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'What Paddy Tally does now is very intense' - Kerry's quest for balance

Shane Enright believes Kerry have improved their ability to protect the full-back line during the league.

Image: Philip Magowan/INPHO

IN 2004, A young trainer came into the Tyrone dressing room and announced he was about to make it harder for them to breathe.

The sports science specialist was in the middle of a Masters in Jordanstown. During the process of researching England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup success, he came across a story about their use of POWERbreathes. It was a handheld resisted-breathing device that improved lunge capacity. Players would use them while watching television or at their desk.

Paddy Tally was always looking for the next big thing. That Tyrone team had never encountered VO2 max tests before his arrival in 2002. They would come to be characterised by power, intensity and athleticism. 

In his autobiography, Mickey Harte admitted that while there were some reservations about appointing a coach who was just 29-years-old, he found Tally’s drills cutting-edge. The county and its province would soon establish a template that would define Gaelic football for the next two decades.

Tally was one of the mad scientists in the sport’s most active and prolific lab.

mickey-harte-and-paddy-tally-with-the-sam-maguire Source: INPHO

“We previously had Donie (Buckley) who did a lot of defensive drills, getting tight with box drills or doubling up,” says Kerry All-Star Shane Enright, who retired in 2021.

“He also did stuff going forward. The talk is what Paddy Tally does now is very intense. Not just one part. Work on turnovers and then breaking out from them. Their gameplan is set now. In fairness, they only conceded two goals in the league. But they put up huge scores too.”

The myth goes that Kerry failed to get over the line in recent years due to a dearth of defenders. The fact is they conceded 2-11 after 70 minutes in the 2021 semi-final and 3-14 after extra-time. Mayo conceded 2-14 in the All-Ireland final against the same opposition.

The narrative is that their problem is in attack; Kerry’s is in defence. In the modern game, there is the narrative and reality.

In reality, how you concede is as important as what. Tyrone’s first goal last August came after a rare David Clifford mistake. He mis-controlled a solo on the 45-metre line and Brian Kennedy intercepted the ball. Six handpasses later, Conor McKenna was raising a green flag.

Their tackling and middle third pressure were flimsy. Both midfielders lagged behind the play, scarcely mustering a jog. By the time the ball entered the scoring zone, Kerry’s full-back line was scrambling. The damage was done out the field and they were in panic mode. That is the crux of the Kingdom’s great flaw.

The second goal? Kerry had a press on when Tommy Walsh lunged with an imprecise tackle at Mattie Donnelly. He missed and took out a teammate in the process. As a result, Killian Spillane could no longer track Donnelly and Tyrone had a crucial overlap.

jack-barry-and-fergal-boland Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Ultimately, Kerry were consistently poor at applying pressure up the field. That domino cascaded into defensive issues. Throw in an unfit Diarmuid O’Connor and Dara Moynihan, Jack Barry’s glaring mistake for the third goal, Stephen O’Brien’s square ball and it all adds up to Al Pacino’s famed inches.

It is not about attack on one hand and defence on the other. Both facets are interlinked. The key is finding a balance.

“You’d be encouraged for the Kerry full-back line now,” stresses Enright.

“They are getting men behind the ball and breaking at pace. They are not left one on one or two vs two. Any defender will struggle at times with that. We probably left ourselves a bit too open a few years ago. If you have that space and good delivery, no matter what they will kick scores.

“I was in Tralee watching Mayo. They had protection too. That is the way the game is gone. What Paddy Tally has done, Kerry are filtering men back and then breaking out of defence.

“There were times they had 12 or 13 men behind the ball. It will be interesting to see on Sunday because it is grand to do that in Tralee or Killarney, but Croke Park can catch you out. I know Jack said there is a bit of work to get into the legs over the next six weeks.

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“It will be interesting to see fitness-wise how Kerry go. Big pitch, wide open, up and down. Can you get men back and then attack up the field all day?”

Under Jack O’Connor, Kerry put less emphasis on high turnovers. Instead, they opt to pack the defensive zone. When Paddy Tally won a fairytale Sigerson Cup with St Mary’s in 2017, they deployed a similar approach. Regularly at games when they coughed up possession the sideline would shout ‘44’ and the majority of players would retreat to just inside the 45-metre line. 

Once they have bodies back, Kerry work tirelessly and tackle intensely to force the turnover.

Savage Score

How they break forward from that is another problem. Retaining a kicking option is pivotal. In last year’s semi-final loss they became too predictable, running down blind alleys. Gavin White, David Moran, Tom O’Sullivan and Stephen O’Brien had a combined seven kick passes that day. Conor Meyler alone had the same number. 

andrew-murnin-and-tadgh-morley Source: Philip Magowan/INPHO

Finally, Tadhg Morley has come back into the team as a sitting centre-back. Gavin Crowley and Paul Murphy were trialled in that role previously. For Enright, Morley has the skillset to master it. 

“He knows his job. The six has to stop his man and when he gets the chance, drop off. Tadhg isn’t getting forward kicking points, but he is not worried about that.

“He won’t contribute as much with the ball. Like a Paul Murphy would. Tadhg is a defender. He knows from playing the full-back line that when you are left isolated it is very tough. He sits 20 yards in front of their boys and puts teams off putting the ball in.”

So far in the league O’Connor has implanted some subtle, while significant, changes. That is understandable. For all the fallout, last year they were very close. It only needs a little tinkering.

About the author:

Maurice Brosnan

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