Getting the right cogs in Kerry’s midfield machine a challenge for Jack O’Connor

Dublin will have noted how Kildare got on top against Seán O’Shea and Adrian Spillane

We were on the train to Tralee, the day after Patrick's Day 2017. The Dubs were playing Kerry that night and an intrepid gang of explorers were striking out from the city in search of adventure. They were each nursing two things – fuzzy heads from the night before and bottles of Heineken for the day ahead.

“Here lads, just remember,” one of them said, entirely in earnest. “It’s Tralee we’re going to. Every woman down here has been called a rose at least once in her life. We’ll need to come up with better lines than that.”

League game or no league game, you’ve got to put in the hard yards.

Five years on, that game sticks in the memory for two reasons. One, it was the night Dublin equalled the 34-game unbeaten streak that belonged to the Kerry team of the 1930s. It was Jim Gavin’s Dublin at their grittiest, nuttiest best. Their starting 15 scored just two points from play and still they didn’t lose. They had no reason to chase down the four-point lead Kerry had built up after half-time other than that it was there to be chased.

Had they come up short, they would have been criticised by nobody, other than themselves. They scored the last two points of the night, into the wind and deep into injury-time, eking out the sort of draw that had kept them unbeaten in league and championship for two years. It was one of those nights where the rest of the game could only look on and despair of them ever being toppled.

However indirectly, that sense of inevitability fed into the other reason it was a game to remember. The performance of Jack Barry in Kerry's midfield that night was a revelation. It was his debut season and this was just his fourth start as a senior footballer. He spent the night thundering into Brian Fenton, invading his space and roughing him up, making it the first time anyone could remember seeing Fenton thrown off his game in his young career. And still the Dubs weren't beaten.

All the same, Barry looked like the future of the Kerry midfield that night. He was 22, bull-headed and raw and exactly what Kerry had been missing. Their midfield since Darragh Ó Sé's retirement in 2009 had essentially been David Moran (when fit) plus one, with that one being variations of Micheál Quirke, Kieran Donaghy, Bryan Sheehan, Anthony Maher and Johnny Buckley.

They all had their qualities – Sheehan and Maher won midfield All Stars and all five of them were classier footballers than Barry – but none of them had his dynamism or his aggression. He combined the stamina of a long-distance runner with the lust for contact of a blindside flanker. Kerry people looked at him and surmised that if all he did with his career was annoy Brian Fenton, it would be plenty.

In the wake of their draw with Kildare in Newbridge last Sunday, Jack O'Connor was keen to stress that Kerry were short anything up to seven or eight of their desired panel. He may well have been gilding the lily a touch – it would be no surprise if anything up a dozen of his starters last Sunday are key men come summer – but he clearly had missing midfielders in mind. Kerry won't challenge later in the year without coming to an accommodation there.

Barry and Diarmuid O’Connor were on duty for Na Gaeil, the Tralee club that won the Kerry intermediate championship over the winter and whose All-Ireland run finished at the semi-final stage last Saturday. The Kerry manager said in Newbridge that he will ask them if they want to be involved against Dublin – you’d imagine it will be a short conversation.

A longer one concerns the shape and make of the Kerry midfield for the rest of the season. A fit Moran would usually be set in stone but he picked up a bad groin injury early in the Kerry county final. He isn’t expected to feature until the end of the league, if at all. Even when he returns, Moran will be 34 in the summer. Whatever contribution he is able to make, it probably won’t be a great sign of Kerry’s prospects if he is still their go-to man.

Also on the injured list is Stefan Okunbor, recently repatriated from Geelong in the AFL. He may or may not have been earmarked for midfield – although he played there during the McGrath Cup, O'Connor was likely to give him a whirl at centre back at some stage this spring as well. Either way, it's all immaterial now. Okunbor dislocated his shoulder in the final minute of Na Gaeil's defeat last Saturday and, like Moran, is expected miss pretty much the whole of the league.

The Kerry midfield that did turn out last Sunday was Seán O'Shea and Adrian Spillane, a partnership that actually worked out reasonably well for the first half and the early parts of the second. They combined to start the move that led to the Kerry goal just five minutes in, Spillane doing the grunt work in turning over Paul Cribbin just inside the Kerry half before feeding O'Shea to get Kerry on the move.

Three passes and 15 seconds later, Killian Spillane was turning to flick home a fairly scrappy goal, a score that owed most to Gavin White's flashing run down the left side of the Kerry attack. But it started with Kildare possession in the middle third and it was the industry and accuracy of Spillane and O'Shea that turned it into a Kerry opportunity.

It immediately got better from there too. As Kerry pressed up on Mark Donnellan's kick-out, Spillane was able to rise to take a mark from the very next play. He fed the younger Spillane inside, who transferred to Paudie Clifford, making space for O'Shea just inside the Kildare 45. All it took was a neat sidestep to dodge past Cribbin and O'Shea was able to convert from around 40 metres out on an angle.

Midfield crisis? What midfield crisis? In the space of no more than two minutes, Spillane and O'Shea had done everything you could wish from a centrefield pairing. Defence and attack, tackles and turnovers, processing ball and delivering end product. If it was like that all the time, Kerry would have a crucial component of their championship team locked down. But it isn't and they don't.

As the clock ticked past the hour mark last Sunday, Kerry led by four points, 1-10 to 0-9. Not only did Kildare retrieve what should have been a doomed situation, they did so by demolishing the Kerry midfield for the rest of the game. Spillane in particular got a roasting from Kevin Feely, whose introduction at half-time was the crucial factor in the turnaround.

With five minutes of stoppage-time added on by David Coldrick, there were 15 minutes left in the game. Spillane got on the ball six times in those 15 minutes, O'Shea five. Of those 11 possessions, all but two were lateral or backwards passes. Spillane did put in one ferocious turnover tackle in the 69th minute with the game in the melting pot but otherwise, he struggled to have a positive impact.

Instead, it was Feely who dominated the closing stages. He took two marks from Kildare to begin moves that ended in scores, beating Spillane in the air for both of them. Feely broke another long kick-out – this time from a Kerry kick-out – down to Jack Sargent and Kildare were away again in the 65th minute. Again, it was Spillane who he beat in the air.

The two Kerry midfielders got on the ball three times each in an extended bout of Kerry keep-ball soon after but because virtually every movement of the ball was across or backwards, Kildare were eventually able to turn them over. Daniel Flynn sprinted back into midfield, took Paul Murphy by surprise and Kildare were away. Even the equalising score came from a free conceded by an untidy Spillane tackle on Cribbin.

If that all sounds like needlessly focusing on Spillane, it's only because the crucial moments of the endgame all seemed to go through him. But Kerry needed more from O'Shea too, who was captain for the day. When the tide of kick-outs was going against them, Kerry needed their leaders to demand the ball. O'Shea came short for one in the 58th minute – Tony Brosnan eventually scored Kerry's last point from it – but he was anonymous otherwise.

It will probably be a bad sign of how Jack O’Connor’s first year has progressed if he finds he hasn’t been able to move O’Shea into the attack by the time the summer comes around. His more withdrawn role meant he only had three shots at the posts on Sunday. Precisely because he is one of the best forwards in the game, he scored all three.

The ideal scenario for Kerry will be if Jack Barry and Diarmuid O’Connor can return in the coming weeks and make the middle of the field their own. Tonight in Tralee might come a bit quick for them, especially since they haven’t the same level of intercounty work done as the others. Then again, O’Connor could well decide that these are the ideal conditions to get going. No better time. No better place.

Most of all, no better opponents.

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