Jim McGuinness: Kerry in unfamiliar position of not controlling their destiny
Kerry will work hard to beat Kildare, but reaching semi-final is out of their hands
Kerry’s Jack Barry, Paul Murphy and Ronan Shanahan with Conor McManus of Monaghan in the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final phase 2 at St Tiernach’s Park, Clones. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
There must be a strange atmosphere in both the Monaghan and Kerry training camps this week as both sides disentangle themselves from the consequences of their extraordinary meeting in Clones.
If it’s true that are no winners in a draw, it seems particularly so in this case. Kerry will be planning and working on ways to beat Kildare in the knowledge that their fate in this year’s championship has been removed from their hands.
Galway can bring them back into the reckoning by winning in Salthill – and the feeling here is that they will be very keen to finish as winners of their group and avoid meeting Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-finals. But it is a rare sensation for Kerry teams, preparing to try to win a game for a semi-final that may well happen without them.
Monaghan, at least, have the compensation of knowing that they can dictate their destiny. Beat Galway and they are back on the road. The big question is whether they can shake off the natural disappointment that will have followed the knowledge that they came close to touching a first-ever championship win against Kerry.
Afterwards, people praised them for their performance but I think once Malachy O’Rourke and his selectors review the tape, they would dispute that. Yes, they did a lot of things very well and they were extremely well schooled. But they went away from that just when the finishing line was in sight.
There was a moment immediately after Karl O’Connell’s score put them five points up with 10 minutes to go. You could see among the faces in the crowd that the local supporters realised they were going to actually beat Kerry. Then, on the next play, Kieran Donaghy won a free out around the middle. That was significant because it had been a key battleground all day. And the possession led to Jack Barry waltzing up the field under no pressure and handing the ball to David Clifford, who kicked a point under the minimum of pressure.
I couldn’t believe that Monaghan, of all teams, would cede a score like that at that stage. It was as if they didn’t cherish what they had created. I don’t know where it came from. Did the giddiness seep down from the stands? Was it a case that they thought they were home? But suddenly it was a four-point game, and two wild shots from Monaghan were answered by another free from Kerry and all of a sudden they were sucked into a desperate endgame that they could so easily have avoided. It cost them a historic moment. And, vitally, it left the most accomplished county in All-Ireland history with a pulse in this championship.
What are Kerry people to take from that dramatic escape?
Obviously, it was a performance weighed down with problems. Ironically, I think it also contained enough to suggest that Kerry are still capable of upsetting Dublin in a one-off game.
The day started off terribly for them. They elected to go with three new players at full back and not to put a sweeper in front of Conor McManus. And they paid the price straight away, with McManus’s supremely taken early goal.
They looked to engage Monaghan on the offensive 45 and, failing that, around the halfway line. That must have been something that came out of the internal review of the Galway game. But it was still far too easy for Monaghan to make ground and get into the scoring zone.
There was a distinct lack of intensity to the way the Kerry players tried to defend. Their problems deepened on their own kick-out. They had five defenders as potential receivers, making runs which brought them close to the defensive 21. They wanted to suck the Monaghan players towards the ball and then hit David Moran or Jack Barry at midfield.
It was the young guns who visibly dug their heels in and tried to find a way back into the game
But the Monaghan players weren’t buying those runs. And when it was kicked long, those same Monaghan players were already sprinting to midfield, arriving to make sure they were there in numbers for the breaking ball. At one stage, it led to a six-on-two break which McManus actually turned wide, but it was symptomatic of the failure in what Kerry were trying to do.
And at the other end Kerry were trying to push up on Rory Beggan’s kick out. But Beggan is just too good at what he does now for that ploy to work. He was able to simply go over the top with those massive booming kicks. The one which travelled as far as the Kerry 45 was close to the D on its second bounce. He possesses frightening range. So the kick-outs at both ends were having a massive bearing on how the game played out.
It meant that Kerry couldn’t get a foothold in the game either through pressure in open play or on kick-outs. And that, in turn, led to a lack of turnovers which would have had alarm bells ringing for the Kerry stats team.
It was the young guns – Clifford, Gavin White, Tom O’Sullivan and Seán O’Shea – who visibly dug their heels in and tried to find a way back into the game. And they relied on flashes of brilliance and real economy with their scoring chances just to live with Monaghan.
