Before the big game last Sunday, I was walking through the bowels of the stadium with my two oldest sons.
As we passed the Kingdom changing room, some of the backroom lads were unloading the kit van.
“Look who it is, Vince!” shouted ‘Botty’ O’Callaghan. Botty is the team’s fixer. Head of logistics is his official title. He should know a thing or two about that. Previously the Mayor of Killarney, he is a local politician and has the repututaion of being sharp as a tack. He looks like a man that could get anything a Kerry footballer could conceivably need. Boots, train tickets, nightclub entrance, girls . . . .!
“Come in Derryman,” said Botty, “Bring the lads.”
The boys’ eyes were shining as he opened the door and in we went. The sacred jerseys were already on the hooks, the gear neatly folded beneath. Vince Linnane, the legendary Kerry kitman, came out from a side room beaming. Vince always beams.
Paidi O’Se apparently does a terrific impression of him eating a tough steak, but I digress. Vince was getting a slagging for his Mayo origins (“Tell the people of Ireland today Joe that Vince pulled up at the Mayo changing room and started to unpack!”) but absorbed it all with an affectionate smile.
Sean Moynihan, another of the backroom team, took the two children into the warm-up area and kicked ball with them. The Kerry entourage is bigger than Muhammed Ali’s.
“How’s Gooch going?” I asked, just so as I could revel in their answer.
“Ah now, the Gooch is the Gooch Joe.”
“And what about Star, he hasn’t been going that well?”
“Ah sure, you know Joe, Star is Star.”
Fifteen minutes later I got an urgent call from the RTE Studio to find out where I was. Easy to forget the time when you’re talking football with Kerry men. I had to drag the lads out of the warm up area.
“You’ll beat them today?” I said as we were leaving.
“Ah we will Joe. They’ve no legs round the middle and their forwards can’t run.” “Same old story?” I said.
“Same old shtory Joe, same old shtory.”
As I walked away, I was thinking that Kerrymen are in their element in Croke Park in the Autumn. Darragh O’Se talks casually about the way the All-Ireland Final fits into the Kerryman’s year. He said recently that August was “a mad month in Kerry with the Puck Fair, the Dingle Races and the Rose of Tralee” but September brings quiet,
“So the four-weeks run-in to it (the final) is great. We always have a few teachers on the panel and getting over a semi-final eases them back into their working year and gives them something to look forward to in a month’s time. The four weeks are good fun, with nice distractions like getting your suits and your gear and little things like that.”
In essence, the All-Ireland Final is simply a part of the rhythm of life, like spring daffodils or Midnight Mass. It’s particularly convenient for the teachers . . .
In the run-up to the Mayo game last week, Darragh wrote in his weekly ‘Irish Times’ column: “There’s a consensus around that Kerry don’t respect other counties, Mayo among them. It just isn’t true. When we beat Mayo in All-Ireland finals in 2004 and 2006, of course we respected them. We respected them enough to beat them well both times.”
Darragh wouldn’t appreciate the hilarity of that remark i.e. we respected them enough to beat the shite out of them. As if this is the Kerry hallmark of quality. One can imagine Alan Dillon and his Mayo team-mates being solemnly presented with commemorative plaques by the Kerry County Board bearing the inscription “In honour of your recent slaughtering by the Kingdom. We salute your courage and your footballing excellence.”
The game last Sunday once again sent the greatest solo runner of all-time spinning on his favourite record. “Football has never changed” he said.
“Forget about systems and tactics. They’ll not win you anything. The best players win games” etc etc.
Pat puts me in mind of Warren Buffett’s line that “What human beings are best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their previous conclusions remain intact.”
The truth is that football has been so radically transformed that it is now unrecognisable from even the game that was played 10 years ago. The simplest way to illustrate the fallacy of Pat’s cliché is to look at what happened when Kerry met Tyrone in 2003, 2005 and 2008.
Before the ‘05 final, Jack O’Connor played A v B games with two extra defenders playing for the B team. On the day, Kerry put out perhaps the greatest group of footballers the game has seen. We all know what happened.
In 2008, Tyrone hadn’t one of their great forwards on the field. No Canavan, or O’Neill (save for the last quarter), no Brian McGuigan, no Mulligan. Kerry, meanwhile, took the field with a full forward line of Star, Tommy Walsh and Gooch. They lost by four points.
Darragh O’Se commented afterwards we just couldn’t play against it. “Ye northern b*******ds did it to us again” his brother Tomas said to me outside the changing room.
Before the Ulster semi-final this year against Tyrone, Kevin Cassidy, who knows all about ‘before and after makeovers’ said: “In the past, we couldn’t win, because Tyrone’s system was impossible to play against. We were just playing man to man and they were cutting us to pieces.
“We were lambs to the slaughter. Now, for the first time, we are not. Under Jim, things are totally different.”
That day, they out-systemed the pioneers of the system. A year ago, they were sad no-hopers, being trounced by a mediocre Armagh. Twelve months on, the same group is in an All-Ireland semi-final.
They remind me a bit of Irish Mickey Ward. Mickey wasn’t a great boxer but he knew how to fight for 15 rounds and opponents knew they would have to go to hell and back to win.
You could always see them swallowing hard in their corner before the opening bell. Very few survived to the final one, only the very greatest.
Donegal present the same challenge. “Come and get us,” they say “let’s see what your made of.”
They put the onus squarely on the opposition. Unlike say Mayo’s poorly executed, half hearted defensive plan, Donegal’s is the most cold bloodedly logical defensive system in the history of the game. They believe in it and they will stick to it to the bitter end.
As Jim constantly reminds them, there is no Plan B. Hence, there is no distraction. They will do their thing, and only their thing, for 70 minutes. In the end, the question is not whether Donegal will beat the Dubs. It is whether the Dubs can withstand Donegal?