Kerry manager Peter Keane must make some big calls as The Kingdom set sail on their 2021 All-Ireland quest, writes Adam Moynihan
One hundred and thirty-seven minutes. A little over two hours. That’s how long Kerry’s championship lasted in 2020.
The aim will be to get a little over two months out of it this time around but, with no safety net in place, it’s impossible to look beyond the Munster quarter-final against an ever-improving and potentially dangerous Clare side. This Kerry team have been bitten once. They will be on high alert in The Park on Saturday.
Over the course of a promising league campaign which included a draw with the champions and blowout wins over Galway and Tyrone, plenty of players put their paws up for starting berths. Now, Peter Keane and his selectors have some huge calls to make, none more so than deciding who will contest the throw-in at 7pm tomorrow evening.
In previous years, David Moran’s inclusion was a foregone conclusion so long as he was physically able, but there is a growing sense that his place is no longer set in stone. The veteran sat out the Tyrone drubbing a fortnight ago and apart from a fine first half against Galway (the first 35 minutes of the season) his form has not been great.
No one can deny Moran’s talent and the physical presence he provides, but there are concerns in some quarters about his ability to get around the pitch at his age (he is 33 on Tuesday), especially given his history of serious injuries.
As an elder statesman and one of a select few with senior All-Ireland medals to his name, he is a leader of this team. However, you have to wonder if, at times, he tries to assume a little too much responsibility, particularly in key moments. In two of the past three seasons, Moran has taken and missed Kerry's last shot in an elimination game (Monaghan in 2018 and Cork in 2020). In the drawn match against Dublin in 2019, he took the ball into contact and turned it over, which resulted in the opposition getting an equalising free at the other end.
Maybe it is unfair to highlight these individual errors – if you went through each of the aforementioned games you would see every single player making a mistake at one point or another. But it does seem as though Moran has developed a habit of trying to drag Kerry over the line almost singlehandedly. He is a terrific footballer who is capable of doing that, but at the same time he is not Kerry’s best player. In clutch moments, the ball should be in David Clifford’s hands 10 times out of 10. If that is literally impossible in a given situation, Seán O’Shea is next up. And I don’t think it’s an insult to David Moran to say that.
Do Kerry have the midfielders to win without him? That’s up for debate. Diarmuid O’Connor has made great strides this year and Kerry supporters are rightly enthused by the 22-year-old’s progress, but he isn’t the finished article just yet. Jack Barry and Adrian Spillane provide athleticism and physicality, but they can’t match Moran for sheer skill.
Peter Keane will be hoping that the Rahilly's man is saving his best for the championship. He has shone on the big stage plenty of times throughout his intercounty career.
Keane can either start with Moran and finish with Barry or Spillane, or hold him in reserve until the right moment. It’s a major decision either way and one that could potentially define Kerry’s season.
Elsewhere, Tadhg Morley’s place at full back might also be under threat all of a sudden. Jason Foley was Man of the Match at No. 3 against Tyrone and Brian Ó Beaglaoich and Tom O’Sullivan did very well either side of him.
Morley was rested from the start against Roscommon and was wrongly sent off just seconds after his introduction, which ruled him out of that league semi-final two weeks ago.
It would be a very cruel way for him to lose his place if that’s the route that Keane and co. decide to go down, but Ó Beaglaoich and O’Sullivan could also feel hard done by if they’re the ones to miss out.
The other dilemma for Keane is in the full forward line where Killian Spillane and Tony Brosnan are the main candidates to partner in-form talisman David Clifford. Brosnan is expected to be available after recovering from a hand injury but, at the moment, Spillane seems to be the manager’s preferred option.
Brosnan’s consistently electrifying form at club level for Dr Crokes effectively forced Keane to bring him into the fold last season; for whatever reason the manager appeared to be reluctant to do so up until that point. Brosnan has fared well, perhaps without truly exploding onto the scene in the manner he would have liked. Maybe this is simply down to the fact that he is playing next to the best forward in the country. David Clifford is going to be Kerry’s first option on most attacking possessions, which means that whoever lines up alongside him is going to get fewer touches than they normally would for their club.
