Kerry, the aristocrats of Gaelic football, have struggled badly against the top Ulster teams in vital games over the past 12 years and it is very plausible that trend will continue this Sunday.
In fact it is 28 years since Kerry beat an Ulster team in an All-Ireland senior final. That was back in 1986 against Tyrone, and Galway beat Cork in the minor final on the same day with Alan Mulholland and Kevin Walsh in action.
Admittedly there were no All-Ireland final clashes in the 1990s between Kerry and Northern teams, however Armagh and Tyrone have lowered the Kingdom’s flag three times in the ultimate game of the season since then, and Down (2010 ) and Donegal in 2012 have both taken them out in the quarter-finals in the past five years.
Why have Kerry struggled so badly against the Ulster men?
Tactics is the first issue. There appeared at one stage to be a definite refusal by the Kingdom and their managers to follow suit and play a very defensive game. Secondly, Kerry found it impossible to match the really unforgiving intensity and hunger of teams that had never won an All-Ireland.
Perhaps there was a little arrogance on occasion too? Most teams which go out and take on Kerry in a 15 v 15 open game will lose. However the Ulster teams abstain from doing that.
When Kerry have been confronted with a massed defence, and especially when the delivery channels have been cut off to their much vaunted full-forward lines – they struggle.
Even though Kerry are the best foot passers in the game, that skill is rendered redundant when there is no space to kick the ball into.
This weekend Jim McGuinness will look to the two McGees, Karl Lacey, Paddy McGrath, and the rest of their defensive co-workers to do likewise to James O’Donoghue, Paul Geaney, and Kieran Donaghy. Things are changing though, and while Kerry have taken time to embrace the new strategies required to win All-Irelands against teams that play really defensive systems, they are doing so now under Eamonn Fitzmaurice.
Fitzmaurice is a pragmatist and a very innovative manager who has learned from how Donegal swamped Kerry defensively in 2012, and he will have studied how naïve and raw defending by Dublin let Ryan McHugh and Colm McFadden in for easy goals in the recent semi-final. Kerry now value extremely hard working wing-forwards in the Donnacha Walsh, Mikey Geaney, and Stephen O’Brien mode.
Fitzmaurice has a game plan and a defensive system that has been working very well. When Galway were shooting wide after wide in this year’s All-Ireland quarter-final they were faced down by a screen of Kerry players that left them no option but to shoot from distance. Likewise against Cork in the Munster final – Kerry set up very defensively.
Kerry’s last four All-Ireland successes were against Mayo (twice ) and Cork (twice ) and both those counties went out to play traditional football. And Kerry partied. To win on Sunday Kerry must ensure that Donegal do not get even a few points ahead at any stage of the game, because if they do, they have the capacity to fall back en masse and stop the opposition from scoring.
If that means a game of “cat and mouse” at the start of the contest, to see who blinks first – then so be it.
Patience in possession will be crucial to victory on Sunday. The Kerry players will have to be well drilled in the need to retain possession, and to try to draw out the Donegal defence, while at the same time keeping their own defensive set-up well marshalled.
Kerry have improved their system and set-up enormously under the current management team, however Donegal’s structure is four years in situ. That structure has been tweaked, adapted, and improved incrementally upon over the past four seasons, notwithstanding the system failure against Mayo last year when they were wiped out. However, after winning a few Ulster titles and the All-Ireland in 2012, the players have 100 per cent belief and confidence in what they are doing and in their system of play.
They will not flinch an inch from it.
Kerry’s defensive system is not as well advanced and there have to be major question marks over Kerry’s aerial prowess in the full-back line and with Brian Kelly in goal.
Assuming that Donegal’s defensive system will nullify James O’Donoghue, and that Murphy, McFadden, Ryan McHugh, and Paddy McBrearty are in good form up the other end of Croke Park and it looks like a narrow win for the Donegal men for me.