Posted by Christy O'Connor
Thursday 25 August 2016
From our GAA Experts to football fans all over Ireland, this week's Win, Lose or Draw predictions are starting to take shape.
When Kerry were winning All-Irelands for fun in the 1970s and 1980s, the summers were spent burning themselves into the Killarney turf, the winters consumed like a victorious army celebrating another conquest. There was still always another war to fight. When the players wanted their guts tightened and their minds sharpened, most of them had their own training regimes in place before Mick O’Dwyer would summon them back for some more cruel pre-season rituals.
Pat Spillane went to a hill near his house, sixty yards from top to bottom, attaching a ten-pound weight to each ankle before exploding up and down the hill for an hour every day. Paidi O Se would be out over the hills in Ventry, into Dunquin and to Slea Head. Two and a half to three-hour stamina running, all to prepare himself for O’Dwyer’s beastings in Killarney.
The Tralee boys would head off to Banna Strand, a torturous regime of relentless running on the beach, through the sandhills, or flattening out the bumps on a patch of green overlooking the beach. Ever since, footballers from Tralee and the surrounding areas had always identified with Banna Strand, of the training benefits that could be accrued on the terrain stretching from Ballyheigue in the north to Barrow beach at its southern edge.
As a player, Eamonn Fitzmaurice had often taken himself there to get ready for Jack O’Connor’s training. After Kerry lost their opening two league games to Dublin and Roscommon back in February, Fitzmaurice decided to bring his squad back to Banna Strand for a weekend of hardship and team-bonding.
The weather was poor and Fitzmaurice wanted to do something different. Banna provided a change of scenery and a very definite change of pace. The players emptied themselves, spilling their guts on the rolling stretch of sand dunes.
Kerry were on a roll afterwards, going six matches unbeaten, but Banna was designed to toughen Kerry’s minds as much as their bodies. The squad’s biggest regret from last year’s All-Ireland final defeat was that they didn’t fully go to war. Kerry weren’t ready for Dublin’s intensity, especially in the Dublin full-back line. Colm Cooper was hounded and hustled out of his stride by Philly McMahon. Cooper was unhappy by how he had been treated and, despite McMahon bending the law as far as he could stretch it, Kerry regretted not providing the ‘Gooch’ with the same protection his team-mates should have.
Not having Kieran Donaghy around for 50 minutes deprived Kerry and Cooper of the option of an enforcer. By the time Donaghy arrived, he and Kerry were more preoccupied in their scramble to try and save a match that was long out of their control.
A big defeat always makes Kerry more paranoid. And more ruthless. The All-Irelands Kerry won in 2004, 2006 and 2009 all came after absorbing harsh lessons from Tyrone in those three previous seasons. Kerry’s 2014 All-Ireland success was built from the rubble of the harrowing 2013 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Dublin.
After the disappointment of last September, Kerry have been on a similar mission of redemption all season. They announced as much when facing off with Donegal in Round 4 of the league, a nasty match blighted with brawls and flashpoints, which produced ten cards, including two red and two black. A week later, Kerry won in Castlebar, their first league victory against Mayo since 2011. They whacked Monaghan in Clones. When they got hold of Roscommon again in the league semi-final, they scolded them for their insolence of beating Kerry in Killarney eight weeks earlier.
Meeting Dublin again in the league final in late April was about atonement and making a statement. The stage was ideally set too because Croke Park was full on a day of a big 1916 commemoration. Yet the contemporary empire wasn’t for moving again. Dublin took a sledgehammer to Kerry’s remodeled challenge and blew it to smithereens.
In their long history, Kerry have always found a way of winning, especially after All-Ireland final defeats, but the challenge now is different to what they were often faced with before. Kerry evolved as the modern demands forced them to but this Dublin team are not governed by certain systems of play or pioneering departures like Down and Tyrone were in the past. This Dublin side are a different standard because they have so much pace and athleticism.
Kerry still have brilliant forwards so most of the question marks have focused on their defence, especially after shipping 2-18 in the league final. That was Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s starting point. The back seven was torn up after that hammering to Dublin in April. Only three of that seven started the All-Ireland quarter-final against Clare, and none in the positions they occupied in the league final.
Brian Kelly has taken over from Brendan Kealy in goal. Brian Begley and Tadgh Morley were introduced to add more pace and versatility to the half-back line. Mark Griffin and Peter Crowley have swapped positions between full and centre-back.
Kerry have always had brilliant forwards but the team that has been taking shape over the last two months – with more new young players also possibly being added to the starting team for Sunday – has been designed with Dublin in mind. In Kerry, players always step up. The county’s success has been defined by their ability to adapt and evolve. And they built their empire on overcoming challenges like the huge one Dublin have now presented them with.
The foundations for much of that empire-building too was constructed on pain and hurt and suffering, especially after losing an All-Ireland final. In 2012, Jack O’Connor told a story about being in Listowel coaching kids on a Friday evening a couple of weeks after the 2011 All-Ireland final defeat to Dublin.
O’Connor met an old gentleman in the community centre. He had a sense of dread as the man approached him because he had the look of someone searching for a spark in cooling embers. The two started talking but the engagement was brief. The man told O’Connor that he had been in a pub the previous evening when a re-run of the All-Ireland final came on. He drank his pint and walked out.
The experience was a measure of O’Connor’s own feelings. An old man from North Kerry, someone with absolutely no connection or contact with the team or management was still clearly hurting from Kerry’s All-Ireland final defeat. It almost justified the devastation that was still tearing O’Connor apart.
“I’d say there was no emotion ever invented that I didn’t go through afterwards,” said O’Connor in April 2012. “It was like I was in a daze for three or four months. There is no other way out of it. It just hurts so much, especially in Kerry. You try and put on a brave face but you’re dying inside. People talk about winning All-Irelands but it’s the one you lose that really stick in the memory.”
The manner of the defeat to Dublin last September exacerbated that pain, especially for the older crew who had been through that hurtful experience so often in the past. And the league final hammering has honed their sense of mission even more now.
The contemporary empire is ruling now with an iron fist. Last year was the first time in history that Dublin beat Kerry in three successive championship matches. A fourth defeat now would be unthinkable and unbearable.
The old empire is desperately trying to strike back.
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Dublin to win: 67%
Kerry to win : 25%
Legends of the game, Brian and Jack, give us their views ahead of this weekend’s All-Ireland Semi-Final between Dublin and Kerry.
That's the way the mood is going for this weekend's games - now it's time to make your predictions for the chance to win two All-Ireland Final tickets.
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