Sometimes you can be too clever for your own good. There's no harm in it and certainly no shame. The problem arises when you do it a second time, knowing the trouble it got you into the first go-round. At some point in the past fortnight, it must surely have occurred to the Mayo management that pitting Aidan O'Shea against Kieran Donaghy at full-back here was a gamble on a par with changing their goalkeeper for last year's All-Ireland final replay. And yet they did it anyway.
In doing so, they made two assumptions. One, that under a high ball, O’Shea would at least break even with Donaghy and even, given a fair wind, dominate him. On this, they proved to be correct. Across a fizz-banging, whirlygigging afternoon, the pair contested only one high ball together, just about 10 minutes short of half-time.
The ball in was a skewed, mis-hit crock of a thing and Donaghy must have been cursing as he ran out to it, away from goal, heading towards the Hogan Stand with no support. O’Shea monstered him for possession, burst out past the late-arriving James O’Donoghue and set Mayo moving again. As he resumed his position, he passed Donaghy and gave him a cheers-buddy tap on the chest on his way by and the Mayo crowd gave a lusty roar.
That, however, was more or less that for O’Shea in terms of getting the better of his man. Which brings us to the Mayo management’s second assumption. Inherent in the notion of playing a non-defender back on a big full-forward is the idea that the high ball in is going to be the beginning and end of said big man’s threat. It was as if Mayo had decided that the only way Donaghy was going to affect the game was to reprise his wrecking-ball display of three years ago.
King Kong in white gloves
Lo and behold, it turns out the four-time All-Ireland winner, three-time All Star hasn't survived all these years as a Kerry footballer just by being King Kong in white gloves. Believe it or not, he is more than a lighthouse at the edge of the square. And for the majority of the afternoon, he delighted in showing off his full array of skills, showing for everything, finding teammates at will, enjoying himself.
Without taking out the eyeglass and going through the tape, it can be said with reasonable certainty that Donaghy was involved in 2-6 of Kerry’s 2-14. O’Shea beat him to that one ball but was in a spin for most of the game. From their opening engagement a couple of minutes in when Donaghy slipped around him on the Cusack Stand sideline, the Mayo man must have realised this wasn’t a job for him.
You couldn’t but feel sorry for O’Shea here. He looked like a tourist dropped into a city square on the other side of the world with neither a word of the language nor a penny of the local currency. He is and has been many things for Mayo but a man-marker isn’t one of them. He doesn’t have the pace to stay touch-tight nor the instincts to show a player onto his wrong foot. He is, as it happens, an excellent tackler. But then, you can’t tackle what you’re not beside.
O’Shea played Donaghy from behind, presumably by sideline decree. Not necessarily a ruinous tactic except that he played from way behind, up to 15 metres at times. On a day when the conditions weighted every conflagration in favour of defenders, Donaghy was the only forward on the pitch who was able to repeatedly collect greasy ball under no pressure.
Glaring case in point
The first Kerry goal was a glaring case in point. Anthony Maher picked up turnover ball in midfield and fed Donaghy a simple handpass on the Mayo 45. As he started towards the Canal End goal, O'Shea was inside the exclusion zone. Keith Higgins was between them, playing as sweeper, but with Maher running off one shoulder and Stephen O'Brien running off the other, Higgins had to choose one.
He went with Maher and Donaghy, using the football brain built up over a 12-year career, played show-and-go with the back-pedalling O’Shea and slipped O’Brien in for an easy finish. As O’Brien wheeled away, Donaghy went looking for O’Shea and gave him both barrels, nose to nose.
As to what he said, conjecture will only fill in so many blanks. You can guarantee, though, that he was thinking that his career could last another four or five years if every team treated him this kindly. He got far rougher handling in the basketball he played for the first four months of the year.
When O’Shea wasn’t moved off him for the second half, Donaghy must have been (a) surprised, (b) delighted and (c) actually a bit narked that Mayo thought so little of him. He proceeded fill his boots, never doing more than he needed to, always showing for ball and playing in the runners around him.
He set Paul Geaney up for Kerry's first point of the half and when a botched pass from Keith Higgins left O'Shea stranded on the sideline, Donaghy waved furiously for the ball to be let in. Seamie O'Shea saw the danger and went back goalside but Donaghy was always going to cause havoc in that scenario. The ball broke to David Moran, his shot was saved by David Clarke and Johnny Buckley stashed the rebound.
And still Mayo persisted, leaving O'Shea the ultimate in neither fish nor fowl. He can't often have had so little effect on a game in which he played every minute. He could do nothing to stop Donaghy's rampage at one end and never crossed midfield to see what was in the game for him at the other. On a day when Andy Moran was having a sing-song for himself against the Kerry full-back line, O'Shea never got to clear his throat.
He had a nightmare day but it was hard to blame him for it. The fault lies with the smart boys on the Mayo sideline who sent him on a fool’s errand.