's going to happen, at least make the other crowd do something special.
Instead, all it took was four Dublin passes to get out of defence and leave Niall Scully in 20 yards of space on the Kerry 65. I'd say he couldn't believe it when he looked up and saw O'Callaghan one-on-one against Kerry's smallest player on the edge of the square. You could tell by the way he just lorried the ball in that he knew this wasn't a time for finesse or for measuring the perfect pass. Lamp it in there as quickly as possible before Kerry get someone back to help.
When’s the last time you saw a Dublin player send in a ball like that against anyone? That’s not how they’ve been playing for the past three or four seasons at all. It’s always been about patience and clever movement and running off the shoulder. They have had to do that because teams have all tried some form of defensive structure against them. Something to put them off the quick ball into their inside forward line.
Again, Dublin started that move in their own full-back line. There was plenty of time to either press right up on them and slow them down in their own half or to drop back in front of the Kerry goal and contain them there. Kerry did neither. That tells you there’s nobody taking responsibility for organising the defence. As a result, Dublin went the length of the pitch without meeting one tackle and scored a goal with the sort of long-ball tactic that usually only works in an under-12 match.
This is what worries me about Kerry. Yes, they were probably the better team overall on Sunday and they put up the sort of score that can win against Dublin. But I’ve never had any worries about them putting up a score. The day they don’t, it will be a freak occurrence – as it was against Cork last November. It won’t really matter what they do in defence if they don’t score somewhere in the region of 1-19 against Dublin. That’s a given.
That Cork defeat made everyone over-react when it came to the way Kerry play. I said at the time that the defensive set-up wasn’t the reason Kerry lost – it was mostly down to missing chances. But the verdict came in that it was because the set-up was overly defensive and now they’ve gone back to leaving a load of space in front of the middle of the goal again.
That’s not going to see them through the summer. Dublin don’t do it and nobody calls them overly defensive. And even if people did, Dublin wouldn’t listen to it. They would play their game the same way they always play it and the people who gave out would still be clapping them on the back the night of the All-Ireland final.
Kerry can match Dublin in terms of skill and in terms of football. But when it really matters, I don't see them matching the Dubs for physicality and power. The likes of Ciarán Kilkenny, James McCarthy, John Small, Brian Fenton and Con O'Callaghan are unstoppable when they're allowed to get up a gallop. Kerry can't do much to get to their level in that regard before the summer comes so the answer has to be found in the way they set up. They need defensive structure and organisation. Sunday showed they don't have that. Not yet anyway.
The Dubs have this work done years ago. They fall into shape automatically at this stage. They slow teams down when they’re coming out with the ball and they drop someone back to protect the square without even thinking about it. Kerry are going into the summer like a lad cramming for his Leaving Cert whereas the Dubs just have to look over their notes before each game.
So I don’t really get where the optimism is coming from down here. I know there’s probably some bit of desperation around the place at this stage. It was a long, dark winter for us all so I wouldn’t blame people too much for latching onto anything they can get. But we need to be realistic about it too.
I don't think Kerry are far off the Dubs but there's a difference between not being far off them and actually beating them
Maybe it’s just a sign of how nervous people are about Dublin. Kerry haven’t beaten them in the championship since 2009. That’s a long time to go without a win against any team, never mind the big rivals from the big city. I think maybe people are convincing themselves that it has to end soon and they’re getting overly excited about things.
Everybody’s on edge. The thought of another year going by without beating Dublin means everything gets blown up to be bigger than it is. That’s probably just the nature of the beast.
And maybe that applies to me as well. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic. I am fairly sure in my mind that Kerry won’t be good enough to beat Dublin if they meet in the championship but obviously I could be wrong. I’d love nothing more.
I don’t think Kerry are far off the Dubs but there’s a difference between not being far off them and actually beating them. Nobody has managed it since 2014 and the team that does won’t do it by conceding four goals.
If Kerry don’t find a way to fix that side of their game, they won’t be the ones to do it this year either.