For Kerry, It’s hard to imagine winning a sweeter All-Ireland

Kingdom knew what to expect from Donegal – and how to deal with it

A disappointed Karl Lacey of Donegal returns to the dressing room after the defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland final at Croke  Park yesterday. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

A disappointed Karl Lacey of Donegal returns to the dressing room after the defeat to Kerry in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park yesterday. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

No one said it would be a classic. And no one in Kerry will mind that now after winning what must rank as one of the sweetest All-Irelands of their great lot.

Everyone talked about it being such a tactical battle on the sideline and Eamonn Fitzmaurice won that hands down. He certainly learned an awful lot about Donegal from the way they beat Dublin, and put that into practice. If anything, the way Donegal exposed Dublin that day, and the very nature of their victory, actually afforded Kerry a big advantage here: they knew exactly what to expect and exactly how to prepare for it.

In other words, Kerry found out how NOT to play Donegal. With all that in mind, Kerry set up every bit as defensively as Donegal, made sure they held their shape at the back and eliminated any of the wild, gung-ho attacks that were Dublin’s downfall.

We saw that in the likes of Peter Crowley, Killian Young and Paul Murphy, all of whom were outstanding in making sure Kerry stayed as defensively sound as Donegal.

Blanket defence

Paul Geaney

Straightaway that gave Kerry a cushion and in fairness they needed it. Donegal were proving very, very hard to break down, using that blanket defence, as the likes of James O’Donoghue discovered – who would have thought he’d be kept scoreless, and still Kerry would win? This was one of the many twists in the game.

At times Kerry were very wasteful too, hitting 13 wides by the end, but at least they kept their cool, and didn’t get overly frustrated that so much of their kicking wasn’t accurate.

Then came the second cushion of Kieran Donaghy’s goal, and, in fairness, not many teams are gifted a goal like that in an All-Ireland final. But Donaghy was exactly where he needed to be, and made no mistake with his chance.

They still had to dig deep right until the end, and I think that’s where Kerry’s collective spirit really shone through. It was never about any one individual. You saw Crowley and Murphy making big blocks late in the game, and to me they are some of the unsung heroes of this victory. It really sent out a message that every Kerry player on the field was willing to put in maximum effort, young and old. That belief has to come from somewhere, and Fitzmaurice deserves great credit.

Untested player

I would also question some of the tactics of Jim McGuinness. I certainly can’t understand why he didn’t start Paddy McBreaty, who hit a couple of incredible points when he did come on. Instead, McGuinness went for a young and untested player like Darach O’Connor, which really was a huge ask of him.

And, late on, when Donegal should have pressed forward much harder, they instead allowed Kerry to move the ball around the middle of the field, largely untested. It amazed me that Donegal stood off them like that, especially considering when they did eventually press Kerry, they very nearly snatched an equalising goal.

They were other cracks in Donegal’s game, too: I felt Paul Durcan lost a lot of confidence late on after gifting that goal to Donaghy; they also failed to get Michael Murphy into the game for long enough, or at least get the sort of quality ball into him that he thrives on. Again, Kerry played a big part in that, as Aidan O’Mahony certainly frustrated him as much as possible.

Odds stretched

If McGuinness sticks with them – and I think it’s very important that he does – then they’ll still be thereabouts for another couple of years. But tactically they will have to evolve again.

For Kerry, the feeling now is that the county has rarely been in a better place – especially with the minors winning back the title too after a 12-year wait. Tradition always counts for something on All-Ireland day, and I think Kerry have begun to realise that again, and made the most of that tradition here.

For the players and Fitzmaurice, it’s hard to imagine winning a sweeter All-Ireland, especially given the facts the odds were stretched to 10-1 earlier in the year, once Colm Cooper was lost to them too.

Instead, they regrouped and gelled into a great team with a great spirit and belief. With so many young players coming through and a few big players to come back, next year is already one every Kerry footballer must be looking forward to.

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