Kerry’s rapid A-Z football so hard to stop

The key to beating Kerry is fairly clear. Slow them down, turn them backwards, frustrate them. Make them play laterally. Force them to try and punch their holes with the kind of measured attacking play with which Derry became synonymous over a couple of seasons. It’s just a tad easier said than done.

Kerry and Derry will meet in the opening round of the AlIianz Football League six months after their All-Ireland SFC semi-final at Croke Park
Derry's brave approach took Kerry to the well last year. Picture: Margaret McLaughlin

LAST year’s All-Ireland final did not get nearly enough credit.

It was such a game of pinball. It felt at the time as though the rain had drowned the spectacle but if anything it gave birth the chaos.

One turnover after the next and two teams with absolutely no thought for slow, laboured football.

You wouldn’t quite put in the archive of classics but nor would it be anywhere near a file of bad finals.

Where Dublin and Kerry stand apart from the rest of Gaelic football is their ability to thrive in the chaos. To want it, almost.

Kerry love it. Is that because they love chaos or is it because it feeds their retention of their most beloved skill of getting the head up and kick the ball? Either way.

In the decider last year, they had 38 attacks.

30 of them were over within two phases.

They only scored 1-4 off the 18 attacks that they completed in a single phase, which is to say they pretty much went back to front without stopping for air.

Paul Geaney got the goal right on half-time having earlier missed had one cleared off the line when Paudie Clifford attacked the line after Diarmuid O’Connor’s fetch had broken the Dubs’ kickout press.

It was the same against Derry in a semi-final that nobody had anticipated being quite so open.

Kerry had 40 attacks that afternoon and completed all but three of them within three phases.

Louth went out in Portlaoise two weeks ago to clamp the game down and keep it a lot tighter than last year’s meeting had been.

Kerry scored 1-16 off one-phase or two-phase attacks that, on average, lasted for less than 30 seconds.

They can be relentless and devastating but it can also be exhausting.

Dublin were good enough and brave enough to stick at it the whole way to the finish line with them.

You might argue that Dessie Farrell’s men had their luck but they would argue they made it for themselves.

Not a single one of Kerry’s last 12 attacks in the final lasted for more than two phases. But what had been a strength became a weakness. The game was so stretched and they had the ball horsing up the pitch so fast that the end result was isolated forwards, most notably David Clifford, botching one chance after the next.

Kerry scored just 0-2 from those last 12 attacks and ended up beaten.

Dublin were able to stay the course and reward the exhausting work their forwards put in.

The key to beating Kerry is fairly clear. Slow them down, turn them backwards, frustrate them. Make them play laterally. Force them to try and punch their holes with the kind of measured attacking play with which Derry became synonymous over a couple of seasons.

It’s just a tad easier said than done.

What Dublin’s forwards did exceptionally well was avoid the temptation to be lazy. A cheap foul here and there, no harm surely? Except it would relieve the pressure and the Kerry lads are all comfortable kicking.

Why give them a free when you can at least shadow, especially on wet turf with a referee that will give the defensive side leeway like David Gough does?

The Dubs were so exceptionally disciplined in that regard. They put on such a high press and maintained it. The reward came in the form of their goal, when they refused to drop off and Colm Basquel read Gavin White’s intentions to intercept and feed Paddy Small.

They needed it at that time, trailing by 1-8 to 0-8 after 45 minutes. Rather than retreating into a shell, the game only became more and more stretched from there on.

Kerry could easily have won it but that wouldn’t have changed the fact that Dublin had gone the right way about it.

It just takes a lot to beat this Kingdom outfit.

But it is possible.

The lead-in to Derry’s clash with them on Sunday carries so many of the hallmarks of Tyrone’s 2021 All-Ireland semi-final victory over them.

When Kerry agreed to postpone the game in the face of Tyrone’s threat to concede it amid an outbreak of Covid, the general chatter was that it was a good decision because they didn’t want to go into the final with Dublin cold.

But Tyrone brought a bite. They clogged up the middle of the goal and forced Kerry to try and play through them. Margins were fine but you know that before you start. Bottom line, Tyrone scored 2-9 off turnovers.

Derry’s performance in last year’s semi-final was built on the opposite. They came out and were happy to leave themselves exposed, sending Chrissy McKaigue out to try and cope with David Clifford all on his own. Unlike in the final, the Fossa man had one of his great days.

Whether the Oak Leafers are in the head space to really feel they can take Kerry on like that again is questionable. Confidence was so fragile that the win over Mayo, built on a determination to sort the defensive side of their game out, feels more like Sellotape than superglue.

But in a way, that plays into their hands. They almost won in a game of pinball this year but if Kerry come this time in expectation of it, how does that change things? Derry have to revert to the Tyrone 2021 model. Seal it up. Kerry want to play down the middle, so don’t let them.

The same energy and enthusiasm for the protection of their goal as they showed in Castlebar would go a long way.

But a lot comes down to the forwards and their willingness to work. Lachlan Murray kicked himself into the limelight last weekend. He has all the ability in the world but the concerns that kept him out of the team until this year were about his defensive work.

Kerry’s greatest asset when they go fast is Gavin White. The amount of ball he ferries out hard is the springboard. It’s all well and good saying just man-mark him but he’s absolutely rapid. Brian Ó Beaglaoich is a serious operator too. Tom O’Sullivan and Paul Murphy need no introduction.

They’re hard stopped.

The roles of Niall Loughlin, Benny Heron and Niall Toner were not maybe immediately apparent in last year’s Derry setup but they were right at the head of the pack when it came to aerobic capacity. Their workrate facilitated the plan to go at Kerry and not get overwhelmed.

It’s up to Derry’s attack on Sunday to work like dogs. To slow the Kerry attack, but not get lazy and foul to do it.

Kerry do not like being forced backwards. It’s head up, all the time, looking for the forward pass. They’re lethal off turnovers, market leaders with the Dubs in that regard.

You can’t get turned over. When you get a shot, it has to go dead. If Kerry set off, the first aim has to be to force them to turn backwards somewhere along the way. And cheap frees are no good.

It is possible. Dublin showed it last year, Derry themselves to an extent.

Possible, but incredibly difficult.