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Despite all the attention, David Clifford remains totally at ease

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by Adam Moynihan

It's not something that most of us - the mere mortals of this world - have ever had to worry about, but being double-marked looks like a complete pain in the arse. It's annoying enough having one sticky back breathing on your neck without having another spoilsport blocking your supply lines from the front.

Kerry superstar David Clifford isn't one of us, though, so naturally enough he's enjoying it.

Speaking via Zoom from Croke Park (the Fossa native was there to launch SuperValu's #CommunityIncludesEveryone campaign), Clifford was typically breezy when it came to the topic of rivals doing anything and everything in their power to stop him.

"That’s something we’ve started to come across and will continue to come across," the 23-year-old said when asked about Cork playing two defenders on him in last weekend’s Munster semi-final.

"It’s [about] trying to find solutions, trying to have as many scoring threats as we can. They can’t double-mark everyone, d’you know what I mean?

"It’s obviously tricky and that brings its challenges but trying to find ways around it is enjoyable too."

Clifford is arguably the standout Gaelic football talent of the modern era and witnessing him in full flow must be one of the most joyous experiences in sport. It therefore stands to reason that seeing him getting corralled and penned in by two opponents is one of the most horrid.

Watching him the last day was like watching a lion in a zoo. It’s always cool to see the king of the jungle but keeping him in a cage just doesn’t sit right.

Of course, Cork are perfectly entitled to set up however they want. And for much of the match - the first half in particular - their gameplan worked. Clifford was on the periphery, limited to a single point from play. As the soon-to-be-qualified PE teacher alluded to today, the onus is on Kerry to find other ways to score when they simply cannot get the ball into his hands.

The fact that Kerry’s other forwards scored 0-18 against Cork shows that they are capable of doing it. The fact that Kerry failed to get over the line when Clifford was sidelined for extra time against Tyrone last September shows that they still have a point to prove against the bigger teams.

Clifford was at ease during his 22-minute chat with myself and other print journalists, deftly sidestepping potentially loaded questions like they were hapless defenders clutching at the air around him. A dummy solo past the championship structure debate. A pirouette around the Kerry captaincy issue. A quick turn of pace left my query about the significance of potentially winning this year’s All-Ireland for dead.

He is certainly a lot more comfortable in front of the media now than the David Clifford who burst onto the senior intercounty scene in 2018. Back then, he was wide-eyed and slightly nonplussed by it all. Now, he pretty much has it (us?) all figured out.

But there was still plenty to feed on from today’s briefing. He spoke of his infant son, Óigí, and how becoming a father has put life into perspective for him.

“It’s a change but it’s massively enjoyable. There’s great fun attached to it. It feels like sport is everything and we put everything into it but health and family take a priority."

When asked if seeing his child after a disappointing performance helps, the former MTU Kerry student said that it does. “Óigí doesn’t tend to be too worried about whether we’ve won or not!”

He also spoke about avoiding the hype. Many observers rate him as the best player in the country. Others (including this writer) have publicly stated that he could well be the best they’ve ever seen.

“I haven’t paid too much attention to it, or haven’t seen a whole pile of it,” Clifford insisted. “I’m not on social media really and that’s probably a good thing.”

Perhaps most interesting of all were his insights into his own thought processes. Where does his focus lie? Does he always have football on the brain, or can he switch off?

“I’m just trying to focus on a game-to-game basis. There’s still plenty of stuff to work on.

“Throughout the league you’re just trying to get minutes into the legs, and things come so thick and fast that you don’t have much time to think. The time between the games [during championship] is good to reflect.

“[But] it can be hard to put games to the back of your mind. I’m trying to work on that – to try and be focussed when you need to be focussed and to step away when you need to step away.”

Is there room for improvement in his game?

“Yeah, 100%. Trying to get that consistency of performance is a big focus for me.”

Most would argue that he has been pretty consistent so far in his young career. If he can make improvements in that department, keeping him in his cage might become a three-man job.

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Kerry will need more intensity, more physicality and more collaboration to bounce back from Dub drubbing

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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).

KICKOUTS

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.

FORWARDS

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.

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Killarney girls will answer Ireland’s call

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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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