Paul Murphy makes a case for Kerry’s defence, from back to front

Captain points to Mike Breen’s breakthrough and team’s all-round qualities in defence and attack

If it wasn’t already blindingly obvious, a quick crunching of the numbers neatly explains how Kerry have bludgeoned teams into submission this season.

In just seven league and championship games, the joint Allianz League winners and Munster champions have racked up an incredible 21-132, averaging out at just shy of 28 points per game.

In Peter Keane’s first two seasons in charge, 2019 and 2020, Kerry averaged 18.5 and 18.3 points per game. A near 10-point spike in scoring will always grab the headlines but what’s really new about a set of Kerry forwards registering cricket-score tallies?

For many, the thing which has really held Keane’s Kerry teams back from winning All-Irelands has been their defence.

As recently as June, Colm Cooper stated that 'everybody in Kerry acknowledges that defensively, that's where our flaws are' while Éamonn Fitzmaurice, pointing to the four goals conceded against Dublin in the league, concluded that 'that's still the flaw'.

For the record, Kerry are faring slightly better defensively so far this season, conceding an average of 14.4 points across the league and championship compared to just under 16 points in 2019 and 2020.

Speaking in advance of Saturday's rescheduled All-Ireland semi-final against Tyrone, Kerry half back and captain Paul Murphy acknowledged the criticism of their rearguard.

“I don’t know whether it has been unfair or not, it’s been there, it’s something we have to deal with,” said Murphy. “It’s not something we focus a huge amount of our energy on – we focus on our own group. It’s never been a big issue for us as a group.”

The four goals conceded against Dublin aside, Kerry haven’t leaked more than one goal in a game this season. Asked if he’s happy with their concession rate, Murphy nodded.

"Look, they have been good enough to win the games so far," he said. "We're happy with the defence that we have. Mike Breen has come in and done very well. There are other guys there as well who have been around the team for a couple of years and they're in really good form this year individually and I think that's helping the defence as a whole.

"There was a moment in the Cork game when Killian Spillane made a block-down in the full-back line so it is very much a team defence in football at the moment.

“I don’t think it is really man-on-man. Forwards are getting back to help defenders and likewise in attack, defenders are getting up to help attack. It’s a group team effort in defence and we’re very happy with the defenders that we have.”

Paudie Clifford’s terrific form up front means he is the undisputed breakthrough player for Kerry this year, though Breen’s emergence in defence may yet prove to be even more significant. An All-Ireland minor winner in 2015 and 2016, the Beaufort man picked up a junior medal in 2019, and has slotted in alongside Murphy in the half backs.

“He has come in and done really well,” said Murphy. “He had a good underage career with Kerry. He has done well with Beaufort and Kerry since then. He’s quite new to the panel and hasn’t looked out of place at all. He’s very strong on the ball. He’s very strong in the tackle. He’s added a lot to our defence.”

Tyrone will present the Kerry defence with all sorts of problems and conundrums. Depending on who is fit and available for selection, the Red Hands could build an attacking plan around the power and hard running of Mattie Donnelly and Conor McKenna, the aerial threat of Cathal McShane or perhaps the skill and subtlety of Mark Bradley. That's not to mention what Peter Harte and Darren McCurry bring to the party.

“They’re really good in the transition from defence to attack and they have a lot of forwards that will hurt you on the scoreboard if they’re allowed to,” said Murphy.

“It’s not a situation where you’re playing a team where if you shut down one or two players, you’d be happy enough that they won’t rack up a score – Tyrone have five or six players who are capable of racking up big individual tallies.”

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