Brosnan shines for Crokes when he’s the main man. He gets the ball and it’s all about him. He can take on his marker, he can check back for a shot, he can play a one-two. It’s probably unreasonable to expect him to do the same thing and kick the same huge scores for Kerry when he’s seeing less of the ball. In fairness to Spillane, he thrives in this role as a second option. He is a real catch-and-shoot kicker – oftentimes he won’t even take a hop or a solo before shooting. But Brosnan is just as capable of fulfilling this role because he’s so accurate.
For the majority of counties, Spillane or Brosnan would be the main forward. To thrive for Kerry, however, they basically have to be David Clifford’s wingman.
As for the half forward line, Paudie Clifford, Seán O’Shea, Dara Moynihan and Paul Geaney should start (Kerry have effectively played with four half forwards so far this season, apart from the Tyrone game when they started five). Stephen O’Brien could be the one to miss out if Keane does opt to bring in another inside forward in the mold of Spillane or Brosnan. The Kenmare player, who was sensational in 2019 before suffering an injury setback in 2020, has struggled to find his feet of late.
Tommy Walsh remains an ever-reliable impact substitute and Micheál Burns is also capable of coming in and doing a job.
The half back line of Paul Murphy, Gavin Crowley and Gavin White is fairly settled at this stage with newcomer Mike Breen a viable alternative if needs be. Jack Sherwood is also likely to see minutes late on.
Between the posts, Shane Ryan looks set to return following a six-week layoff due to injury. Kieran Fitzgibbon did well enough in his stead but Ryan is sure to be Keane’s first choice for the business end of the season (if Kerry get that far). With that in mind, the more gametime the Rathmore man can get under his belt, the better.
So, big decisions for Keane, Maurice Fitzgerald, James Foley and Tommy Griffin to make ahead of Kerry’s first 2021 championship team announcement tonight.
It might “only” be Day 1 and it might “only” be Clare, but the entire group will need to be completely focused to ensure that this campaign lasts longer than a couple of hours.
Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing
by Adam Moynihan
In the 22nd minute of last Saturday night’s league match in Croke Park, Lee Gannon collected a pass on his own 65 and carried the ball unchallenged right into the heart of Kerry’s defence. Brian Fenton took over and a tackle by Diarmuid O’Connor slowed the attack.
Then Fenton looked up and saw that Niall Scully was standing at the top of the D, completely unmarked. It was a simple five-metre handpass to the centre, and Scully had all the time in the world to steady himself and shoot. His point made it Dublin 2-8 Kerry 0-5. Ten shots for Dublin. Ten scores. One-way traffic.
The Dubs deserve credit for their accuracy in front of the posts – Con O’Callaghan was particularly excellent – but the ease with which they were creating their openings was startling from a Kerry perspective. For Scully’s score, the resistance was non-existent. If the same thing happened in a training match, the manager would be well within his rights to call off the session and send everyone home.
The cameras may have been trained on Kerry’s full back line and, yes, Jason Foley and Dylan Casey were struggling against O’Callaghan and Paddy Small, but Kerry were found wanting all over the pitch. You could have sailed the Titanic down the centre of their defence and O’Callaghan exploited that space to great effect for his third goal. Foley got hoodwinked by a lovely piece of movement by the Dublin full forward, but where was the help?
Centre back Tadhg Morley was pushing up on Dublin dangerman Seán Bugler but that’s the thing with Dublin: all their forwards are dangerous in one way or another. Maybe Tadhg was following instructions but you wonder if he could have cheated off Bugler when the all-action centre forward was outside the 45.
Whether it’s Morley or someone else, that gap in front of the goal needs to be filled – especially against teams of Dublin’s calibre.
What we saw in Croke Park last Saturday was a far cry from the solid defensive structure that won Kerry an All-Ireland in 2022, that’s for sure. You can be certain that Jack O’Connor will be demanding a far more intense, more physical and more collaborative performance against Tyrone on Sunday (1.15pm).
