Will this setback break Kerry or will it make them?
by Adam Moynihan
The worst thing I can say about Kerry’s performance against Mayo is that it reminded me of the game against Tyrone in 2021.
You’ll recall that Peter Keane’s team came up unexpectedly short in that All-Ireland semi-final as they were ambushed by a hungry, tuned in, physically imposing opponent. They simply coughed up too many goal chances and Tyrone ran out 3-14 to 0-22 winners after extra time. The result marked the end of Keane’s tenure. There was an acceptance that something had to change.
I remember writing at the time that I felt that Kerry needed to cultivate a ruthless defensive culture if they wanted their undoubted talent to translate into success. They had to revel in the dirty work – breaks, tackles, tracking back – and get total buy-in from 1 to 36 in that endeavour.
In fairness to the returning Jack O’Connor and his management team, and in fairness to the players themselves, that’s exactly what happened last season. They built a solid structure around central pillars Jason Foley and Tadhg Morley, and to a man they defended as though their lives depended on it. They showed a ravenous appetite for graft that was rarely seen prior to O’Connor’s comeback.
For all their flair in attack, with the brilliance of the Cliffords and Seánie Shea often grabbing the headlines, it was the mean defensive record (just three goals conceded in 13 games) that set the tone for a season that ended with a long-awaited All-Ireland title in July.
For a number of reasons, doing it all again the following year was always going to be difficult. We knew that every rival would up their game. We knew the revamped championship structure would add an extra layer of uncertainty. And we knew that back-to-back All-Irelands are rare.
Another sizeable question mark hung over the group’s psychological state. Would they have the same desire to do it all again? The same all-or-nothing mindset that fuelled the defensive culture that brought Sam back to The Kingdom? Not many teams come back for more with the same intensity. It’s a notoriously hard thing to do.
When the team faltered at the beginning of this season, there were numerous mitigating factors for their below-par performances. Their pre-season was short. They hadn’t the training done. They were missing key players. Conditions were poor. Some opponents were playing ultra defensive football. The league was down their list of priorities.
That’s what was jarring about last Saturday. All those excuses no longer apply, yet their performance was well below what they’re capable of.
Were it not for superb displays by goalkeeper Shane Ryan and the awe-inspiring David Clifford, the margin of defeat could easily have been three times as wide.
Disappointingly, the loss signalled the end of the team’s proud undefeated home record that had stretched back to 1995.
If you’re trying to explain what happened on the day, you might point to the fact that Mayo were very good. That much is true. Kevin McStay’s outfit were brilliant and they look like a completely different animal with Aidan O’Shea thriving at full forward. But I don’t believe for a second that they are, all of a sudden, streets ahead of Kerry, and that Kerry should be getting outplayed by them to the extent that we saw on Saturday.
You might also point to Kerry’s tactical set-up. Jack O’Connor admitted in the aftermath that his full back line was left exposed – especially from Mayo’s long kickouts - so maybe there are structural issues that need to be addressed at this week’s video session.
But, for me, that question mark that hangs over Kerry’s psychological state is still a big one.
What Mayo did the last day wasn’t rocket science. They made hard runs and laid the ball off to the man in the better position, and they took their shooting chances when they came. But from the outset it was clear that Kerry were flat and in danger of losing.
On a number of occasions when a Mayo player made a burst forward and a Kerry man was forced to turn and track, he was left behind almost instantly. Head down. Reacting rather than anticipating. Struggling. If that's not a conditioning issue (and it shouldn't be by this point) then what is it?
Mayo’s full forward line of O’Shea, Ryan O’Donoghue and James Carr scored 11 points between them and too many of those shots were given up easily. With runners punching holes at will, Kerry’s full back line got little-to-no assistance from their teammates out the field (although, having said that, they won’t be happy with the standard of their 1 v 1 defending either).
There were other problems too - Kerry’s midfielders didn’t seem to impact the game at all and their forwards were sloppy in possession – but it was the lack of meanness and competitiveness without the ball that really furrowed brows on the terrace.
On the evidence of this display, is it fair to ask if that appetite is still there this year, to the same extent it was 12 months ago? That drive? That ruthlessness? Or was last year’s success enough for them, for the time being at least?
It’s not the end of the world, or even the end of the season. The champs are down but not out. There is a way back.
The harrowing loss to Tyrone in 2021 had the potential to completely break them but it was actually the making of the Kerry team that scaled such great heights in 2022. They went away and learned their lessons, and ultimately they found their edge.
They have less time to turn things around now, mid-season, but this latest setback against Mayo has a similar feel to it. It could break them or it could make them. We’ll just have to wait and see how they react.
Killarney man Maye pockets national pool title
Local lad Matthew Maye was the standout Kerry performer at the recent All-Ireland Pool Championships, which were staged at the INEC in Killarney.
Maye navigated a competitive field at the U23 grade to reach the final, but his All-Ireland hopes appeared to be slipping away when he trailed European finalist Aaron Doherty of Cork by two frames to six. The Killarney player battled back impressively, however, and he eventually prevailed 7-6 to clinch the title.
Matthew is still only 21 years of age and last year he won the All-Ireland Junior Championship. Following his latest victory he has now shown himself to be one of the top players in the country for his age.
Another Kerry Pool Association representative, Darragh Breen, had a great run by making it to both the All-Ireland Junior final and the U18 Singles final. With 410 competitors in the junior section, reaching the final was an outstanding achievement. Darragh has put in a huge amount of time and dedication to the game in the last couple of years and he is now reaping the reward of that work.
Over 800 participants from 27 counties took part in this year’s championships. Kerry had 36 players in total – more than they ever had before – with one team in the intermediate section and two teams in the junior section.
Kerry also had two Over 50 teams and an U23 side.
Cup glory on the double for Killarney Celtic
There was cause for celebration on the double for Killarney Celtic last Sunday as both their youths and senior teams captured silverware in Tralee.
The youths enjoyed a comprehensive victory over Killorglin in the Premier A league final with Eoghan Crowley (two), Dara O’Shea, Jason O’Sullivan and Cathal Kelly all finding the target in a 5-1 win at Mounthawk Park.
A little later at the same ground, the club’s senior team had a resounding win against Tralee Dynamos in the final of the League Cup. A 21st-minute rocket from the boot of Wayne Sparling sent Celtic on their way and further strikes by Witness Odirile and Cathal O’Shea (penalty) helped secure a 3-0 win. Veteran captain John McDonagh accepted the trophy on behalf of his teammates.
Celtic can now look forward to their Greyhound Bar KO Cup final on Sunday. They will take on the same team at the same venue at 6pm.
Their attention will then turn to a mouthwatering Premier A league final against crosstown rivals Killarney Athletic. That match has been fixed for Friday, June 2 at 7.30pm.
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