Had Monaghan been more economical themselves, those efforts would have been redundant. Monaghan could have been out of sight at half-time: it could have been something like 2-16 to 0-10. Even through that period of adversity, it must have been encouraging for them to see how Clifford responded. He’s a kid with a huge reputation which earned him a thorough manhandling from his marker, Kieran Duffy. Both players were booked – which always amuses me: why would a forward want to be grappling with a defender? But Clifford’s response was to win the next ball, square his man up and kick a valuable point. He wasn’t going to be cowed.
So Kerry got into the dressing room in Clones still intact on the scoreboard. And I think the way they responded to the various fires burning in their master plan shouldn’t be underestimated. They managed to recognise the problems, acknowledge them and solve them in the course of 70 minutes. They were able to identify what wasn’t working and change it with the kick-out. They brought Donaghy out and stopped kicking it down the middle. They understood they needed to get tighter higher up the field to shut down Monaghan’s kick-out and then stop runners on the over the top kicks.
By the last quarter of the second half, they were going long and towards the flanks on their own kick-out to neutralise the numbers that Monaghan had waiting in the middle. Barry, Moran, Donaghy and Anthony Maher all won big possessions by running strong side to claim the ball. That changed the contest because they had been living off scraps.
The other big thing in the second half was their intensity in the tackle. It was in or out at that stage. And it was the defenders that showed the way. Mark Griffin, Tom O’Sullivan and Paul Murphy all drove forward and began to haul them back into the game. But only to an extent – Monaghan still had them at arm’s length. I just felt Monaghan were reluctant to pull the trigger at crucial stages. There was a lot of their play that was over-reliant on McManus. I know he is a class act, but if they are to get into and then win a semi-final, other forwards need to get more into it. There was a kind of method and calmness to Kerry’s play once they got the lead back to three. It was as if they sensed their chance would come.
I think it was notable that it was an inside forward, James O’Donoghue, who kicked that long ball in towards Donaghy. Inside forwards often know the kind of ball that is required and judge the flight well. It gave Donaghy, heavily marked, a fighting chance to get a flick. And he did enough to deflect it towards Clifford. I actually thought on the resultant kick-out following Kerry’s goal at the death, Kerry then had a foul. They could have actually had a free to go ahead and win it – which would have really left Monaghan reeling.
Did the championship turn in that moment?
Well, Kerry need another turn of good fortune – and, as a football county, they are willing to be lucky. But it all depends on what they learn from this. It seems clear that the game is changing all the time.
I think from midfield up, Kerry are as good as what is left in the championship
It is no longer good enough to simply have really good players. You need a clear, detailed plan for every phase of play. Teams are better schooled than ever before. And, as Kerry found, when it can be hard to get your hands on the ball and exert pressure, then your six excellent forwards can only have a limited influence.
Ten or 15 years ago, the full forward was the big commodity in the game. Before that, it was the centre forward. Now it is the goalkeeper. Beggan shaped the pattern of that game. But Kerry, to their credit, did manage to change midstream and also managed to transform their intensity. That’s what creates turnovers – not defensive shape. Few teams have that capacity to switch tactics in real time. Kerry do.
I think from midfield up, Kerry are as good as what is left in the championship. I feel that if they play Donaghy inside along with Paul Geaney, Clifford on the top of the D and Seán O’Shea at centre forward, then they have four big men who will ask a lot of questions. It will be difficult to defend that foursome. They would have to go long and early and on the diagonal, but they are well used to doing that. They have young defenders then, who can inject pace, a good midfield and that unit up front. They don’t have a natural full back and aren’t good enough to go man-to-man at the back. So they have a right bit to work on.
That formation would leave O’Donoghue on the bench. James had a chance to win the game in Clones but opted to check back in and recycle the ball; it just hinted at a player slightly low on confidence. Maybe coming in after 50 minutes when the game is smashed open would do him no harm.
So, probably for the first time in GAA history, Kerry followers will be praying for a Galway win. That would leave them where they want to be despite a misfiring Super 8s series. What happens next depends on how well they learn their lessons. And we all know that Kerry are a fast study.