I was at Crossmaglen’s All-Ireland medal winning presentation on Friday night - the team was piped into the hall to set the ball rolling.
Hard to know how to celebrate six All-Ireland’s and nine Ulster titles in 15 years. Fireworks? Dancing girls? Stretch limos?
In the end, they settled for talking about football and the search for three-in-a-row.
“I’d be a bit worried about Kilmacud Crokes Joe,” said their captain, Stephen Kernan.
“Anyone else?” I asked.
He thought for a minute, then winked at me and said: “Not that I can think of.”
Jamie Clarke arrived late, wearing his First Communion suit and sporting a mullet from the ‘Duran Duran’ era. It put me in mind of a joke my father tells where the punchline is that the Pope makes a beeline through the throngs in Vatican Square to a man from Dungiven and says: “My son, who in the name of Jesus cut your hair?”
After the formal part of the evening I was chatting with John McEntee when over his shoulder I noticed a group of men causing a bit of a rumpus. On closer inspection, they were hurling their iphones against the wall of the function room, smashing them to smithereens and howling with laughter.
“Gather up the sim cards lads,” shouted one of them. “We’ll need them in the morning.”
Never mind those boys” said McEntee. “That’s the oil men.”
Before I left, I sat with a group of the players, discussing football in general. The previous night, Cross had played Carrickcruppen in the league. Fielding only half their All-Ireland fifteen, they won by 3-19 to 3-2.
“We gave away a couple of fierce bad goals” said one of the McNamees and the rest nodded sadly. “Far too complacent.”
When I told them I was going to Thurles on Sunday morning for Kerry v Tipp, the general consensus was that Kerry are a team that have lost their way under Jack O’Connor. Astonishment was expressed at his decision to play Kieran Donaghy at wing-half forward, sweeping back into his defence.
They were similarly bemused at Kerry’s blanket defensive strategy. As I got up to leave, one of the Kernan lads offered the opinion that: “If Tony Mac and Gareth (O’Neill) had those Kerry lads for a few months they’d walk the All-Ireland.”
It is hard to disagree.
The evidence from Sunday’s game suggests that Kerry have completely abandoned the principles that once made them the envy of the football world. Against Tipp they played without a half -forward line. Instead, Darren O’Sullivan, Declan O’Sullivan and Paul Galvin (a fairly decent trio of forwards you’ll agree) played deep in their own defence. Declan O’Sullivan, a positively lethal finisher, took up his station just in front of his own number 6.
The chances of kicking a point or setting up a score from 100 yards out the field are nil, but Jack O’Connor doesn’t appear to have figured that out yet. With twelve men inside their own half and no half forward line, the inside trio of O’Leary, Cooper and Curtin might as well have sat on deck chairs enjoying the sun.
Cooper, the country’s greatest forward, got maybe four or five touches in the entire game. Patrick Curtin was making his Championship debut. There is a fair degree of excitement about him in the Kingdom.
“A very talented forward,” was the way one ex-Kerry great had described him to me before the game. We’ll just have to take his word for that, since Curtin spent his time making fruitless runs inside Tipperary’s blanket defence.
The effect of the strategy employed is that when a Kerry full or half-back took possession, there was no-one to kick it to, so he simply hand passed it to the closest man, often in no better position than himself.
This continued until, at snails pace, they got the ball to the Tipperary ‘45’ by which time Kerry’s inside forwards were engulfed by the opposing defenders and sweepers. Then Tipp won possession and the rigmarole started all over again.
Of course, Kerry were lacklustre and lacked the bite that would have brought them a much easier victory. Yet, their strategy is now well defined. They have abandoned kicking and suddenly look just like everybody else.
They have no number 11. Nor do they have wing forwards. Unless Jack O’Connor changes tack, they have no number 14 either, preferring to play the most devastating ball winning forward of the last decade in the middle area of the field.
Donaghy is a good enough midfielder, but doesn’t stand out from the rest. As a full-forward, he strikes terror. It is what he was born to do. Yet, Jacko prefers to have him labouring in the defence. It is, as I remarked on Sunday, a bit like hiring the prize bull from the Ministry and using him to plough the field.
Jack has decided to follow the herd. The whole point of management is to create a strategy that suits the players at your disposal. He has instead copied a strategy used by teams like
Fermanagh and Donegal to cover their individual inadequacies.
He should be using the great talents he has had bestowed upon him. He has a peerless front six and highly skilled footballers from one to nine.
Yet instead of concentrating on a kicking plan that will leave those deadly forwards in the danger zone, one-on-one, ball after ball, three of them are now defenders.
Jack reminds me of the parable of the man who buried his talents in the sand. And we all know what happened to that man . . . .