Old failings apparent again as Kerry suffer another devastating defeat

Kingdom have had a shortage of reliable, knotty defenders for the best part of a decade now

 The Kingdom are overreliant on David Clifford’s genius and his injury against Tyrone proved a huge blow to their chances of making the final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

The Kingdom are overreliant on David Clifford’s genius and his injury against Tyrone proved a huge blow to their chances of making the final. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

Maybe the worst of it for Kerry is that they finish the season with no new lament to sing. They didn’t find out anything about themselves on Saturday night that they didn’t already know. Or at least, in their heart of hearts, suspect. When someone shows you who they are, believe them.

When it became clear early in the summer that Dublin weren’t the all-singing, all-dancing force of the six-in-a-row, Kerry were automatically presumed to be the default champions, all things being equal. That Kerry hadn’t played a Division One team in championship in almost two years didn’t appear to matter. They are Kerry, so they must have worked it by now. Saturday exposed that view as a trick of the light.

Everything that has held them back from adding a 38th All-Ireland title to the pile since their last one in 2014 was evident in abundance against Tyrone. A forward unit relying on a brilliant free-taker to kick his frees and a generational talent to be generational and not get hurt. A middle third of willing, largely interchangeable worker bees. A defence that is quick but light and far too often exposed.

A combination of Kerry’s place in the game and the blinding gift of David Clifford tends to obscure most of these problems. They don’t tend to matter as Kerry lollop through Munster year after year. And when they do – as happened in Páirc Uí Chaoimh last November – they get lost in the general frenzy and the result is dismissed as an aberration.

This summer confirmed that losing to Cork like that was a one-off. But it has also confirmed that the much-decried defensive system Peter Keane was trying to impose in 2020 was there for a reason. That reason didn’t disappear just because the fallout from the Cork defeat made setting up like that again in 2021 a non-starter.

Fundamentally, Kerry have had a shortage of reliable, knotty defenders for the best part of a decade now. They have one All Star defender from the past five seasons, Tom O’Sullivan’s 2019 award standing alone. One of their better performers on Saturday night was Paul Murphy at centre-back but his role was more of a distributor and attack-starter than out-and-out defender.

Conor McKenna celebrates scoring Tyrone’s third goal. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Conor McKenna celebrates scoring Tyrone’s third goal. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

There is no Kerry John Small or Mick Fitzsimons. There’s no Kerry Lee Keegan or Oisín Mullin. No Paudie Hampsey or Frank Burns. O’Sullivan did a decent job on Darren McCurry on Saturday but when Kieran McGeary’s attempt at an extra-time point was hanging in the air and tailing off, he had no awareness that Conor McKenna was standing alone on the edge of the large square, waiting on the off-chance that a lucky bounce fell his way. It did and Kerry were toast.

All of which could be overcome – or at least gainsaid – if the fabled Kerry attack could be depended on to function when it mattered. But Clifford aside, too many of their stellar turns just haven’t done so.

Paul Geaney has had a nightmare couple of years. Stephen O’Brien spent Saturday running down every blind alley he could find. Paudie Clifford had his break-out season brought to a shuddering halt by the excellent Conor Meyler.

For the fourth time in five seasons – and the third in a row – Kerry go out of the championship without scoring a goal in their final game. They clearly felt they had goals in them on Saturday, to the extent that they overdid it at times, going for an extra pass instead of taking their point. That overelaboration meant Tyrone’s defenders always felt they had a chance to get a hand in – see Michael O’Neill’s bone-cruncher on Seán O’Shea early in the second half and Peter Harte’s block on Killian Spillane a minute later.

Goal chances

More acutely, Kerry really butchered two huge goal chances, one in either half.

Why Geaney didn’t just take the goal himself rather than try to lay it on for O’Brien who was standing in the square will haunt him. And not alone did O’Shea destroy any chance Clifford had of palming a handy goal on 66 minutes, he also caused Kerry’s best player to hobble himself in the stretch for it.

The most damning indictment of Kerry in general isn’t just the fact that they felt they couldn’t afford to take Clifford off at that point even though he was clearly injured. Worse than that is the fact that they were right.

Play went on for just short of 15 minutes after Clifford got hurt and, though it might not have been obvious on TV, nobody in the stadium was in any doubt that he was in real pain. Niall Morgan immediately started using Ronan McNamee for a handy kick-out option, in the safe knowledge that Clifford couldn’t chase him.

Yet even on one leg – and barely on it at that – Clifford was still Kerry’s most reliable route to the scoreboard. They scored two more points in those 15 remaining normal-time minutes, one of them an O’Shea free after Clifford was fouled and the other a free that Clifford tapped over himself.

Kerry’s dependence on the boy prince isn’t healthy for him or them. He isn’t a boy anymore either – he turns 23 in January. You suspect he and Joe Canning would have a lot to talk about if they ever sat down together.

Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien is challenged by Frank Burns of Tyrone during the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Kerry’s Stephen O’Brien is challenged by Frank Burns of Tyrone during the All-Ireland semi-final. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Incredibly, this defeat means Kerry have won just one of their last 11 games in league and championship in Croke Park. It can be argued that that’s a slightly misleading factoid since a few of those games were draws against the Dubs in their pomp. But this is Kerry we’re talking about – we haven’t historically needed to featherbed the stats.

This was Keane’s third season in charge. It’s unlikely there will be a fourth. He has been unfortunate at times – Dublin reeled them in through sheer force of will in the dying embers of the 2019 drawn game and but for conceding the dumbest of dumb goals against Cork in November, they’d surely have been back in a second All-Ireland final in a row.

But when the best crop of underage players in Kerry in a generation comes along, the tolerance for hard-luck stories doesn’t be long evaporating. Especially when they’re the same kind of hard-luck stories. As the old NFL maxim goes - you’re either coaching these mistakes or you’re allowing them.

Neither is good.

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