Maybe I’m letting my heart rule my head but I trust these Kerry players to beat Dublin

Throughout our history the Dubs were never a team to be feared so why start now?

Kerry’s Darragh Ó Sé and Ciaran Whelan of Dublin during the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2009. “You’d always believe you could beat Dublin.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Kerry’s Darragh Ó Sé and Ciaran Whelan of Dublin during the All-Ireland quarter-final in 2009. “You’d always believe you could beat Dublin.” Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho


In Kerry this week they’re training behind closed doors, just as they have been for most of the summer. It’s a necessary evil and most people don’t really have a big problem with it. Everybody knows that it’s dangerous now because there are people around with notepads and camcorders and you’d be silly as a serious intercounty team to leave yourself open to visitors taking a little peak behind the curtain.

In other years if we wanted to have avoid the glare in the build-up to a big game, we’d head away to somewhere in Cork to train. But nowadays, it’s more than the glare that you’re avoiding. It’s prying eyes. That’s how it has to be and nobody really questions it. It’s actually amazing that it lasted this long without it being done.

Still, it feels like another small piece of the game is gone by the wayside. Take somebody like Johnny Culloty, who would probably have seen every Kerry team that left the county since 1950. Be it as player, a manager, a selector or a supporter, he would have watched every player to wear a Kerry jersey and would have made his own mind up about them.

Johnny is a very shrewd judge of a footballer and he always had his spot in the terrace, right on the 45 on the St Finian’s side of the pitch in Killarney. And very often when you’d be doing your warm down after a training session coming up to a big game, you’d notice whatever manager was in charge of Kerry at the time would drift over to Johnny for a chat. I saw Páidí do it, I saw Jack O’Connor do it, I saw Pat O’Shea do it.

And why wouldn’t they? If you’ve got a good horseman there, why not ask him what he thinks of the horse? And no better man than Johnny to give his opinion either. He was never a man to pull a punch. He’s a fierce gentleman but he’d be very forthright in his opinions.

I’d always have thrown a look over when whatever manager was talking to him, hoping to God he wasn’t looking at me. If a manager was asking Johnny how he thought I was going, then there was a good chance he wasn’t sure himself. And in fact I’d often duck Johnny coming up to games because he wouldn’t have any problem telling you you were going badly.

Too much at stake
But that world is gone now really. Johnny and his cohorts wouldn’t really get to see as much now – not just in Kerry but in every county. There’s too much as stake now. There’s too much work going on all the way through the year for teams to be taking the chance of something leaking out. The tactical battle that went on between Tyrone and Mayo on Sunday would have taken a huge amount of work to prepare. You can’t risk some of that getting around.

Mayo came through a tough test and fair play to them for it. Tyrone looked to me like a boxer who was trying to win the fight in the first two rounds because he knew he would run out of juice later on. There was no way it was going to last for 70 minutes. The pace and intensity of the tackling was unsustainable for a whole match. Football has become a young man’s game very quickly in the last couple of years.

And that is relevant this Sunday, no doubt about it. If Dublin win, a huge part of it will be because they have the advantage of being young and pacy and dynamic. Whereas if you look at this Kerry team and the one that beat Dublin in 2009, the main characters haven’t changed very much. The big men for Kerry that day were Colm Cooper, Tomás Ó Sé, Marc Ó Sé, Declan O’Sullivan and Paul Galvin. Four years on, they are still the players Kerry are turning to this Sunday.

Dublin are favourites and you can see why. But even though they have youth on their side, there would still be a good, thick part of every Kerry person who holds out hope for Sunday exactly because it’s Dublin. Kerry have never had any fear of Dublin whether it was in my time or Johnny Culloty’s time or any time in between. They will hardly be starting now.

Kerry fellas would always have this feeling that the Dubs would be half-mocking them and that any game against them would be a chance to put them in their place. Whether that’s the case or not wouldn’t really matter too much – it would be the mindset going in. You’d always believe you could beat Dublin.

There’s very little big talk in the county at the minute. People would be very cagey about the game and the real question everyone is asking is whether or not there’s a last hurrah in these fellas. And let’s be honest, the smart money would say no. It would say that Kerry are done and that based on what we saw last weekend, the game has moved beyond them.