Speaking after the Dublin game, O’Connor said that his side “malfunctioned” on the kickouts. While Dublin keeper David O’Hanlon was firing out his kicks like a machine gun, Shane Ryan was far more measured with his. Dublin’s press was brilliant in fairness to them but you’d have to question Kerry’s appetite for making honest, hard runs and receiving the ball in potentially tight areas.
Graham O’Sullivan and Brian Ó Beaglaoich (who is currently injured) are outstanding when it comes to breaking free and accepting that responsibility. You’d like to see one or two more backs getting in on the act.
As for Ryan himself, could he be a bit quicker and a bit more adventurous with his distribution? Look, if there’s nothing on, there’s nothing on, but I think at times he could back himself more resolutely. He has the range and the accuracy.
Of course, if he takes a risk and it gets intercepted he’ll be in line for even sharper criticism, so you can understand him being cautious when the kick isn’t 100% on.
Whatever the solution, on the evidence of the Dublin and Derry games, Kerry do need to try something a bit different to beat the press. Tyrone are unlikely to be as aggressive as Dublin were but when they do push up, it will be fascinating to see how Kerry deal with it.
Kerry’s midfielders also need to compete aerially against whoever they’re up against when it goes long – even if that’s Brian Fenton or Conor Glass or Brendan Rogers. It’s not easy to get the better of these guys in the air (or to break even, which would do) but that’s the level required.
Joe O’Connor showed that his ball skills have improved markedly by taking his goal and his point so cleanly, and he is doing well in general, but he and his namesake Diarmuid will have to be more impactful both from kickouts and without the ball if Kerry want to be a real force this season.
Personally, I would like to see Seán O’Brien getting some more game time. He has only played six minutes since being taken off early on his debut against Derry five weeks ago. Kerry will need back-up at midfield as the season goes on and O’Brien has a lot of potential.
Up front, the main positive is that Cillian Burke continues to make his presence felt. Even when his more experienced teammates were faltering the last night, Burke stood tall and played his usual game. And he swung over a great score for good measure.
David Clifford will be disappointed that he didn’t convert one of his goal chances – the first one was definitely there for the taking – but you know that over the course of the season he’ll finish more of those than he misses. I wouldn’t be one bit surprised if he comes out and strokes one in on Sunday.
It’s nice to see Tony Brosnan back on the pitch as well. He deserves some kind fortune following a tough spell with illness and injury.
Tyrone coming to Killarney gives the players the perfect opportunity to bounce back quickly and show supporters – and themselves – that the Dublin game was a glitch and nothing more. Improvements are needed all over the pitch but the sight of the Red Hand should bring focus and resolve.
A good performance, a win and two points would put a lot of minds at ease.
Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call
A trio of talented young Killarney rugby players have been called up to the Ireland U18 squad for the upcoming Six Nations festival in Wales.
Ava O’Malley, Fia Whelan and Emma Dunican have all been included in Matt Gill’s panel for the tournament, which will take place between March 29 and April 6. They will link up with their new teammates for three weekend training camps at the IRFU’s High Performance Centre on the Sport Ireland Campus in Dublin during the month of March.
Gill, the current Women’s Provincial Talent Coach for Leinster, will be assisted by Sana Govender, who has previously coached Munster Women’s teams.
“I’m really looking forward to continuing our Irish U18 Women’s Six Nations preparations and getting our camps underway,” the head coach said. “I’m excited to work with Sana and our management team, and to work with this incredibly talented group of players.”
O’Malley, Whelan and Dunican are products of Killarney RFC’s blossoming youth set-up and all three were on the U18.5 team that recently won the Munster League.
Including the Killarney girls, there are seven Munster-based players on the 35-woman squad with 15 hailing from Leinster, eight from Connacht and five from Ulster.
“It’s a very proud day for the girls, their families, teammates and coaches, and for Killarney RFC,” the club commented. “Best of luck, girls!”
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