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Peter Canavan: Kerry must seize shot at revenge

By Peter Canavan

Recovering from defeat in an All-Ireland final is tough going, and I'm sure last winter was a rough one down in Kerry. Back in 1995, Tyrone went into the final against Dublin as complete outsiders, but we really put it up to them and ended up on the wrong side of a controversial one-point defeat.

It took a long time to get over it. In sporting terms, we had to 'mourn' our loss but there was considerable comfort in the fact that we had left everything out on the pitch. Can the Kerry players say the same thing about last year's All-Ireland final? I don't think so.

I can only imagine the hurt they felt after such a timid performance, relinquishing their title to their biggest rivals Dublin on the biggest stage. That wound must still fester.

Likewise, Eamonn Fitzmaurice can't have been happy with his own performance.

The Kerry manager - who, only 12 months earlier, was feted for outmanoeuvring Jim McGuinness - went with a questionable team and set-up, and his tactical calls during the game left a lot to be desired.

As a manager, when you get it wrong like that, you spend a long time in self-analysis mode. But, after you have recognised your mistakes in the cold light of day, the desire to right the wrongs becomes all-consuming.

Fitzmaurice has had 11 months to prepare himself and his team for Sunday. I don't believe he or his players will be found wanting.

Of course, the challenge is huge. Jim Gavin's men are the best team in the land, and his players have their sights set on joining the legendary team of the '70s by becoming the first Dublin side in 39 years to retain 'Sam'.

However, history teaches us that Kerry have always had a sting in the tail for Dublin when least expected.

Back in 1955, the Dubs and their roving full-forward Kevin Heffernan were hot favourites to triumph, but the Kingdom got the better of their 'unorthodox' opponents.

In 1975, the Dubs went to Croke Park as champions but left with their tail between their legs after being upstaged by a bunch of Kerry young guns.

Three years later, Heffo's Army were back bidding for an All-Ireland hat-trick, but it was 'Bomber' Liston who was celebrating a hat-trick of goals as Micko's men inflicted a crushing 17-point defeat.

Mind you, those encounters are unlikely to have been on Fitzmaurice's mind. It's the recent past that will have pre-occupied him. Since the Championship draw was made in October, he will have been expecting to face the Dubs in the semi-final and you can be sure no tactical stone has been left unturned in the pursuit of redemption.

Fitzmaurice has not been afraid to go against Kerry's football traditions. In 2014, he tailored his team's style to beat Donegal and was lauded for his tactical approach. But there were no plaudits last year when Kerry basically went man-on-man and lost. So he'll have no qualms about adopting a defensive system that upsets the flow of Dublin's well-oiled attacking machine.

As Fitzmaurice found out in the league final, the age profile of his team does not favour an expansive style against the free-running Dubs, who are so good at identifying weaknesses in the opposition and exposing them. You won't see a repeat of last year with Colm Cooper running back 60 yards trying to track Philly McMahon.

I can see Kerry setting up a wall of defenders - as well as midfielders and half-forwards - on the edge of their own half, where they'll have to tackle like savages but also with military discipline.

It's going to get very crowded in this area, a bit like the congestion we saw in that infamous Dublin-Donegal semi-final in 2012, but I'm sure the system will be very clear to the players: get a turnover and hit Dublin on the break as quickly as you can.

On Dublin kick-outs, I'd expect Kerry to vary their approach, much like Donegal did in the quarter-final.

Even if you push up all the time, it's very difficult to stop Stephen Cluxton finding a team-mate because he is so incredibly accurate. If you do, there's a danger that you are leaving space further out the field for the likes of Paul Flynn and Diarmuid Connolly to exploit. This would be foolhardy, and Kerry also don't have the legs for 70 minutes of that.

Instead, they will have to use their heads and let Dublin have possession at times, but put up the most physical of barricades as the ball enters their half.

The goal will be to close out the channels into Bernard Brogan and Kevin McManamon; they will be happy to let Brian Fenton, Michael Darragh Macauley and Flynn have the ball in the middle third and try to force them into pot-shots.

The next question is if Kerry have the players to carry out such a plan, and I believe they have both the quality and the industry. It's the latter which has been questioned more, but in Donnchadh Walsh, Paul Murphy and Stephen O'Brien, you have the workers who will graft for the dirty ball.

I also think you'll see Kieran Donaghy pushing on into the full-forward line and when the ball is turned over, you'll get the likes of Bryan Sheehan and David Moran trying to supply both him and Paul Geaney with quality, diagonal ball.

Then, you're going to have James O'Donoghue - and Cooper when he comes on - sitting on the edge of the diamond waiting to take advantage.

The key here is getting 'quality' ball into Donaghy, unlike the scraps he was thrown when he went into the square in the league final.

Kerry's approach to supplying him then was of the 'hit and hope' variety: high, direct balls were left hanging in the air and those are much easier to defend.

Rory O'Carroll's absence from the Dubs full-back line has not been properly tested and I still have the picture in my mind of Westmeath's John Heslin fetching high ball in the Leinster final, even though there were two or three defenders around him.

As for the Kerry defence, question marks remain but I feel they are improving as a unit. Mark Griffin has grown into the full-back role, Shane Enright has been their best defender all year and young Briain O Beaglaioch has made forward strides with every game. Peter Crowley is also emerging as a leader at centre-back.

Another thing that should not be forgotten is the strength of their bench. Aidan O'Mahony, Barry John Keane, Anthony Maher, Sheehan and Marc Ó Sé were their first five subs introduced the last day against Clare. Cooper and Johnny Buckley didn't figure due to injury but are back in contention this time. Not a bad set of reserves to call upon!

Dublin deserve their favourites tag, but they have blown hot and cold this summer. Some of their football in the first half against Donegal was exhilarating, but they turned in a largely ragged, ill-disciplined effort in the second half and this inconsistency could yet prove their Achilles heel.

In what should be the game of the year, a fantastic opportunity now presents itself for the men in green and gold. I expect them to grasp the nettle - as well as every jersey in blue that moves - with both hands.

Belfast Telegraph


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