We do have a problem with Ulster teams

August 7th, 2012
by Weeshie Fogarty

I may be in a minority of one here, but from where I stand it's now a proven fact that, despite many arguments to the contrary, our county senior football team has serious problems attempting to beat Ulster teams in Croke Park in the Championship.

As I watched from high up in the Hogan stand last Sunday and looked down at the huge flood of Donegal players streaming back in defence I thought to myself, "oh no, here we go again". Kerry was about to enter the swamp, getting their bodies sucked into strange places surrounded by swarms of Ulster men.

I had been there in the early 1960s as Down blazed a trail out of the north and in their two Championship meetings with Kerry in Croke Park they rocked the Kingdom, introducing for the very first time the tactic of breaking the ball in the middle of the field, picking up the breaks and running like hares all over the place. Long live the catch and kick, but from here on the catch and kick was as dead as a door nail.

Those great Kerry players of that distant era were caught like rabbits in the northern headlights. Kerry had no answer to this changing face of Gaelic football and the Down men won those two meetings, a final and a semi-final. It was a defining moment and the first beginning to the changing face of football.

Fast forward to 2003 and the two subsequent years, 2005 and 2008, when Mickey Harte brought his side to Croke Park where they swarmed, crowded, harassed and tormented the Kerry players into submission. Again, Kerry were frozen in the northern headlights. That sight of five angry swarming Tyrone players glaring down at a fallen Kerry man is one of the defining and abiding imaged of the last ten years. The decline of Gaelic football as I knew it was well under way.

And so we faced Donegal last Sunday and again their tactics completely restricted Kerry from playing the style of football on which they are reared. We were sucked into the fourteen man swamp. Dare I say it, again we were caught in the northern headlights? Call me old fashioned and a dreamer if you will, but football played in the true spirit of the game is now a rare sight.

Last Sunday, however, even the dogs in the street knew what negative style Jim McGuinness was going to impose on Jack O'Connor's men. Nevertheless such is the strength, fitness and total dedication to that particular cause, together with outstanding footballers like Mark McHugh, Karl Lacey, Rory Kavanagh and my man of the match Colm McFadden, that Kerry were unable to penetrate the defence for long periods.

It must also be said that over the last ten years or so that mass defending, slow ponderous build-ups and crowding the opposition has also crept into the Kerry psyche. But, and this is important, it really has been a case of "if you can't beat them then join them". Jack O'Connor and his management team has tried every trick in the book to counteract these negative methods, but sadly the mantra in today's football among nearly all managers is "we must stop the opposition from playing football".

Negativity, cynicism and a win at all costs mentality rule the GAA roost today. Even the President of the Association, Liam O'Neill, has publicity admitted his huge concerns as to where the game has found itself and a football review committee, chaired by renowned journalist Eugene McGee and our own Killian Burns has began working on a socalled "white paper" on the ills of the game. But is it too late?

It's the natural order of events that all good things come to an end and it has been obvious to many shrewd followers that this Kerry team, which has been as great as any that has gone before it, has been dipping below its massively high standards. Last year's All-Ireland final defeat, the league semi-final loss in Croke Park to Mayo back in April and the defeat by Cork in the Munster championship this summer all point a finger one way.

And yet, despite what I have written above about Donegal and Ulster teams and Kerry's general inability to overcome them, I feel last Sunday's game might well have been snatched from the jaws of defeat. That thrilling and brave late surge and fight-back by Kerry was a credit to one and all. Donegal's early, fluky goal did huge damage and gave them the early boost they craved. On the other hand the loss of Eoin Brosnan and Bryan Sheehan through injury and, for me, the baffling decision to take off Declan O'Sullivan all contributed to the defeat.

Three big, strong, fearless and experienced warriors whose football skills and abilities may well have tilted the balance.

There will be a lot of speculation about retirements and the hanging up of boots over the winter. That is the way it is here in Kerry. Victory and defeat is a way of life here, great players come to the end of the line, managers and selectors come and go, supporters analyse, criticise, drink porter in great GAA watering holes (as I do myself) and try to solve the GAA problems of the Kingdom.

The county championship will continue as will the historic divisional championships and whatever about this recent defeat, as well as the deeply insulting remarks in relation to Kerry players and its football from the likes of Joe Brolly, one thing is as certain as night follows day, Kerry will be back in Croke Park winning All Irelands soon enough.

For me it is important to keep life in perspective. No one has died, and time is the great healer. Kerry football will still be there when we have all answered that most final whistle of all.

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