Ewan MacKenna blog: Nothing's changed in Kingdom
10:37, 13 Feb 2013
Ewan MacKenna, Sports Journalist of the Year 2012
Way back in high summer, as Kerry took apart a cracked and fractured Tyrone team thanks to a blend of skill infused with cynicism, I made a prediction. That Kerry side - for all their talent, for all the brilliance of their manager Jack O’Connor and his ability to plug holes and reinvent, and despite that result - would not be able to beat the very best in the country. The reasoning was simple as they had to trade too much trademark attacking fluency in order to cover for defensive frailties.
Of course the game has evolved hugely and defending is now a big part of every forward’s job description. But even so, Kerry were at such a deficit at the back that in an era of fast breaks in numbers, their defenders didn’t have the requisite skill set to cope. In many cases from two to nine, where there was man-marking ability, there wasn’t pace; where there was speed, there wasn’t an ability to read the game well enough and to contribute to the attack; and where there was that ability along with experience, there weren’t the legs. The reaction to such comments though was to swat away the theory and remain stubborn. This Kerry would not be beaten, many there retaliated, based on the past rather than the present.
Six months on from their All Ireland exit despite a hugely gutsy and sticky performance against Donegal, they have suffered one loss and one battering in the league. But if the reaction in the summer was to be overly protective of a very good team that weren’t strong enough to go all the way, the reaction this time has been to call a crisis. That’s absurd and it’s going from one extreme to the other with Kerry when the truth has always lay somewhere in the middle. What was the case before the All Ireland quarter-final is still the case now, in spite of February scorelines.
What’s been forgotten in recent weeks is that against Mayo, they were missing four Footballers of the Year in Tomás Ó Sé, Kieran Donaghy, Colm Cooper and Paul Galvin, and nine All Ireland winners when you add in Declan O’Sullivan, Donnacha Walsh, David Moran, Kieran O’Leary and Eoin Brosnan. Bryan Sheehan, a player who has improved his game to the extent he’s gone from an excellent free-taker taking up space in open play to one of the better and most ruthless midfielders in the country, wasn’t about either. And that’s before we get to Dr Crokes – perhaps the best club team to come out of the county in terms of the standard reached and brand of football played – who are still involved in the All Ireland series and have everyone excited. Against Dublin the only return of note in terms of starters was Tomás Ó Sé and don’t forget, on top of all that, this is a team with a new, albeit intelligent, manager in Éamonn Fitzmaurice.
Given that sort of upheaval and inconvenience, and the fact that Kerry will be playing ball in six months’ time, what else did people really expect from their first two league outings against a serious Mayo outfit and a Dublin side that has more depth than any side in the country? We missed intercounty football over the winter too but you don’t dive head first into the early stages of the season.
What we learned from Kerry’s opening two games is instead what we already knew. They are hugely reliant on the same faces that have carried them to glory across the last decade. Their bench is very weak compared to other top teams and that’s an issue. Indeed we are starting to get the sense that while basking in one of the great senior teams across the 2000s, they forgot what was beneath and what would one day replace them. But that’s a problem for down the line, whereas the more immediate problem will be the same one that went before and the new management will have to find a system that allows the half-forward line to play further up the field and create, rather than acting primarily as a buffer for those behind them.
This is a team in need of a makeover in terms of what goes on behind the scenes and for all the instant success Jimmy McGuinness and James Horan have brought elsewhere, more often than not that takes time. Paul Galvin name checked those managers in terms of Kerry becoming more modern and they have to in order to squeeze the last drop from some of the best servants the sport has known. But sometimes it’s easier to overhaul something that’s not working, as opposed to something that’s not completely broken. So many of the best in Kerry are used to winning a certain way – a way that has become outdated – and it can be hard to change when it comes to training and tactics.
But let’s not forget, just as they were last summer, this is a county in transition and expectations should be based around that fact. Sure enough, Kerry in such a state are better than most counties at their peak, but they aren’t better than the very best. They are still in the top six in the country, just not the top five and that’s something they’ll have to get used to and improve on over the coming years. It’s a long-term problem though, rather than an immediate crisis. As for the start to this league, it’s both an inconvenience and a team that will soon be substituted and shunted to the side.
Follow us on Facebook and Twitter @eircomSportsHub
Follow the author on Twitter at @ewanmackenna