But let’s look at this for a minute in terms of what Kerry need to produce one last hurrah. For me, it breaks down into three elements. They need the right opposition first of all and they definitely have that in Dublin. They need the right occasion and an All-Ireland semi-final is certainly that. And they need guys to be under pressure.

That last one is crucial. Nothing gets the juices flowing for a team that has had success like being written off. Think back to Kilkenny during the summer and their game against Tipperary. We know now that it was their last hurrah and look at the guys to who stood up that night. They pulled one last performance out of themselves on the back of being written off and it was down to mental strength as much as anything.

Too good to roll over
I’ve played with a lot of those Kerry footballers and they are just too good to roll over. People are talking in terms of Dublin giving them a trimming but I just don’t see it. Yes, Dublin is where the smart money would be going but did you ever think you’d see Kerry going into an All-Ireland semi-final available at over 2/1? Those Kerry players will take that as an insult. If that isn’t enough to make their boil, what is?

There was definitely a bit of that in 2009. We had come through the qualifiers playing Longford, Sligo and Antrim and we hadn’t been impressive against any of them. People thought we were done and the reality was that we weren’t fizzing at all. But it changed on the bus home from the Antrim game in Tullamore.

I actually thought that it had started to come together in that game but in fairness we had still only won by five points so it was obvious that people weren’t going to be overly convinced by us. We got on the bus knowing that when we got off it down in Kerry, the knives would still be out. We’d be slated for a mundane performance. The scribes would still be far from convinced and we’d have no momentum going into the quarter-final.

For that reason, it was a very quiet bus. I remember it clearly. Usually on the bus home after a championship win, everybody is full of chat and in a good mood. But that was one of the days when you wanted to talk about anything except football. You’d see if anybody had any good thoughts to share on X-Factor or something before you’d get into a conversation about football. That’s what the mood was like.

Energy levels rise
But then the word came through that we had drawn Dublin in the quarter-final. And suddenly all anyone wanted to talk about was football. There was no big cheer or anything but you could definitely feel the energy levels rise. It was noticeable that everyone perked up. Fellas started chirping again.

And when we got off the bus, not one person mentioned the Antrim game to us. It was gone, totally forgotten about. All that mattered now was Dublin. And as I said, nobody feared Dublin.

So the next step was to profile the two teams and match them up against each other and as soon as we did that, we started making it a bit of a cause. Like, who are they to be favourites against us? What have they done compared to what we have done? And most of all, why can’t we stand up and do it again?

Three factors
That has to be the attitude in the Kerry dressingroom this week. It goes back to those three factors. Big opposition, big occasion, big pressure. There has to be a kick of pride in these fellas. They have to be annoyed at the idea that they’re going in as such outsiders. If they transfer that feeling into the right amount of focus and drive, then they have a maturity that Dublin don’t. If they get ahead, they can use their experience to stay ahead.

My big worry for Kerry is obvious enough. Tyrone’s older players struggled to last the 70 minutes last Sunday and there’s every chance the Kerry fellas will face the same problem. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that the miles in those legs could be exposed by a Dublin side that has so much pace throughout it.

But in the end I’m going to let my heart do the talking here, whatever about what my head says. I just don’t see these older Kerry players allowing their legacy to be a hiding from the Dubs in Croke Park. After everything they’ve achieved, I just don’t see them allowing that to happen. The pressure that it creates can only bring the best out of proven players.

In that 2009 season, there was that famous last-minute penalty for Sligo down in Tralee. We were out if it hit the net, gone in the third round of the qualifiers. And looking back on it, I will be perfectly honest – I’d have much rathered go out to Sligo tucked away in Tralee than take a beating off the Dubs in Croke Park. You could wave the Sligo thing away but you couldn’t do it with the Dubs.

I’m going to go with Kerry for Sunday. I’m trusting the players that are there, the ones I played with. I’ve seen the Dubs in the flesh this year and I’ve watched teams like Meath give them buckets of it.

Going on the evidence of the games so far, you’d go for a Dublin win. But based on my experience of these Kerry players, I genuinely think they have it in them. They’re going into the game in a perfect position – everybody writing them off, nobody giving them a shout. That doesn’t happen too often to Kerry players.

I would expect them to give a response.

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