I have come around to the idea of Kerry winning on Sunday. In fact, I've decided that the bet of the weekend is a treble on the Kerry seniors, minors and juniors. That's how you can tell a Kerryman isn't just full of cute-hoorism and blather. When there's money down, it's time to stop the messing.
I have to admit I was very sceptical about Kerry's chances initially. I've been saying all summer that the worst thing that happened to Kerry was Cork not turning up for the Munster final. It gave a false impression of where Kerry were at and what they were capable of. All it told us was that against a team who leaves all their form in the dressing room, Kerry can put up a big score. And sure we probably knew that already.
So as the autumn arrives and the evenings get cold, that’s not a lot of use to them. And the same goes for the win against Galway. What did Kerry really beat there? Why were they not further ahead in the first half?
How does that experience really measure up to what they're going to get from a Mayo team that lives in a different world altogether in terms of experience, in terms of physical development, in terms of pure talent?
Now is a player’s time. This is a week of pure immersion in the task that lies ahead. When I was playing, I used to make sure I had the dinner inside me around one o’clock on the Sunday before the game so that I could be well settled in for the hurling semi-final. Not so much for the outcome of the game, more to see if there was anything I could learn for the following week.
I’d have the Sunday papers in front of me and I’d be looking at who was talking and then watching the match to see if they were playing well or badly. I’d watch them in the parade – who looked at the ground, who looked into the stand, how they all carried themselves. If Henry Shefflin was playing, I’d study him and watch for similarities with the Gooch. It might only be the smallest thing like a tackle he made after 30 seconds that set the tone. Doesn’t matter – everything is huge now.
I’d keep an eye out for anyone that slipped – I always found the Canal End the slippiest part of the pitch but if someone lost their footing over in front of The Hill scoreboard I’d make a note of it. And during the warm-up the following weekend, I’d always go over to that spot and test it out.
You have to be a bit obsessive about the whole thing.
And when it comes down to it, Kerry have one of the great obsessives in charge. The more I think about what Eamonn Fitzmaurice will put into this game for Kerry, the more optimistic I am about their chances. He played his first game of golf all summer there on Monday. The man's a teacher, remember. Kerry football is all-consuming.
Look at what Eamonn Fitz has had to contend with in his two seasons as Kerry manager. The break-up of a team of All-Ireland winners. The loss of Paul Galvin, Tomás Ó Sé and Eoin Brosnan. The injury to Colm Cooper. No minor All-Ireland since he was a minor himself. And yet here he is, two seasons later with two Munster titles in the bag and preparing for a second All-Ireland semi-final.
Whatever happens, Eamonn Fitzmaurice has saved Kerry in a way. There was a huge amount of negativity around the county when he took over and nobody would have blamed him in the slightest for standing back for a few years and leaving somebody else find a way through a transition period.
But he got in there and got his hands dirty and refused to let the opportunity pass. He started reminding a few people what it was to play for Kerry and wouldn’t allow people just shrug their shoulders and accept that we might be gone for a few years while he rebuilds. It’s not a disgrace to be underdogs, the only disgrace would be not coming with a plan to upset the odds.
That’s what he did against Dublin last year and that’s what he did against Cork in the Munster final. And he’ll be doing the same against Mayo on Sunday. He will have every base covered.
Kerry people know the size of the job on Sunday. Football people know what’s in store. Ignore anybody who’s talking about Kerry having a hoodoo over Mayo or any sort of psychological advantage. That’s all in the past. It’s an old story and it’s talking about players who aren’t around anymore.
Mayo are a serious side who don’t get it wrong very often. The days of them coming to Dublin to play the big teams and hoping for the best are long gone. Go back and watch the final whistle of the Cork game – there was no great outpouring of emotion, no Mayo players sinking to their knees in celebration. They expected to win and they won – their attitude was, ‘who’s next?’
Kerry are next and there are clear areas of the pitch where Mayo have an advantage. The middle third is theirs for the taking. Séamus O’Shea has become the man who makes them tick there and he’s developed into a really fine footballer. Someone asked me the other day who Kerry have that will be able to match Séamus O’Shea’s strength and there’s no obvious answer.
Aidan O’Shea has found the right role at centre-forward and he’s comfortable in it and thriving in it.
is pushing on from midfield, Barry Moran will be formidable if he’s in around there too. Mayo should have the upper hand in that area.
Their other strengths are in their half-back line and in their forwards’ ability to press high up the field. Midfield, half-back and pressure from the forwards – these are the three areas Kerry have to deal with if they’re going to have any chance. Attacking your opponent’s greatest strength is always a good philosophy.
What gives me hope for Kerry is that Fitzmaurice has players who are coming into form at the right time. Donnchadh Walsh has developed from the guy who was always unlucky to get left out into being a totally crucial player. We came into the All-Ireland semi-final last year with everyone making a big hullaballoo about Jack McCaffrey attacking from wing-back but Walsh got him turning and going the other way. He's bound to be a big part of the plan for the Mayo half-back line.
Kerry’s main strength as compared to Mayo is their greater ability to kick points from distance. This is going to be such a tactical battle on both sides that point-scoring chances are going to be very few and far between. Kerry have James O’Donoghue, Johnny Buckley, Paul Geaney, Declan O’Sullivan and Bryan Sheehan – all guys you’d be happy enough to have the ball in their hands 40 yards from goal.
Can you say the same about Mayo? Probably not. If you could, they would have won one of the last two All-Irelands. It’s the one thing they’ve been short of – they have the manager, they have the squad depth, they have more hunger than any other team in the country.
But when it has mattered, their forwards haven’t kicked the vital scores. I’m talking about scores that put you five ahead instead of two ahead when you’ve started a game well – as Mayo often do. I’m talking about the scores from play that spread confidence throughout the team and don’t leave you having to rely on Cillian O’Connor’s frees all the time.
Mayo people get annoyed when you point this out but facts are facts. I’ll put it to you this way – when they win their All-Ireland, it will be because their forwards started kicking the points that they weren’t before.
Anyway, it’s good for them to get annoyed. James Horan always seems to be ready for a fight about something – and I say ‘good for him’. That’s the way he rocks. Mayo spent too many years as beautiful losers and what good did it do them? Horan has changed their attitude and he has raised their expectations.
When you add those raised expectations to the level of passion there is in the county for football, then bloody sure people will get annoyed. I always say that when you go to Dublin, two fellas out of every 10 might talk to you about football. Actually, it used to be zero three or four years ago but sure they’re all experts now.
But you go to Mayo, six or seven out of every 10 will want to talk football with you.
I remember years ago playing league games above in Mayo, we used go to Mass and fellas would be asking you about the game as you were in the queue for communion. There was no escape!
So it’s no surprise that tensions can run high and they can get very defensive about their players. It’s a very human response. Kick a dog often enough and the dog will snap back at you. But, deep down, they know the lack of scores from play from their forwards is what has held them back.
Maybe they’ll click on Sunday, who knows?
As I’ve said already, they’re not coming in here fearing Kerry. They have bigger fish to fry than a bad record against Kerry. It will mean nothing to them. All they’re here for is the All-Ireland. It’s all that matters to them.
I just think Kerry have important players running into form a the right time. O’Donoghue obviously with his goal threat, Declan O’Sullivan, Paul Geaney, Aidan O’Mahony – if these guys have the games they’re capable of, Kerry have the winning of it in their hands.
Mayo are worthy favourites and if you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have gone with them. But as the game has come closer, maybe my heart is ruling my head. Kerry it is.